Photojournalist in Wuhan: Virus fighter and recorder of history
“This chance to be a witness and a part of this historical moment is the greatest honour of my life.”
Feature image: Gu Wei.
When Gu Wei was assigned to cover the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in late January 2020, worry and fear merged with a sense of honour and excitement at being among the few to witness, document, and participate in a significant event that would make history.
As members of the ‘Epidemic Reporting Squad’ from Nanjing’s Modern Express Newspaper, Gu Wei and his colleagues stayed in Wuhan for 71 days from January 29 until April 8, 2020, when the Wuhan lockdown was finally lifted. As the only photojournalist in the team, Gu documented his experience with Covid-19 through photographs and diaries, which provide a valuable perspective on the witness to a historical moment.
As Chief Photojournalist at Modern Express, Gu Wei has been engaged in photojournalism since 2001, covering key events such as the fight against the SARS outbreak in 2003, the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. Compared with his previous experience of reporting disasters, Covid-19 was a more unique case for Gu due to the unexpected difficulties he faced both emotionally and professionally.
Professionally, the biggest challenge for Gu was to wear a full set of protective gear, including protective clothing, two layers of masks, two pairs of medical gloves and goggles. When Gu and his colleague followed a group of nurses as they went into an isolation ward for critically ill patients (a red zone) to report, it was impossible to see clearly through the viewfinder as the camera was also covered in plastic wrapping which fogged up the glasses. After observing the medical workers stationed in Wuhan, Gu eventually managed to overcome this problem by applying dishwashing detergent onto the viewfinder to prevent fogging.
The camera and lenses were covered in plastic wrapping. (Gu Wei)
Emotionally, difficulties vary from individual to individual. For Gu, he was urged to update his daily life on WeChat moments every day to let his family know he was still healthy, while over the course of the three months one of Gu’s colleagues had to lie to his family every day during phone calls to pretend that he was staying at home instead of reporting Covid-19 in Wuhan. Besides his family, the patients interviewed by Gu were another group of people who needed to be comforted. To cheer them up, Gu and his colleagues had to be optimistic to bring them light during such dark times. “We journalists all have different concerns, but one thing we have in common is that we should overcome all the fear and take the responsibility to document every individual story,” Gu says.
While most of Gu’s colleagues were writing articles to tell the stories of Wuhan, the camera was Gu’s ‘weapon’ to battle with Coronavirus. Even though the camera lens had no voice, it still allowed history to be heard. Gu’s photographs and notes about his experience with Covid-19 are finally brought together in his newly published book – 71 Days in Wuhan: Diaries of A Photographer, translated from Chinese into English by Liliana Worth.
With more than 200 photos and stories, this book records the smiles and tears, despair and hope, struggle and sacrifice of ordinary individuals whose efforts should be cherished and remembered. “What really impresses me most is that the book shows the heroism of a lot of healthcare workers. So that’s a very important documentation for the future,” says David Blair, feature writer and senior economist of China Daily.
Gu recalled his first week in Wuhan from 29 January to 5 February as the darkest and most hopeless moment not only for him but also for the whole city. As the number of confirmed cases surged on a daily basis, hospitals were confronted with shortages of beds and crucial testing supplies. The crisis soon began to ease after Wuhan’s largest Fangcang Shelter Hospital at ‘Wuhan Living Space’ began to treat patients, while more patients started to be discharged from hospitals.
“That’s the moment with the most hope,” says Gu. It was also around that time that Gu took the most unforgettable photo in which a healthy new baby was born in the delivery room at the Hubei Provincial Women and Children’s Hospital. Gu can never forget the moment when a brilliant shaft of sunlight burst through the window as he heard the first cry of the new-born baby in the hallway. “The new life brought us more hope and joy while the peaceful face of the brave mother who gave birth in the most virus-stricken city also profoundly moved me,” says Gu.
A healthy new baby is born in the delivery room at the Hubei Provincial Women and Children's Hospital. (Gu Wei)
Being given the opportunity to walk into hospitals and photograph those who are walking on a knife edge in order to give others a chance at life, Gu says in his book that “this chance to be a witness and a part of this historical moment is the greatest honour of my life”. Gu regards himself as an objective and sincere recorder of the COVID-19 outbreak. By showing ordinary people’s daily lives on the frontline fighting against Covid-19, Gu’s book 71 Days in Wuhan allows more people to get to know and understand the huge effort and cost China has paid to contain the spread of Coronavirus and to save every patient. “I hope the history of Wuhan will be remembered by more people,” says Gu Wei.
“Is there anything bigger than life and death?” Gu believes all of his emergency reporting experience makes him calmer and more respectful. Viewing things from different perspectives allows him to do his job better as a more empathetic listener and observer. “If there is one lesson I learned from reporting Covid-19 in Wuhan, it is to have a more tolerant attitude towards everything in the world.”
71 Days in Wuhan: Diaries of a Photographer English edition is now available on Amazon in both print edition and e-book.
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