Confronting coronavirus photo causes controversy in Indonesia

·News Reporter
·3-min read

A striking image of a “mummified” coronavirus victim’s body wrapped in plastic has sparked controversy in the virus-hit country it was taken.

COVID-19 cases and deaths in Indonesia have been rising steadily, with the most cases in southeast Asia, surpassing China’s total number of cases last week.

Yet suggestion of underreporting of national figures, which currently sit at 93,657 cases and 4,576 deaths, and a lack of testing has marred the nation’s response.

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As the nation continues to routinely report record death tolls, with 139 deaths on Wednesday, a powerful image of an unidentifiable dead body encased in plastic on top of a hospital bed has been widely broadcast across Indonesia’s national media.

The image became a talking point in the country, with some criticising the invasive nature of the photographer, Josh Irwandi, who took the photo for National Geographic.

Posting the photo to Instagram, Irwandi described the image as “the most heartbreaking, most eerie photography I have ever done”.

“The image is published here today as a reminder and a warning, of the ever looming danger,” he wrote.

“To inform us of the human cost of coronavirus and how world governments have let matters get so far.”

Dr Wiku Adisasmito from the nation’s coronavirus taskforce told CNN Indonesia the person who took and spread the image, which had been liked nearly 350,000 times on Irwandi’s account, was “unethical”.

Indonesian singer Anji took to his Instagram account to criticise the image, telling his two million followers a photographer should not be allowed to take photos of the corpse if the victim’s family weren’t even allowed to visit.

The singer’s followers have since hit out at Irwandi, even accusing him of faking the image and trying to spread fear over COVID-19.

People wearing face masks as a precaution against the new coronavirus walk on a street in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, July 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)
People wearing face masks in Jakarta earlier this month. Source: AP
Coronavirus deaths have been steadily rising in Indonesia, exceeding 100 on several days this week. Source: Worldometers
Coronavirus deaths have been steadily rising in Indonesia, exceeding 100 on several days this week. Source: Worldometers

Government officials have called on Irwandi to reveal the location of where the photo was taken.

“It’s clear that the power of this image has galvanised discussion about coronavirus,” Irwandi told National Geographic.

He said he hoped his image allowed Indonesians to understand the severity of the pandemic, calling on a nation which had so far been lax in following social distancing and mask wearing requests from health authorities.

The photojournalism industry has since defended Irwandi’s photo, saying he acted with integrity.

Fred Ritchin, dean emeritus of the International Center of Photography, suggested such a reaction could have been expected from such a powerful image, as looking at it makes you “feel terror”.

“The image was of someone being thrown out, discarded, wrapped in cellophane, sprayed with disinfectant, mummified, dehumanised, othered... It makes sense in a way. People have othered people with the virus because they don’t want to be anywhere near the virus,” he told National Geographic.

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