Neither snow nor rain prevent the U.S. Postal Service from carrying mail to your door, but significant changes in its structure and staffing are causing mail delays across Philadelphia. If you’re looking for your mail, you’re not alone.
And this week, we chatted with Inquirer photographer Monica Herndon about her day-to-day on the job and how that’s changed along with current events.
Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with photojournalist Monica Herndon about how her job has changed during the pandemic.
Why did you become a photojournalist? What makes your job different from a reporter’s?
When I was a kid, I was incredibly shy, like don’t-want-to-call-in-the-pizza-order shy. In high school I had a vague interest in photography and my father was a longtime photojournalist, so my mom suggested I give it a try. I remember in my first photojournalism class I was so nervous to approach people, I’d have to talk myself into it. When people gave me their names and answered my questions, I’d feel this thrill, like I had gotten past something that scared me. I quickly learned that that’s the best part of the job. Meeting people, learning about their lives, peeking into worlds that I don’t normally inhabit.
My job is different from a reporter’s because when I first arrive at a scene my instinct is to look around, watch, wait, and see what develops. My job relies on what I can see and witness. I cannot recreate a scene by asking questions like a reporter can. I have to be there when the moment happens. Sometimes that requires a lot of planning, other times you just happen onto it.
How do you prepare to go out to cover an event or do an assignment differently now than you did before the pandemic?
Working now, during the pandemic, means I have to make sure I have enough cleaning supplies and the right mask for the job. Throughout these last few months, I’ve been trying different kinds of masks, I know which ones will hurt my face after hours of wear, I know which ones are incredibly hard to breathe in, I know which ones feel like they aren’t protecting much at all. I also started preparing my own lunch every day. When restaurants were shut down it was harder to find food and I didn’t want to go in and out of my home multiple times during the day. It also became harder to find bathrooms. I avoid going inside people’s homes and offices as much as possible, which means relying on public restrooms. Target and grocery stores are pretty much always open, so that’s usually my first stop.
What’s something you’ve come across during the pandemic that you were surprised by? What’s a challenge you weren’t expecting that you had to overcome?
I've been surprised by the ways people have supported their communities. When grocery stores were shut down or working limited hours due to the unrest, Spot Burgers converted their seating area to a grocery store for a couple days. In a confusing, painful time, it was refreshing to see.
At the beginning of the pandemic, lots of assignments were being canceled because of the closures. I found myself with more time, some of that was used to clean equipment and my car regularly, and some was spent finding stories and standalone images on my own. I saw balloon garlands popping up near my neighborhood, and sought out the maker, which led to this short video piece. Even in this time of uncertainty, I’ve been finding and pitching more of my own pieces.
How did you feel when the protests began? What has it been like to cover them in the Philly area?
I had been following the protests in Minneapolis as things escalated. I interned there a few years ago, so I was familiar with a lot of the photographers on the street. I did not expect the protests to take off like they did across the country. On the first day of protests here I was off from work, but glued to my phone and Slack all day. I felt anxious, like I needed to be out there documenting, but also scared because I’d never covered any protests of this magnitude before. Since June, the photo staff has participated in Hostile Environment Training and webinars with other photographers who are experienced in covering civil unrest. I also feel like I’ve learned a lot about safety just being out there and being observant. Luckily the protests that I’ve covered have remained calm so I haven’t had to face tear gas or other projectiles.
What is something new you learned during this time?
I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for the connections I get to make through this work. While many people were stuck at home alone, I was able to safely interact with people from afar and still have some human connection.
What is something you wish more people better understood about your job?
Work from home doesn’t exist for news photographers. Our jobs require us to be out in the world every day, even though the reporters can make calls from home. Those first few weeks in March were very scary. We didn’t have enough masks or cleaning supplies, and masks weren’t widely mandated. There were a few rough days when I found myself wishing I could stay in the safety of my own home. As we developed protocols for working safely during this time, I started to feel better and more comfortable.
This is definitely a serene view of the water from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Thanks for sharing, @heygervais.
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There are numerous factors that go into how you decide to travel during a pandemic: crowds, cleaning practices, airflow, travel time, cost, and convenience. Overall, no matter which forms of transportation you choose, the advice is the same. You should always wear a mask, maintain distance, and wash your hands before and after to prevent the spread of the virus. While all travel during a pandemic is situational, we’ve listed the possible transportation options from the lowest relative risk to the highest so you can decide what is best for you.
“So great to read about people like this guy, someone with a positive attitude and a can-do spirit. People like him are the ones who built this country and keep it running.” — andronicus maximus, on ‘Ya Fav Trashman’ gives an inside look at Philly trash pickup on Instagram, and the city is listening.