Unconventional portraits convey the traumas — and victories — still carried by nurses who treated desperately ill patients at the pandemic’s peak.

With the U.S. slowly emerging from COVID-19, it would be easy to assume that the pandemic will soon be in the past, at least for Americans who didn’t lose a loved one.

But for many, particularly health care workers, the trauma of what they experienced while caring for deathly sick patients will be with them for years to come.

To capture the idea that the past can be part of the present, Los Angeles photographer Jae Hong had a powerful idea. He would focus on nurses who had worked in an Isolation Intensive Care Unit at a Southern California hospital. For more than a year, the nurses had taken care of extremely ill COVID patients and, despite all efforts, had lost many, sometimes in horrific fashion, with collapsed lungs or by suddenly “coding” after making progress. Even though the ward closed this spring, these nurses can’t forget what they endured.

Hong’s approach called for a photo technique not typically used in reporting the news: First he made portraits of 10 of the nurses in the hospital. He then asked each to step out of the frame so he could make pictures of the background. Finally, he merged the photos with a multiple exposure function in the camera. The result: haunting images that show nurses both in the photo, the present, and seemingly somewhere else in the past.

Hong’s concept generated enthusiasm and drew in several colleagues, all eager to help accomplish his vision.

West regional news director Peter Prengaman interviewed all 10 nurses, hospital administrators and one of the ward doctors, writing the nurses’ poignant stories — and traumatic experiences — in vignette form. Digital storytelling photo editor Alyssa Goodman and West deputy Steph Mullen worked closely with Hong on the edit, and Goodman built the presentation. Finally, Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation, edited the text story, giving extra attention to how the photo process was described.

The piece was used widely in the U.S. and beyond, including by Yahoo, MSN, ABC News, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the Independent. Shared widely on social media, AP colleague Aya Batrawy tweeted out the piece with words that summed up what Hong and the team hoped to accomplish: “This is journalism at its best, AP at its strongest.”

For arresting, interpretive photography that evokes the lingering impact of the pandemic on these front-line medical workers, Hong earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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