Emptiness. Click.

Updated: Mar 29, 2020, 11:50 IST | Anju Maskeri, Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

As most countries on the planet go under lockdown, it's the photographers documenting the coronavirus pandemic from their windows and on the streets, who carry with them heartbreaking stories of a world changed forever

Anamika Singh and Jorg Drescher
Anamika Singh and Jorg Drescher

'Streets are without life and rhythm'

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Photohrapher: Sebastian Strama, 47
Hometown: Krakow, Poland
Currently in: Krakow
Instagram: @sebastuff
COVID in Poland: 1,400 positive cases, 16 deaths

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Sebastian Strama

This is a very difficult time for us. The virus has shown us how unpredictable life can be. One day I woke up and thought to myself what a crucial and challenging moment we are all facing right now. So, a week ago, when the effects of COVID-19 actually started to show in my city, I took my camera and decided to document.

While Poland, so far, is in the early stages of the global pandemic, restrictions have been introduced in order to minimise transmission. As for Krakow, which sustains on tourism and the entertainment that goes with it, the effects are serious. Last year, the city of almost one million was visited by over 14 million tourists.

Once a crowded restaurant, Strama captures its now haunting emptiness
Once a crowded restaurant, Strama captures its now haunting emptiness

Overnight, most businesses have lost customers, jobs and earning opportunities. And now that tourists and students have disappeared, the Main Market Square is frighteningly empty. Did you know that this centre [Main Market Square] dates back to the 13th century, and is the largest medieval town square in Europe?
When I first saw it, abandoned by people, I was shocked. I have never seen it like this. I saw something that immediately reminded me of apocalyptic visions from sci-fi movies. There was both curiosity and fear. I saw no life, no rhythm there. So, my first reflex was to pull out the camera and capture the unsettling mood.

The next day, while shopping to stock up my kitchen, I walked past a familiar bar. Behind its closed window, I saw the interior covered with garden chairs and tables. On one of the tables was a newspaper, headlined: Corona report. And I thought someone must have panicked after reading it and left it in the bar. A day later, I returned to take a picture of it, but the newspaper had been cleared. That moment pushed me into starting a photographic series. And the main role is played by empty streets, closed bars and restaurants.

'Spy on neighbours and feel like a creepy Jimmy Stewart'

 mannequin in Malaysia is seen holding a sign that says the shop has run out of mask
 A mannequin in Malaysia is seen holding a sign that says the shop has run out of mask

The photographer: Shashwati Talukdar, 51
Hometown: Dehradun, India
Currently in: Taiwan
Instagram: @madameji
COVID in Taiwan: 235 confirmed cases, 2 deaths

Shashwati Talukdar
Shashwati Talukdar

EVERYTHING happened so gradually, you didn't realise when it snuck up on you. While I live between India and Taiwan, I was in the latter country at the time the world became aware of COVID-19. Now, one must realise that Taiwan is a special case, because the UN has not even recognised it as a real country. Also, Taiwan is close to the epicentre—China.

As it is, China has been long threatening Taiwan, saying it is their province. It already feels like living in a sci-fi film, because the country is facing an existential crisis. However, the government here is very efficient. In December itself, people knew something was up and were prepared. They started wearing masks and hand sanitisers quickly became available at public spaces, etc. But it was during a trip to Malaysia in January that I actually felt the heat.

My husband and I went to a restaurant at a beach where we were staying and the cook refused to serve guests from China. Since we speak Chinese fluently, we intervened and told the owner that xenophobia is not welcome, and that these guests were not living anywhere close to Hubei.

Later that evening, we went to buy masks because we wanted to be prepared. But, we saw that none of the shops had them. This was when I came across a mannequin, which held a placard that read: "masks are unavailable." I took a picture.

Just when Taiwan was closing its borders, Talukdar captured the intense journey from her Dehradun home to the airport
Just when Taiwan was closing its borders, Talukdar captured the intense journey from her Dehradun home to the airport

After returning to Taiwan, things got pretty intense. The government was mulling closing the borders. But I could not witness most of it as I flew to Delhi in the first week of March. I was a student of Jamia, so I wanted to visit all the protest sites. There was eerie silence there too. Not because of the virus, but the recent violence. Those who noticed my mask mocked me, but I knew things had gone too far in Taiwan and had to be careful.

