How do you picture a pandemic? Photographer Philip Montgomery documented New York City funeral homes and health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis this past March. His images appeared in the New York Times Magazine, capturing the stark divide between “before COVID” and after. Montgomery shares his Brief But Spectacular take on covering the pandemic.
Judy Woodruff: How do you picture a pandemic?
Tonight’s Brief But Spectacular focuses on a photographer documenting funeral homes and health care workers. His images captured in March appeared in “The New York Times Magazine.”
He spoke with us about his work in New York City.
Philip Montgomery: We were photographing in the emergency department at Queens Hospital, where two FDNY paramedics had just wheeled in a man who was going into cardiac arrest from COVID-19. The hospital at the time was completely overwhelmed with patients.
At that moment, it was all hands on deck to save this man’s life. And we watched for 10 minutes as these two paramedics, flanked by hospital workers, nurses and doctors alike, gave this man all of the attention that they possibly could in order to bring him back.
And they brought him back after working tirelessly.
Casually, at the end of it, everyone just got back to work. It was just men and women operating at the highest level of professionalism and heroism.
Most of the work that I have done for COVID-19 has been done with “The New York Times Magazine.” We really wanted to focus on what we had lost as a city. And what we had lost as a city were 20,000 lives.
New York is a place of many stories, but it really started to become one story. And the story was in the hospitals.
Over the course of six days, we ended up visiting nine municipal hospitals and clinics across five boroughs. Working on this type of story, it requires, I think, an overdose of empathy. If the moment is emotional, I allow myself to feel emotional. In feeling that, I really hope that it impacts the picture.
One of the tragic things about being hospitalized with COVID-19 is, from the second that you are hospitalized and leave your family, you won’t see them again until you get out, if you’re lucky enough to get out. There were no flowers. There were no visits. There were no family members in waiting rooms.
There was a New York before COVID, and there’s a New York after. And I have had a few moments of realizing that the world is going to look very different permanently. This is a moment that is larger than all of us.
My name is Philip Montgomery, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on reporting the pandemic in New York City.
Judy Woodruff: Remarkable. There’s something about still pictures that you just don’t see anywhere else.
Thank you, Philip Montgomery.
And you can find all of our Brief But Spectacular stories online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.