Last year, I produced a reportage on doctors and nurses at a COVID-19 ward in a hospital in Indonesia. In March 2020, I was the first photojournalist in Indonesia to be granted this access. My intention was clear: I wanted to show the work of the medical force fighting the pandemic. Early on, I organized food donations, gained the trust of the doctors and nurses, and witnessed the unforgiving nature of their work. Ahead of the coverage, I was well aware of the ethical dilemma in doing work of this nature. However, I was met with unexpected challenges when my photograph of a COVID-19 victim wrapped in plastic was about to be published by National Geographic. I consulted veteran photojournalists and academics for opinions. They supported my case. National Geographic lawyers ensured the legality of the publication. After arduous negotiations with the hospital, the image was allowed to be published with total anonymity. The story came out.
But it is when I republished the image on Instagram that the photo sparked violent reactions across Indonesia. I wanted to highlight the human cost of coronavirus, but in an unforeseen turn of events, I became number one trending topic in Indonesia. Celebrities and government officials doubted the veracity of the image. I was accused of setting up the photo to spread fear. I received racial abuse. The Indonesian government tried to hunt down the hospital where the photograph was made. All the while there have been 2,032 deaths of doctors and nurses, as Indonesia stands with the highest mortality rate for medical workers in Asia due to COVID-19. I stayed low for a while. Consequently, my story in the ward never saw daylight because government officials thought it was ‘unethical’ and may use the pictures for extortion. My four-month work in the COVID ward and the story remain untold. This set of events becomes the basis of my project Viral: one image and the myriad reactions that followed. The DNA of a viral image in a post-truth landscape.
If the only reality people can accept is the one they curate for themselves, how do we create narratives that best present the truth? Are social media the right platforms to tell these stories when copyright, content moderation, and factual information are so often absent within its architecture? How do we restore people’s faith in journalism?