From Delhi, I went to Dehradun where people had begun social distancing. Finally, when I was leaving for Taiwan on the night of March 22, I was scared that the authorities may create an issue at the airport. So, I documented the intense journey in the cab from home to the airport. Luckily, everything went smoothly, and here in Taiwan, I am under lockdown. I just took a picture, looking out the window, spying on my neighbours, also locked up in their homes. I feel like a creepy Jimmy Stewart.

'Just two balloons at a wedding'

A wedding Drescher witnessed in Munich, had the couple hold balloons minus guests and celebrations
A wedding Drescher witnessed in Munich, had the couple hold balloons minus guests and celebrations 

The photographer: Jörg Drescher, 53
Hometown: Bad Saulgau, Germany
Currently in: Munich, Germany
Instagram: @joerg.drescher
COVID in Germany: 42,288 confirmed cases, 253 deaths
COVID in Qatar: 537 confirmed cases, no death

Jorg Drescher
Jorg Drescher

I AM a vagabond. Before moving back to Germany 1.5 years ago, I was in UAE and Saudi Arabia. Since I am a photographer, I usually have my camera with me. I have always believed that where there is emotion, there is a story, and where there is a story, there is a picture worth taking.

In mid-February, I went on a trip to Venice. My dream was to capture the carnival, but it was empty. After China, Italy is worst hit by the virus. Two weeks later, I flew to Qatar to visit my son, who is completing an internship there. I was screened at the airport, and everything otherwise seemed fine. But when I exited, I realised how much Qatar had changed due to COVID-19. I saw fewer people on the streets: those who were there, were wearing masks. It was surreal. This was when I took a picture of a man wearing a mask, and realised that the virus is not stopping at China. I felt vulnerable.

A lost glove on a street in Bavaria, the day the curfew started in Germany
A lost glove on a street in Bavaria, the day the curfew started in Germany

On March 4, I was supposed to fly to Dubai, but decided against it. Since the pandemic had started to hit Europe, I decided to return to my family in Munich. Here, we understand how critical the situation is. So, we are in self-isolation.

Since I have a dog, despite the lockdown, I need to take him for a walk every day. But I am not a youngster anymore, and try to keep safe distance from people when I cross the street. With a camera and gear in tow, we go for walks in empty parks and streets. During one such walk, on the first day of our curfew, I went to Munich's famous castle Nyphemburg. I saw a young couple, just married, standing next to a pair of red balloons. There was no party, no guests and no celebration. It was all cancelled. All they had were two balloons to express their love.

'Worse than a conflict zone'

The usually bustling Stazione Centrale, the main railway station of  Milan, wears a deserted look
The usually bustling Stazione Centrale, the main railway station of Milan, wears a deserted look

The photographer: Eugenio Grosso, 36
Currently in: Milan, Italy
Instagram: @eugrosso
COVID in Italy: 66,414 confirmed cases, 9,134 deaths

Eugenio Grosso
Eugenio Grosso

EVERY time I am out shooting in Milan, it feels surreal wandering through streets that, not so long ago, were packed with people through the night. Stazione Centrale, the train station, in particular, is a place I have always seen full, people arriving and leaving. When I first entered the station since the beginning of the lockdown, I felt like an archaeologist entering a temple abandoned for centuries. The large hall was empty, and everything was silent. At the platform, the situation was different. There were a few passengers and a posse of police officers and soldiers checking them. I couldn't have imagine that this was where I had lived; now the army was controlling who was allowed to leave and not.

I have worked in conflict zones, but I find working in this environment more stressful. When you are covering a conflict, the danger is [often] visible; you hear the shots and see the explosions, at some point you leave the front and know that for some time you are okay. In this case, you never know if you are in real danger or not. Moreover, at some point, we [journalists covering the Covid-19 outbreak] have all developed this sense of being infected and the fear of becoming responsible for possibly infecting our loved ones.

I started my career covering breaking news so I spent the first few days [after the outbreak] running around like I used to do 10 years ago. We all understood the virus outbreak was very big and wanted to cover every single aspect. However, after some time, I felt I wanted to look deeper. I slowed down and am now looking for more evocative images of this crisis.

