• Mary MacCarthy

Photographer describes shooting Vanity Fair Covid-19 cover

Updated: May 6, 2020

Today we hear from a photojournalist who lives in the ground zero of Covid 19 in Europe: northern Italy. Marco Garofalo is based in Milan, where he shot the cover story for the latest edition of Vanity Fair Italia - an entire issue focused on Italy's essential workers in the fight against the virus.

I chatted with Marco via WhatsApp on Monday - the day that Italy's death toll passed 20,000. Despite that grim number, many of the headlines out of Italy over the past week have been reassuring: both the number of new cases, and the daily death count, have been declining.

But in my conversation with Marco, it became clear to me that Italy is in no way out of the woods. He repeatedly expressed that it's still considered risky to leave one's home. He spoke with great sadness about friends and neighbors killed by Covid. And he explained that Italian cities are still very much on lock down - including Milan, where he and his family are now in their sixth week stuck inside their apartment.

Family photo from Marco's Facebook page

HOW ARE YOU GETTING BY? Well, right now, everything is so linked. What’s happening around the world is the same as what’s happening in my home. My apartment is the world, in a way. Everybody everywhere has the same problems. On different levels, of course.

The world has been reduced to one apartment, one home. Because the virus is telling us, first of all, that the world has no borders. I have the same issues as someone in New York City or somewhere else. We are all worried at the same time. We’re all struggling to understand, and to see our futures.

That's the thing that worries me the most - not being able to see the future. I can’t make any plans or projects - either for my family, or for my job. And that scares me.

They say, “There's a light at the end of the tunnel.”

But that light, it feels like, is it a train coming to run me over?

I have a family - a wife and two kids - and it’s so strange that we have no plans at all. Nothing. For school, for work, just for daily life. It’s crazy!

We watch movies from the sofa, and we see things we can’t do. Normal things. Walking in the street, eating an ice scream. It's scary.

Quarantine activity: dressing up as famous paintings

So, we try to invent our days. We try to do everything together. This is something that might be particular to my own family unit. We're very close. We have two children, both adopted. Jean-Philippe is 12 years old, he’s from Togo and has been with us for eight years. Actually, he is about to turn 12 - so we will have to come up with a private birthday party for him.

My other son, Cau, is from Vietnam, and he has been with us for only a year. It’s not easy for him especially, he’s still in the phase where we are building a family life with him - teaching him the concepts of a mother, father, and brother. In some ways, it sounds crazy, but maybe being locked down in fact helps with that - to just focus on our family. Maybe it's a good thing for Cau.

It does help, in this situation, to have strong relationships in the family. It’s an intense time - probably, divorces will increase, but also there will be a lot of newborns coming out of this! It’s a period where there’s an extra twist - an extra challenge - added to relationships. You must be very careful. It’s beautiful that we live together 24 hours a day. But it’s also dangerous.

As for my job as a photojournalist, most of my work has been cancelled or postponed. I had two big exhibitions of my photos coming up, one here in Italy and the other in Rwanda. Both have been cancelled for now, and I don’t know if they will ever be rescheduled.

So, I’m trying to work, but very carefully. I’m scared of catching the virus and bringing it home.

I got one beautiful opportunity, which was to shoot this month's cover story for Vanity Fair Italy. It features the head pulmonologist of Bergamo hospital, Caterina Conti. She - and her hospital - have been through absolute hell. They were the hardest hit by the virus in all of Italy.

Dr. Conti had just one day off, and the magazine brought her to Milan. She came to my photography studio. We had to prepare the set very carefully, due to the virus concerns. My own assistant did not want to take the risk of getting infected, so the Photo Editor of Vanity Fair came along instead, to act as my assistant. And the Director of the magazine, too - who in normal circumstances would never come to a photo shoot.

Typically, a cover shoot would involve a lot of people, but this time it was very intimate - just me, the doctor, and the Photo Editor and Director of Vanity Fair.

We had to wear gloves and masks, and respect the rule of staying more than six feet apart from each other. And we had to work very efficiently, to get it done as quickly as possible.

I also shot other stories for the Covid-19 issue of the magazine, which meant I had to get out and about in Milan. It's hard being out there - you know that an invisible enemy could be anywhere. I feel very responsible for my family. I don’t want to take any risks.

When the virus outbreak started in Italy, there was not a lockdown for the first couple of weeks. People were still going out. Then - when the shutdowns started - many photographers started to take pictures of the empty streets. I wasn’t really interested in that, and I told myself I would only venture out of my apartment if it were for a very good, worthwhile project. I was excited to do the Vanity Fair issue because it highlighted so many people who are out there helping people. Not just the doctors.

I got to photograph a cashier at the supermarket. And some people doing amazing volunteer work.

There's some culinary students, they are 19 or 20 years old, some already work at family restaurants and markets - they have banded together and started volunteering. They are cooking and bringing food to the doctors and hospitals. It’s all free and they just improvised it, starting with a small group of them - and they are feeding healthcare workers all across of Milan. Now, they even have the help and support of our mayor, Guiseppe Sala.

I was very happy to photograph these students, and I have stayed in touch with them.

This is something that this tragedy is stimulating - this desire to help, to volunteer. I am reading about and meeting beautiful people doing beautiful things.

All of this is happening while we are - of course - surrounded by the virus. My studio colleague, a fellow photojournalist - his mother just died from Covid. He was doing a New York Times Magazine story at the Bergamo hospital, when his mom was admitted to another hospital - here in Milan - and died. I also lost a dear friend and co-worker, the journalist Raffaele Masto.

In the apartment just behind us, last week an ambulance came and took an elderly couple to the hospital. They have not yet returned. And the bakery on our street, the elderly lady who has worked there forever died from Covid.

In Italy we say that when you have your health, you have everything. And that’s absolutely true. For my family, we are safe. For the rest, we will see.

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