Widmer ’04 chronicles pandemic for national media

As a photojournalist Will Widmer ’04 is drawn close to his subjects. That has made photographing the pandemic especially difficult.

“For photojournalism the normal format is to walk toward it, to get closer. I have to be there. I have to get to know things intimately to tell the story,” says the New Orleans-based photographer who is covering the pandemic for major media outlets including The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. 

The format of national journalism is changing with shelter in place orders, he says.

This is part of a series of stories on Cornellians responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will Widmer '04“I’m finding the opportunity to work with these national clients in my own backyard. But the stress of covering this, even if not in high-risk situations, is a very different thing than hurricanes or riots or protests, because when I normally assume risk in my work, it’s my decision and I’m making it for myself. What has felt so different this last month is that I bring it (possible exposure to the virus) straight home to my family. Then there’s also a possibility that I’m the risk factor, the super spreader. I keep asking myself, is it worth it to do this work?”

Widmer’s coverage includes what he calls moody atmospheric pictures for the New York Times of the empty French Quarter a month after it was packed with people during Mardi Gras, as well as documenting sanitation workers for the Washington Post. He also chronicled the pandemic locally for Rolling Stone, taking pictures of testing centers managed by the National Guard. 

One of his projects for The New York Times Magazine was about the first COVID-19 outbreak in a federal prison, in which he tried to capture a sense of place while not having any access to the prison facility. Widmer majored in sociology and anthropology at Cornell.

‘I’m always trying to make pictures that are poignant enough to pull people in, to pique their interest,” he says. “You always hope the right person reads these stories and is able to effect some kind of change.” 

Widmer, who received Cornell College’s Young Alumni Achievement Award in 2019, lives in New Orleans with his partner, Jeanne Firth ’06, who recently completed her Ph.D.  at the London School of Economics. For now he’s grateful to stay in place and return to slower, quieter, in-depth feature work.

“I’m focusing on making empathetic, sensitive portraits. I minimize my time spent just roaming around town, exposing myself,” he says. “My work is often themed around criminal justice and incarceration, so I’m still working on issues that I care about and know about, and I can bring my prior knowledge into these virus-related assignments.” 

How are you responding to the COVID-19 pandemic? Contact us to share your story, or alert us to other Cornellian’s responses.