A security personnel screens a passenger at Stazione Centrale
A security personnel screens a passenger at Stazione Centrale

As a photojournalist, I am still allowed to move around. At night, the noise of the ambulance is louder than during the day and, sometimes, you can see people getting out of their buildings and being escorted by paramedics. People have to queue for a long time to get into supermarkets. I waited 50 minutes for my last grocery shopping. The situation is dramatic, people are dying, but funerals are prohibited to prevent the virus from spreading. The other day, my mother texted me that an old lady who used to take care of me when I was a little boy passed away. We all know that those people are likely to have died because of Covid-19 but they will never be tested so that their names don't make it to the official statistics.

'This is historical evidence for future generations'

Anamika’s son Avaan hugs his father Pawan. “On returning home from a grocery store, Pawan hugged our son and it didn’t feel like a normal hug. It was a hug of fear, of gratitude, of hope,” she says
Anamika's son Avaan hugs his father Pawan. "On returning home from a grocery store, Pawan hugged our son and it didn’t feel like a normal hug. It was a hug of fear, of gratitude, of hope," she says

The photographer: Anamika Singh, 39
Currently in: Thane, Mumbai
Instagram: @anamikasinghphotography
COVID in India: 803 confirmed cases, 20 deaths

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Anamika Singh

Photography has always been more than a passion for me. It gives me the purpose in life to connect with people and document their joys, and share them with others. In this global crisis, I thought about how I could help spread positivity, and the answer was, through my images. I actively document my daily life on regular days too, but being in social isolation with my family, I started documenting our lives during quarantine with this purpose.

One of my subjects has been my mother-in-law, who visits us every winter. She had plans of returning to Delhi in the first week of April, however, due to her medical history, she voluntarily isolated herself when the news of the pandemic broke, not realising we'll be lockdown later. It's over 20 days, she hasn't stepped out of home and in these times, speaking to her near and dear ones over phone has been healing for her.

My husband, Pawan Saxena, is our warrior. He steps out to buy the essential supplies and enforces a strict protocol for sanitisation post that. Just after one of these trips, he hugged our son Avaan and it didn't feel like a normal hug. It was a hug of fear, of gratitude, of hope.

Anamika Singh’s mother-in-law Manju in isolation
Anamika Singh's mother-in-law in isolation

With a 70- and a seven-year-old at home, we ought to be more careful with social distancing. The initial days of confinement went by fine but now our child longs to go down to play and meet his friends. The next few weeks are going to be tough.

The picture of my son sitting in the sunlight streaming through my bedroom window makes me grateful for all that we have. The other day I was complaining about not having a balcony at home.

A while later, when I called my house help to check on her she mentioned how claustrophobic it gets for them in the shanties. I couldn't feel more content with life.

'A man wanted to break my camera'

A traditional coffee shop in Gorgan remains open despite orders for closure

The photographer: Mahsa Safari, 25
Currently in: Gorgan, Iran
Instagram: @moon.sfr733
COVID in Iran: 18,821 confirmed cases, 2,378 deaths

Mahsa Safari
Mahsa Safari

I AM a photojournalist from Gorgan, a city located 400 km to the north east of Tehran. Currently, we are under lockdown. Schools, restaurants, cultural centres and community prayer halls have been closed for a month. My foremost concern is contracting the virus and passing it on to my family. The other challenge is dealing with the paucity of masks, santisers and gloves while I'm out on the streets documenting the crisis. It's not easy being in this profession due to people's attitude towards photography and their resistance to it. A few days ago, a man wanted to break my camera.

The focus of my photography is to capture the hard work of people on the frontline including doctors, nurses, paramedics, police, workers and garbage collectors, who are braving the odds every day. I also want to document the lives of those who are helping flatten the curve by going into isolation and shutting down their businesses.

But, from what I've seen, a lot of people still step out unnecessarily and don't comply with the quarantine orders. The other day, I went to a traditional coffee shop in the area. Despite warnings, they had opened, but they had no customers. The owner said he opened because he is worried about meeting everyday needs. Nearly 400 people have died in my hometown, but unfortunately they have not declared the real statistics to the public.

Buses in Gorgan are running nearly empty
Buses in Gorgan are running nearly empty

Naturally, my family has been discouraging me from going out to take pictures in the city and hospitals. As a photojournalist, it is my job to publish photos and news despite the dangers. It's astounding how despite all the medical and technological advancements, a virus has brought the world to a standstill, and we are still scrambling for a cure.

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