The Current·Photos

What this Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer saw in ICUs fighting COVID-19

Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario gained access to several hospitals in the U.K., where she captured the daily struggle to help patients fighting COVID-19.

Lynsey Addario observed loneliness, lack of closure as she documented pandemic

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario gained access to four hospitals in the U.K., where she captured the daily struggle to help patients with COVID-19. (Sam Taylor Johnson)

Read Story Transcript

After two decades capturing the world's war zones, Pulitzer Prize-winning American photojournalist Lynsey Addario turned her lens to home soil, and the front lines of U.K. hospitals fighting COVID-19.

In early March, the National Geographic photographer saw images of intensive care units in Italy and New York, "piling up, with people being treated in the hallways and tents." 

"Immediately I knew I wanted to cover whatever I could," Addario, who is based in England, told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue. 

She also felt compelled by the fact that there were "a lot of people who were suspicious, who were saying it's just like a flu."

"I think it's really important for people to see how coronavirus can really ravage the human body, that we are all responsible not only for looking out for ourselves, but for others."

COVID-19 patient Foysal Ahmad, 51, speaks with his wife, Nipa Begum, from the intensive care unit of the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, on June 15. (Lynsey Addario/National Geographic)

Britain experienced its highest number of COVID-19 cases in April and early May, amid criticism against British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for not implementing lockdown and physical distancing measures until the last week of March. Those measures were eased in late May, but a rise in cases in late July and early August has stalled the country's efforts to revive its economy.

According to John Hopkins University, the country's COVID-19 death toll is close to 47,000, the fifth highest in the world after the U.S., Brazil, Mexico and India.

Addario wanted to capture ICUs "because that seemed, of course, central to how to photograph the virus."

"Italy was amazing in terms of allowing journalists and allowing the public to see what it looked like ... in order to sort of help other countries take the right measures," she said.

"Governments just didn't really think it would happen, and unroll the way that it did — and it did."

Britain’s struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 6:04
British officials have been criticized for taking too long to take action against the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the U.K. is on the verge of having the deadliest outbreak in Europe. 

Patient communicated by 'blinking and nodding'

Addario first contacted hospitals in late March, but it wasn't until May that she was allowed to spend time with staff and patients in four hospitals around the U.K., taking pictures through full protective equipment, and getting tested for COVID-19 every two weeks.

At the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, she met 50-year-old William Ferguson.

When Addario arrived, Ferguson had already spent 74 days on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, a device that pumps and oxygenates blood outside the patient's body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest. He had no underlying conditions before catching COVID-19.

COVID-19 patient William Ferguson, 50, receives care at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, in June. (Lynsey Addario/National Geographic)

"To see a 50-year-old who had been on ECMO support for almost three months was extraordinary, you know, it was terrifying," Addario said. 

When Addario last spoke with Ferguson's family a month ago, his condition had not changed. 

Hospital staff had already asked patients for their consent to be photographed, and Addario was keen to avoid talking to them at length so as not to complicate their breathing.

But while it was difficult for Ferguson to breathe, she found he was completely coherent, and "able to answer questions by blinking or nodding."

"It was really amazing to be able to communicate with someone in critical care, someone who was able to sort of react and respond to me as a photographer," she said.

The most important thing I've learned is really [about] the loneliness, the lack of closure, the fact that people are giving birth, and dying alone.- Lynsey Addario

"That's also something that does help create an intimacy not only for the photographs, but for the viewer."

'Extraordinary' to watch staff at work

One day, after a few hours in the ICU, Addario stepped out of Ferguson's room for a break and to give him some time with his nurse, Josephine Riccobono.

"I was sort of peeking through the curtain and I saw this beautiful moment of Josephine leaning in and speaking to him, very intimately and very personally," she recalled.

She took a few photographs, and went back inside to ask Riccobono what she had said.

Nurse Josephine Riccobono speaks with Ferguson at the Royal Papworth Hospital. (Lynsey Addario/National Geographic)

"She said: 'He looked really depressed and down today, and I wanted to make sure he was doing OK mentally.'"

Addario said the interaction spoke "volumes" about the task facing front-line health workers.

Anaesthesiologist Caroline Borkett-Jones leads a team turning a suspected COVID-19 patient from their back onto their stomach — a treatment called proning — at the Royal Free Hospital in London. (Lynsey Addario/National Geographic)

"They have so much to do in terms of physical care — cleaning the patient, taking care of them, making sure their tubes are changed, everything — but they're also taking care of their mental state," she said.

"It was extraordinary to watch them at work day in and day out — I mean, these are doctors and nurses who are treating every single patient as if [they] were a relative," she said.

"I guess the most important thing I've learned is really [about] the loneliness, the lack of closure, the fact that people are giving birth, and dying alone."

Difficult conversations, unseen trauma

Amid long shifts at the hospital, Addario saw doctors carve out time to call families to update them on their loved ones, including a call made by Dr. Andrew Fahey.

Addario took this image of Dr. Andrew Fahey, centre, speaking with the family of a COVID-19 patient in intensive care at the Royal Free Hospital in London, in June. (Lynsey Addario/National Geographic)

"This was a phone call to the family of a patient who was very critical, and he wanted to ensure that the family understood just how bad this situation was, just how severe she was," she said.

"I'm not sure if he was wiping a tear, or if he was wiping sweat, but it was very intense."

Later, she noticed the other doctors in the photograph, "each making phone calls to a different family." 

She says these images show the "huge burden" of "the medical staff essentially having to do the role also of a family member."

"We haven't even spoken about their own trauma, what they've witnessed during the height of the pandemic, when there were people in hallways, when there were people dying routinely in front of them," she said.

"I think that the trauma, the residual trauma through this period ... most people haven't even begun to deal with that yet."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler. Read more about Lynsey Addario's work on the National Geographic website, or see more of her images on Instagram: @natgeointhefield and @natgeo.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?