Lindsey Wasson on documenting the coronavirus outbreak at Seattle-area nursing home
A long-term care facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Washington, was the site of one of the first outbreaks of the coronavirus in the United States and illustrated how fast the virus can spread through an elderly care facility. As nations across the globe are grappling with how to protect older people – who are especially vulnerable to serious effects of the illness – Reuters photographer Lindsey Wasson was on the ground in Kirkland at the Life Care Center nursing home. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Lindsey gives an inside look at documenting the story.
Q: How did you end up photographing at the nursing home in Kirkland, Washington?
A: Like everyone else, I was keeping an eye on the coronavirus situation in February, but it largely felt like a distant news story until the very end of the month, when the first death in Washington State was reported. At the beginning of March, photo editor Chris Helgren called me in to start covering shifts at the Life Care Center of Kirkland with photographer David Ryder.
Q: What was the experience like on the ground?
A: Shifts at the Life Care Center consisted of waiting across the street for hours, watching the building for pockets of activity: ambulances arriving, delivery trucks pulling up with nondescript boxes, family members stopping by windows to talk to their loved ones. National TV media soon arrived, jockeying for space to camp out amongst the trees on the slope overlooking the parking lot. As someone who grew up not too far away, it always feels like a true spectacle when our local news becomes the focus of the nation.
Fellow photographers David Ryder, Jason Redmond and I rotated shifts so someone was there for most of the daylight hours. In that way, we were able to create a visual narrative of the center and make valuable contact with family members who wanted to get the word out about the situation. Reuters photographer Brian Snyder has come in to add to the coverage and help us coordinate. We’ve since scaled back at Life Care as we expand our coverage to other stories, but keep checking in every day.
Q: What was the hardest part of covering the story?
A: The coronavirus story, here and elsewhere, is obviously still unfolding. One of the keywords I keep coming back to is ‘uncertainty’. Covering this story has felt a bit like trying to juggle while holding on to the roof of a swerving car: Every day has brought something new, and it’s been hard to keep up with all the possible stories and changes. As I’ve never covered any kind of pandemic before, there’s been a lot of learning on the job about best practices for health and safety specifically for this disease.
Q: What makes you passionate about photojournalism?
A: It’s an incredible chance to document history and in doing so, get to know the community you’re covering. Especially during big events like this, being able to amplify people’s stories is certainly a privilege. Many of the Life Care Center family members have been desperate to get more information from the government or the center, and hopefully our coverage has helped spur that, as well as humanize the larger coronavirus story.
Q: What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A: Being able to feel like I made a difference in someone’s life, even if it’s just the person I’m photographing. There are many difficult, boring, stressful or heartbreaking assignments—this being one of the latter. But I’ve had many experiences and gotten to meet so many people from so many backgrounds I never would have otherwise, if not for journalism. That’s quite a reward.
My career isn’t particularly long, but unfortunately I’ve had to cover multiple shootings and local tragedies—one of the most difficult being the 2014 landslide in Oso, Washington, which killed 43 people. It always feels awkward and uncomfortable to ask people to share with you during their hardest times, but I am always so grateful to those who do. And I feel like that act of sharing can be a form of catharsis for folks.
Q: Can you imagine being anything other than a photojournalist? If so, what?
A: I’m grateful that I’ve mostly been able to make it work. I think it would be difficult for me to not be a photographer at all. I recognize that is a position of extreme privilege—it hasn’t always been easy, especially as a freelancer for the past few years, but I am very lucky that I had the opportunities to even start on this career path to begin with. But really— I’m not sure what else I’m qualified for! Maybe a social media manager. I do tweet bad jokes a lot.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: I think the global nature of this story, how coronavirus is now affecting every person in so many countries, has shown the world isn’t so big. The degrees of separation are so few. This is also a time that shows how important journalism is in informing the public—especially when things are changing so rapidly. Wash your hands!