An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'I realised that documenting the truth, deaths in hospitals was my duty'

Indranil Aditya is a Kolkata-based freelance photojournalist. I'd just begun shooting pictures of the West Bengal Assembly elections a...

Indranil Aditya is a Kolkata-based freelance photojournalist.

I'd just begun shooting pictures of the West Bengal Assembly elections at the time. There were countless rallies and election campaigns going on here in Kolkata, almost on an everyday basis. I was also going to election booths where people stood in long queues, waiting to cast their votes. Streets were chock-a-block, and people thronged markets because Holi and other spring festivals were around the corner. In all these rallies, public gatherings, and markets, people seldom wore masks or practised social distancing norms.

Perhaps they had forgotten about the looming threat of COVID-19 around them. Things had become so normal until then, that everyone had begun to believe that the pandemic was over. And then, the second wave struck.

Like everyone else, I was at home, trying to wrap my head around what was to happen in the coming days. Unlike last year, a lockdown wasn't imposed this time, possibly due to the elections or just out of concern for daily wage workers and their livelihoods. I thought it was time to shoot those empty roads and vacant shopping malls, just as we did in 2020.

At the same time, I saw a lot of photographs coming in from Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad, where photojournalists were extensively shooting inside the COVID-19 wards of local hospitals. For some reason, there was no reportage from Kolkata. That's when I decided, maybe I should start going to hospitals and photographing the scenes there. But I also knew that as a freelance photojournalist, I had no access cards or even a press card for that matter.

Read more from the Oral History Project here.

The coronavirus was one of the top issues in the global discourse in April. I wanted to document the situation in my city. But I must admit, it was all very new to me. I'd never had access to a government hospital before, let alone during the pandemic. But around 20 April, I decided to go to a hospital anyway, and see what I could capture.

Before setting out, I'd gone through the works of photojournalists from other parts of the country in a thorough manner. Primarily because of two reasons: One, since I had no access to the hospital as yet, their photographs were good reference points to estimate the situation from outside. Two, I didn't want to replicate or repeat a frame that had already been shot before.

These preparations always come in handy when you go out to report, and they helped me as well. Most of all, it gave me that much-required push to step out. I wore a set of COVID-19 gloves and spectacles, a pair of three-tiered masks, a full shirt and trousers. I avoided wearing a PPE suit because I was going to move around a lot, in and outside the hospital. A PPE suit would make movement really difficult and uncomfortable for me.

On the first day (20 April) when I went to a hospital, it was very different from my previous work. It wasn't like shooting general news that we do all the time. It was no breaking news photography either. The pandemic had been around for over a year by then, but this work was very new to me. I tried entering the hospital premises with my camera. Inside, I asked a person where the COVID-19 ward was, and he pointed to a spot right next to me. My immediate reaction was to take 10 steps back. But from there, I could see everything — patients being taken inside the hospital, ambulances coming in and out, and family members of the admitted patients sitting outside in complete despair.

I saw a security guard outside the ward, I went up to him and started casually chatting with him, asking him about the number of people admitted currently, and the overall scenario. When I tried clicking a few pictures, I saw that the security guard didn't object. That gave me a little hope.

On the first day, I didn't really shoot a lot of pictures, instead I planned my photography style for the coming days. I made note of the places I needed to access, the vantage points from where I could shoot from a good range. In all this, I was also getting accustomed to the hospital surroundings. The next day went by smoothly.

I could see patients fighting for their lives. This was not a TV report from some other city, it was happening right here in front of my own eyes. On one level, I could relate to them because they were all vulnerable like my old parents and grandmother at home. They were also scared for me, because they knew I was spending a lot of time inside COVID-19 red zones. At the hospital, I saw someone my age struggling to breathe. I could have been in his place, who knows? As a freelance photojournalist who didn't have enough support or equipment, I had to fend for myself, knowing I was stepping into a high-risk zone each day.

I was also faced with a dilemma: Should I quit all this for the sake of my aged family members, or should I risk their lives to pursue this work? Deep down, I knew that as a responsible photojournalist, I had to document this part of history for posterity.

Over the course of the time I spent at the hospital, I saw fear, death and despair very closely. I witnessed a patient in a wheelchair being taken inside the hospital for a test and a man wearing a PPE suit pushing the wheelchair, while a family member was carrying an oxygen cylinder. On the other side of the gallery, there were family members sitting with their faces bent down, weeping in apprehension. They didn't know if their loved one(s) inside would make it. Most of these patients were in critical condition.

Then there were trucks coming in with new beds. The hospital was getting full, and patients were still outside waiting to get a bed. Doctors, nurses and healthcare workers were running around, round the clock. On the other side of the hospital, there was a staircase littered with piles of long, black plastic bags, which had been lying there for quite some time. I saw a car approaching that staircase, and two men piling one bag over another, dumping them inside the car. That's when I realised these bags were actually dead bodies wrapped in plastic.

It was very difficult for me to document all this initially. But eventually, it got better as I spent more time there, realising it was nothing but the real truth and that I must document it. I kept myself calm and did what I had to. I knew it could happen to me or my family too. But at that moment, it was my duty to click the button on my camera and capture the truth. I had seen a lot of deaths before — accidents, old age, terminal illnesses, but this was different. Nobody deserved to die like this. Death has not affected me this much in the past, but the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has altered this fact now.

— As told to Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

Write to us with your COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown experiences for inclusion in the Oral History Project at firstculturefeatures@gmail.com

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India World News: An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'I realised that documenting the truth, deaths in hospitals was my duty'
An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'I realised that documenting the truth, deaths in hospitals was my duty'
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