Alpha Universe Story Detail
Alpha Universe Story Detail
In the Face of Adversity 

Andrea Frazzetta 

Is it strange for a photojournalist to be inspired by a spur of the moment selfie posted online? Perhaps. But then these are strange times. Certainly, there have been fewer, more powerful images in recent months than the self portrait of Alessia Bonari, a nurse at the end of her 12 hour shift in a COVID-19 stricken hospital in northern Italy.

“It was Wednesday, 11 March 2020,” photojournalist Andrea Frazzetta explains, “and Alessia’s post had reached millions all over the country. The marks from the face mask she’d worn all day long were like wounds after a fight. For me, the image was perfectly symbolic of what was happening in the world.”

andrea frazzetta sony alpha 7RM3 portrait of frontline hospital worker in italy

© Andrea Frazzetta | Sony α7R III + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/250s @ f/6.3, ISO 400

“By the middle of March,” Andrea continues, “northern Italy had become the epicentre of the COVID-19 global pandemic. In the region of Lombardy, where the virus first exploded in the West, a wealthy and advanced health care system had suddenly become a war zone.”

Compelled by the crisis, Andrea Frazzetta decided to respond in the way only a seasoned photojournalist could, with his own series of images that would narrate the historic efforts to combat this deadly virus. He created a series of striking portraits, at hospitals in northern Italy during the worst days of the fight against COVID-19, with the images published in the New York Times Magazine.

Over the next few weeks Andrea shot portraits of staff on the frontline of the fight at hospitals and clinics in Brescia, Bergamo and Milan.

“The idea was very instinctive,” he says, “but it’s also a very simple impulse that’s common to many photographic documentations and portraiture – we focus on the faces of the protagonists during a tragedy, and that’s how we tell the human story, and the human cost.” 

andrea frazzetta sony alpha 7RM3 portrait of nurse removing her face mask at the end of a shift

© Andrea Frazzetta | Sony α7R III + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/250s @ f/4.5, ISO 400

The protagonists in Andrea’s series included “rescuers, volunteers, cleaning personnel, nurses, doctors and head physicians. A total of 30 subjects, all photographed at the end of the shifts, just as they took off their masks. I wanted to show their fatigue, their tiredness, and to read in their eyes what they were doing.”

Photojournalists like Andrea are always working on the edge of peril, and though this was no regular war zone, the danger was just as real, but invisible. “It was certainly dangerous, but we took all possible precautions. There is always a percentage of risk in what we do. But I was also frightened and even shocked by the pain I saw in the faces I was documenting. And I hope that this fear of mine was also reflected in the photographs.” 

All of the portraits were shot “with a very simple technique,” explains Andrea. “I just used a single HVL-F45RM flash held in my hand, which was separated from the camera using the FA-WRC1M wireless radio control. It was important that the technique could be fast to save time, but also that it had a raw aesthetic – something that mirrored the moment and the situation in which I was shooting. Being able to trigger a small external flash so easily is a fundamental technique for me in all my work.” 

andrea frazzetta sony alpha 7RM3 italian policewoman putting on her face mask

© Andrea Frazzetta | Sony α7R III + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/125s @ f/3.5, ISO 400

On top of the heightened emotions of the situation, there were technical challenges, too. “It is not easy to take pictures when wearing protective equipment,” explains Andrea. “The mask, gloves, overalls and especially glasses are a hindrance. For example, you can’t take pictures looking through the viewfinder, so you have to use the monitor. And the mask is an additional psychological barrier. Because your subjects don’t see your expressions it’s not easy to establish the sort of relationship that’s normally fundamental for a portrait.”

Though of course the project as a whole is what’s important, Andrea singles out his portraits of Monica Falocchi and Marco Rizzi, as the most compelling for him. “The picture of Monica has become particularly important with respect to this series,” he says. “Not only did it become the cover of the New York Times Magazine, it’s real a symbol of resistance in the face of disaster.” 

One of the first portraits taken in the series, the picture of Monica “made me understand what the right direction was to take,” he says. “Emerging from the Intensive Care Unit for a few minutes, she took off her mask and looked right through the camera at me. In that look there was all the pain of the night just gone by. After hearing the camera click, she put her mask back on and went back to her patients, compelled by this sense of duty.” 

andrea frazzetta sony alpha 7RM3 portrait of marco from papa giovanni hospital in italy

© Andrea Frazzetta | Sony α7R III + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/250s @ f/5.6, ISO 400

Of Marco, the director of the Infectious Disease Unit at Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital, Andrea says, “it’s a slightly blurred picture. It’s not technically perfect by me. But it captures in Marco’s eyes all the feeling of that moment. And sometimes imperfection is an added value. It helps us see life.”

As you’d expect, the portraits needed to be completed much faster than Andrea’s usual work, and with the ever- present clutter of personal protective equipment between him and his subjects. “Each took just a few minutes,” he explains, “but in that very short time, there was an intense relationship with the subjects.”

andrea frazzetta sony alpha 7RM3 portrait of surgeon removing his face mask at the end of a shift

© Andrea Frazzetta | Sony α7R III + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/250s @ f/4.5, ISO 400

Shooting with a Sony α7R III and an FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens was also essential for Andrea, allowing him to work quickly and efficiently in such a complex situation. “That combination is light and fast, and reliable, which is vital, because we didn’t have time to disturb these people’s work for more than a few seconds. Focusing with the face recognition system was fundamental to make the moment of shooting even faster and more precise, and the 24- 70mm’s focal range is perfect for me. It allows me to think of a portrait, but also be flexible enough in the framing to give context to my subjects.”

With signs that normal life is very slowly returning to northern Italy, Andrea hopes his images will have a lasting impact. “It will remain a very important project for me, professionally and personally. The images have become part of a permanent archive here in Italy that will collect photographic work on the pandemic. Photography is very important from this point of view. The memory of these days should help us think of a better future. I don’t know what life will be like after the virus, but nothing will ever be the same again.” 

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Andrea Frazzetta
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"To me photography represents an ideal tool for exploration. A way to discover the world, others and more of myself. With every photo you 'take' something and you also get back, through your involvement in what you are recording and by expressing your own viewpoint. Every shot is like taking a stance in the world. "

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