Hendra Eka: Photographing Covid-19 is Like Fighting with Two-edged Sword

Denty Piawai Nastitie
5 min readJun 8, 2020
Hendra Eka on duty | Photograph by Denty Piawai Nastitie

Hendra Eka was born in Lumajang, East Java, Indonesia. After have a bachelor degree in industrial engineering, he started his photojournalist career in 2008, in an Indonesian national daily based in Surabaya, Jawa Pos. He has experience in covering various news and sports stories in Asia-Pacific, Europe, and United States. Currently, Hendra is responsible for national and politic news section. Besides works as a photographer, he serves himself as a Secretary General of Pewarta Foto Indonesia, the biggest photojournalist organization in Indonesia and which has recognized by Indonesian Press Council. In between his tight schedule, I interviewed ‘Mas Eca’ about photojournalism code of ethics, his ethical experience dilemma, and perspective on media industry’s ethics and workflow.

In your opinion, what is the most fundamental in photojournalism code of ethics?

In my opinion, photojournalists responsible in honesty, they must always tell the truth. Photojournalists do not manipulate the content of photography in any way. Photojournalists cannot repeat a moment or do setting up photos since it is ethically inappropriate. From their honesty, we can see photojournalists’ integrity. Furthermore, in carrying out their duties, photojournalists must be able to distinguish between public and private places. If you can’t take a picture because it’s located in a private place, so do not violate the rules.

Recently, there is transition from print to digital publishing. Do you think the transition has changed the application of photojournalism code of ethics?

Different platform has changed photojournalists’ habits but not their ethics. For example, photojournalists who work in printed based publishing, they used to edit and send their images in afternoon, just before the deadline. Now, they have to send images as soon as they finished shooting because their images will be published online immediately. Although the way of work has changed, photojournalism code of ethics has remained the same.

From your observation, what is the ethics of photojournalism were violated most often?

I think setting up photos. However, while setting up photos or staged photos is something that should not be done, photojournalists often encounters with mainstream media outlets’ demand, or the deadline. It leaves photojournalists have no option, but do it so to make the images more visually interesting. It is not permitted of course. If you lose a moment, you have to look for another moment. You are not allowed to make up a fake news scenario.

Do you have personal experience regarding photojournalists ethics dilemmas?

Photograph by Hendra Eka/JAWA POS

When I did photography assignment of AirAsia flight QZ8510 which crashed into the seain Pangkalan Bun(2015), I took a picture of airplane passenger body pieces. I was the only photographer who was successfully took the picture. The investigation team saw my picture and asked me to release the picture for further investigation process.

However, since I work in media industry, I couldn’t release the picture to other parties before it was published in the newspaper. The newsroom later allowed the picture to be released to save the passengers. My picture has moved Indonesian investigation team to do their work. No survivors have been found and the cause of the crash remains unknown. At that time, I had thought if I released the picture earlier, maybe there was someone could be saved.

For me, this is one of my interesting experience that bring together the workflow of the newsroom and humanity. If there is a question whether a photographer should take pictures or help someone in the field. Of course, it’s better to take the pictures first, because the images that are published in mainstream media can provide greater help for people in need.

Is there any photojournalism code of ethics in covering a crisis, for instance Covid-19?

There is no special photojournalism code of ethicsin covering the pandemics. In taking pictures, we are referring to the existing traditional ethics. It guides us not to display patients’ face in media mainstream outlets, especially if the patients are children. For photojournalists, photographing Covid-19 is like fighting with two-edged sword. On one side, photojournalists want to share information to the public and encourage society awareness toward the virus, but on the other side, we are close to add stigma around people with positive Covid-19.

Is there a middle ground that can be taken?

I think it is important to find the way with the most benefits for more people.

What is your opinion regarding photojournalists who violated ethics during the pandemics, for instance took pictures of the patients’ properties, published their names, faces, eand addresses online?

As I told you, it is like fighting with two-edged sword. I think, most of photojournalists have humanity awareness in very high level, but they are working in media industry that somehow demands best-selling images, populist images. Photojournalists conscience might be refused to go to the fields to take picture of the patients, but they have their assignments to be done. Luckily, currently there are many appeals, from the government, journalist’s organizations, and critics from the society, so there is a change in the way things work in the newsroom.

My last questions, what is your suggestions so that photojournalists and media industry can be better and wiser in publishing pictures, especially when it is related to the pandemics?

I think it is important to publish pictures that spread optimist feeling in society. There is science based evidence that people who read negative news will experience negativity, including insecurities, and they feel their bodies get warmer or feel sick. It is important to share pictures that show optimism, for example about society collaborative movements in logistics sharing. Besides, media industry has responsibilities to provide personal protective equipment for photojournalists. Establishing communication between photo editors and photojournalists who are working in the field is also important. Dangerous assignments must be done well prepared and well considered. When covering funeral or hospital activities, for example, photojournalists have to wear personal protective equipment and they have to be required to do the 14-day self-quarantine. Media industry and the way how journalists work must implement world health protocols.

— Denty Piawai Nastitie —

A journalist of Kompas daily; student of Diploma in Visual Journalism, The Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University.