Faces of the Frontlines: Local photojournalist focuses his lens on the pandemic
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Since 1990, John F. Russell has covered a wide swath of stories for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, from three Olympic Games to everyday happenings around Steamboat Springs.
But for the past month, Russell has taken on the task of covering arguably the most disruptive crisis of his generation. Through interviews and photos, he has documented the local impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has presented challenges and concerns unlike any this journalist has faced.
“In my 30 years, I’ve never been through anything like this,” Russell said.
A graduate of the University of Colorado, Russell has become a well-known face around Steamboat, often seen with a camera in hand trying to capture unique moments that portray life in the Yampa Valley.
As the effects of the pandemic shuttered Routt County businesses and raised fears over public health, Russell focused his lens on the people at the frontlines of the crisis. Through the newspaper’s series, Faces of the Frontlines, he has highlighted workers, from hospital personnel to bus drivers, risking their health and safety to help others.
But Russell himself is among those putting himself at risk as he goes into the community, hunting down stories and illustrating life under these unprecedented circumstances.
The health guidelines meant to protect people from the virus pose some interesting obstacles to Russell’s work. When the community was first dealing with the effects of the pandemic and tensions were high, many people did not want to be photographed at all.
Now, rules require the public to keep 6 feet of distance from one another and wear face masks in many circumstances. That makes it hard for a photojournalist like Russell, who usually tries to tell a story through people’s facial expressions that now are almost entirely covered.
“It’s taken me some time to get used to,” Russell said.
Then there is the concern of getting sick or inadvertently spreading the virus, which has changed how Russell approaches his photos.
“I haven’t used the wide-angle lenses in my bag for a while,” he said, opting instead for lenses that allow him to zoom in on photo subjects from afar.
These are challenges other reporters at the Steamboat Pilot have faced as they work to keep the public informed about vital updates on the pandemic and its effects at the local level.
“I’m not alone in this,” Russell said. “Other people on staff are doing hard jobs to cover this pandemic.”
Despite the challenges of the job, Russell takes pride in his duty to tell the stories, both good and bad, that help people to live well-informed lives.
“I see this as being historic,” he said. “History is a lot easier to look back on. It’s a lot harder to live in the moment.”
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — wear a mask in indoor, public spaces in Routt County.