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What has it been like covering the pandemic? Covering the pandemic has been challenging because of the social distancing rules; I’ve had to don a mask and gloves and use longer lenses to capture moments. Before this pandemic, I was using my 24-70mm lens to photograph people. Now I’m using long glass. It’s much safer to do so. Initially, some people didn’t want to talk with me because I wore a mask, but those reservations have ceased because everyone is now required to wear a protective face covering.

Is there a particular trick to photographing people when they’re wearing a covering that conceals half their face? I tell people to smile with their eyes! I recently photographed Oakland artist Fantastic Negrito in his music studio, and he was jovial and expressive while donning his mask. It was an incredible, fun time. I felt like I wasn’t working at all during my time with him. We produced a variety of beautiful frames from that photo shoot. I’ve photographed some folks not wearing masks, but because we’re all trying to protect one another, the majority of the people I’ve documented have worn masks. I tell people to just be themselves as I capture them in their element.

How have you adapted your work or approach to meet the unique challenges of documenting the crisis? At the beginning of the pandemic in the Bay Area, I was very nervous about covering COVID-19. It’s an invisible killer and anyone can die from the virus, so it’s been a challenging topic to cover for the San Francisco Chronicle. At a few of the high risk places that have had coronavirus outbreaks, I’ve been photographing scenes with long, telephoto lenses while wearing personal protective equipment. Before assignments are shot, the photo editors at the Chronicle will call subjects to ask them a series of questions, such as if they have the novel coronavirus; have they come into contact with an individual suffering from the disease; are they currently sick or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms; or is anyone in their home over the age of 60. Also, my supervisor, Nicole Frugé, provides photojournalists with a lab day so we can work from home to catch up on filing expenses, doing laundry or listening to music. It’s a solid effort on her part to ensure that we have a mental health day. We greatly appreciate her leadership.

What’s the most interesting photo you’ve seen that was taken during this crisis? One of the most incredible images I’ve seen documented during this pandemic was captured by the phenomenal Jake May, a photojournalist from Flint, Michigan. He shot a heart-wrenching image of two people embracing and weeping during a candlelight vigil honoring Calvin “Duper” James Munerlyn. Munerlyn, a 43-year-old security guard for Family Dollar, was fatally shot by an angry consumer after he told them their loved one couldn’t enter the store without a mask. It’s one of the strongest, most powerful images I’ve seen during this period.

How are you maintaining your passion for covering social justice issues during this time? Currently, a colleague and I are searching for any Bay Area actions honoring the late Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was a 25-year-old Black man who was brutally executed by a father-and-son team as he was jogging in Georgia. The men thought Arbery was responsible for nearby robberies and decided to fatally shoot him. Arbery, who was unarmed, died an innocent man. It’s my professional and personal mission to document why Black lives matter.

Photojournalism is one of the most stressful and demanding jobs in the world. It’s important to take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.”

How did you first get started in photojournalism? I started pursuing photojournalism as a senior in high school. I had wanted to shoot broadcast journalism, but was told I had to be a rising junior or senior in college before I could work at my hometown TV station. Well, I was an impatient seventeen-year-old high school senior who had a strong desire to shoot stories, so the same day, I looked up photojournalists who were working at my local newspaper. One of those photographers had recently shot my basketball game, so I got in touch with him and expressed my interest in becoming a photographer. He brought me under his wing. By my freshman year in college, I was freelancing for that newspaper, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. I was all in. I bought a scanner from RadioShack and chased ambulances and fire trucks when I wasn’t in class or studying at night. One of my professors was the late Bill Drake, a radio personality who was a legend in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Mr. Drake allowed me to listen to the scanner during class and leave to pursue spot news stories. He thought that getting hands-on experiences was better than sitting in a classroom. I admired him for allowing me to follow my passion.

What lessons have you learned during your career? One of the lessons I’ve learned is to never stop learning. I continue to educate myself by buying new camera and audio gear and editing software and learning lighting and shooting techniques. During the beginning of my career, I shot with film and processed countless rolls in a darkroom. Now, I’m transmitting images from my vehicle. It’s mind-blowing and delightful to see how quickly I can send images to a photo editor. As a photojournalist, you have to learn to adapt to a variety of changes, and this pandemic is keeping me on my toes.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that I must exercise self-care whenever possible. Photojournalism is one of the most stressful and demanding jobs in the world. It’s important to take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Since March, when the San Francisco Bay Area instituted the mandatory shelter-in-place order, I’ve had many sleepless nights that left me feeling extremely exhausted the next day. I’ve also experienced crippling anxiety brought on by the fear of catching this invisible virus and loneliness due to multiple days of isolation. I combat these issues by taking walks by the lake or at the beach, riding a bike, cooking my favorite meals, communicating with family and friends, reading and writing in my coronavirus/gratitude journal. My job has been a lifeline because I have a job where I have to document this global pandemic in my backyard. I have the opportunity to still meet many people on a weekly basis and when time allows it, discuss how we’re coping during this crisis. I count that human interaction as a blessing.

You’ve also created short documentary films. How has documentary filmmaking influenced the way you take photos? Shooting long-term photo stories has aided me in producing and shooting my documentary short films. The majority of the time, I’m simultaneously shooting stills and videos for a story. There are days when I devote time to only capturing stills and then I schedule time to documenting moments using video. I also storyboard shot sequences and transcribe interviews to figure out how to build the narrative. My walls are usually covered with Post-it notes detailing shot sequences. It’s a long, laborious process for me. A profuse amount of work is involved in telling a story.

Do you have any advice for photographers who are facing a sudden loss of work and income? I was laid off from the Charlotte Observer during the financial collapse in 2008. Months prior, I had my hours slashed in half, so I had to freelance to make ends meet. It’s a brutal hustle to earn a living when you’re unemployed. I currently have friends in the industry who are being forced to go on furloughs without having the opportunity to shoot for other companies. The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) has launched a fundraiser to help photographers in need of financial assistance, which has so far raised $40,000 and distributed those funds to photographers around the country. The organization is still receiving donations, so I would check out NPPA if you’re experiencing financial hardship. There are also COVID-19 reporting grants for journalists who want to document the pandemic in their communities.

How are you staying inspired? During this crisis, I’m staying inspired by viewing and celebrating the stellar work produced by friends and colleagues. I’m also staying current on any news developments related to the pandemic, researching COVID-19 related issues we haven’t covered in the Chronicle and searching for sources who may have compelling stories to share. Recently, I’ve also been watching striking documentaries like The Rescue List, American Factory and Honeyland, which have motivated me to shoot more stories. I’m definitely a news junkie!

Yalonda “Yoshi” M. James is an award-winning staff photojournalist and video producer at the San Francisco Chronicle in San Francisco, California. Her passion is documenting stories focusing on social justice issues. James was formerly a staff photojournalist and video producer for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. Before joining the Commercial Appeal, James worked for the Charlotte Observer covering stories ranging from presidential campaign trails to homelessness in the Charlotte region. Her most recent short documentary, Singing for KING, was selected for the 2020 Oxford Film Festival. James is a mass communications graduate from the University of South Carolina and an interactive media design graduate from the Art Institute of Charlotte.

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