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Brazil in the time of Covid

Mads Nissen's series on the Covid 19 crisis in Brazil from which the World Press Photo of the Year 2021 was selected. Mads talked to us about how he came to take the winning image.

In March 2020, care homes across Brazil closed their doors to all visitors, preventing millions of Brazilians from visiting their elderly relatives, while the home’s carers were ordered to keep all physical contact with their vulnerable residents to an absolute minimum. However, at Viva Bem, an elderly people’s home outside São Paulo, a simple new invention ‘The Hug Curtain' has enabled families and their elderly relatives to see and hug each other without risking lives. For residents who do not have visitors, volunteers and staff are ready to step in, because, as they say at Viva Bem, "Everyone deserves a good hug".

Brazil has one of the the world's highest rates of COVID-19 infections, at over 13,5 million, and a staggering death toll of nearly 355,000 people (by April 2021).

Q: How did you end up covering the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil?

I saw a beautiful people devastated by, not only this horrible virus, but also by the failed and irresponsible policies of their own President. The death toll in Brazil is staggering, more than 355,000 dead by April 2021, which is among the highest for any country in the world. President Bolsonaro has continued to neglect the pandemic which he has described it as a ‘small flu’. He has refused to apply any of the internationally recognised measures to mitigate the damage caused by COVID-19 and protect his own population.

I lived in neighbouring Venezuela when I was 18 years old, I’m married to a Colombian and have made two photographic books on the region, so I felt a really strong urge to go and document the crisis at eye level. From the graveyards to the favelas, the suffering and grief, but also the endurance, hope and warmth that is so vivid in the Brazilian culture. These are some of the emotions I hope my image ‘The First Embrace’ will pass on.

Q: How did you make the image?

During my research I learned about this incredible invention, the so-called ‘Hug Curtain’, a thick sheet of translucent plastic with two sets of sleeves which people can use to embrace one another without risking infection. We found two care homes for elderly people outside of São Paulo where the staff were about to use them for the first time, and off we went. The emotions at the first elderly people’s home were strong, but visually it was a mess, the space was too tight, the light bad and even the plastic didn’t come out well on the pictures. I was frustrated. Close and yet so far. A bit disillusioned, we drove to the next home.

What a sight awaited me when I arrived at the VIVA BEM care home. Here, the ‘Hug Curtain’ was mounted across a door opening at a church. A beautiful South American sun was shining right at us, the background is dark, and most importantly the elderly, their relatives and the staff were already so excited and emotional in anticipation of what was about to unfold. The elderly residents had been isolated for five months with only very limited physical contact but they knew that in a few short minutes they would finally be getting a hug! I was looking for symbols and metaphors, the kind of universal human emotion that transcends time and place. That’s the photographic imagery I love the most. The photography that I am touched by myself. So, I try to cut to the bone, keeping it simple. Straight angles, no surroundings, just pure emotions.

That’s how I made the image of Adriana embracing Rosa. I just stood there with my camera, a bit overwhelmed. It is so joyful and heart-warming to witness all this love and tenderness in a country that was suffering so much during this deadly pandemic.

Some of the elderly people arrived in wheelchairs and were lifted out of them up to the curtain. Some seemed to barely understand what was going on, or what was being explained to them by the nurses, but as they stood and were embraced, with arms carefully enveloping their bodies, they all seem to perfectly understand the language of love.

I knew I had strong images, but still, when I looked at my camera later that day this particular image hit me completely unguarded and for a moment…all was just….silent.

Q: How do you feel about winning in World Press Photo?

In such a significant year and in such a significant moment in history I’m deeply honoured to receive this award with a body of work that does not only document the harsh brutality of this pandemic, but also might inspire hope, compassion and solidarity among us all.

To me this image honours all of us who suffered as a result of this worldwide crisis. Those who spent months in fear and isolation. The mothers and fathers who lost their jobs, homes and ability to provide for their children and it is a humble sign of respect for the three million people who have already died from this virus.

But it’s also a tribute to our human race. That despite our suffering and grief – we also have an amazing ability to endure, keep our hope and to improvise! To push for solidarity, humanity and compassion and a better tomorrow for all of us.
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