A coronavirus photo essay from Bologna, Italy

Award-winning documentary photographer and Thomson Foundation alumnus Marco Panzetti, achieved international recognition for his coverage of the global refugee crisis

He recorded scenes of squalor and chaos, boats ferrying hundreds of migrants across the Mediterranean, traumatised and separated families attempting to cope with life in refugee camps.

His dedication was striking. He sought to remind us of the humanity and individuality of each person who had been compelled to flee conflict and extreme deprivation.

Now Marco is producing a whole new body of work that carries in it no people – or two at the most – but still shows moments of great instability in people’s lives and a unique place and time in history

But humanising a crisis as big and abstract as Covid-19 isn’t without its challenges. Families are separated. Cities and towns are silenced. Places of worship are locked.



In a world changed by the pandemic, which is forcing large swathes of society to stay at home, “all this minimises what we can see,” says Marco.

“Our job is to document the reality around us, to document the people around us. So much of practising documentary photography is taken from the people photographers encounter.”

"There isn’t an invasion of foreign troops, but there is an extraordinary situation that is emptying our streets.”

Marco Panzetti, documentary photographer


Desertion of popular public spaces

Freelancing in Bologna, Italy, Marco was born in Bergamo, a city in the heart of the Lombardy region and one of the hardest-hit areas to date. Like many independent photographers, he has seen his income shift dramatically, and has lost commissions and postponed photography workshops.

He captures the haunting absence of people in ordinarily busy public places, demonstrating the power of the coronavirus crisis to transform life. 

For him, it’s important to directly document the desertion of Italy’s popular public spaces. “We have to show how a virus emptied our cities, completely changed the aspects of our cities.”



Marco has produced a series of images that take their inspiration from the famous Czech photographer, Josef Koudelka, who captured imagery from a Prague street, the watch on the wrist of a passer-by telling the time of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague.

“It made me think that we are facing a similar situation. There isn’t an invasion of foreign troops, but there is an extraordinary situation that is emptying our streets.”



“One of the first things I noticed when I went out during the lockdown, aside from the empty streets, was the shops. Many shops across the world have had to pull down their shutters. The ones in Bologna were communicating their forced closures to the public in very different ways.”  


“As people stay separated, windows have become sites of reflection or frame our view of the world. I've also tried to show in my photography the isolation that people are experiencing as a result of lockdown measures and how we are all living in quarantine bubbles away from one another and for an unknown amount of time.”



“Under normal circumstances, typical street photography scenes wouldn’t attract my attention. But when I came across a poster with the words ‘Reclaim your time’, it made me think about the period that we are going through, where we have to use our time differently because we’re locked down at home. I waited for a man in a mask to go by to testify that we are in this uncertain period.”



Though the job lacks the hero status afforded to health workers, Marco also points out that delivery riders are having to risk their health so that others can stay safe and fed. He shows how the virus has different consequences depending on one’s social class.

“Among the very few people that are allowed to go out and work are people from food delivery companies, providing a vital lifeline to many,” says Marco. “They’re taking risks coming into contact with stranger after stranger, while providing an essential service to those who can afford to self-isolate, and normally for a very low wage.”


The most significant shared human experiences

Marco hopes he can continue to contribute to the conversation about coronavirus by recording the unfolding economic crisis and the ensuing poverty, which millions in Italy are falling into. 

“As we go through the most significant shared human experiences in our recent history, I’m thinking about the economics of the crisis, the economical crisis that we’ll face and are already facing. The struggle many people will go through to pay their bills.

“There is a lot of work to be done on this crisis. There are many different aspects to be covered for years to come.”


Covering coronavirus. Find out how we are helping reporters adjust to the new challenges ahead. 



See more of Marco's work on his website:



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