Selfless Selfie

health workers

Selfless Selfie

by Erik Norbie

Each day, as I read newspapers from across the country and watch broadcasts from around the world, it seems the actual impact and destruction of the novel coronavirus is not entirely reflected by its visible damage. With normally bustling main streets gone silent and busy cafes and bars shuttered, it’s hard to conceive of, much less fully document, the climbing death toll which has already surpassed 80,000 in the US.

The coronavirus is both nearly invisible (there is no rubble from an earthquake or smoke from a burning forest) and ubiquitous (in many cases the initial signs are similar to common colds and influenza), which has resulted in an unseen fear that feels at once immediate and distant. 

While the coronavirus may be largely invisible, its impact has become visible on us. A recent Photo Booth report in The New Yorker (The Anxious Hands of New York’s Subway riders in the Face of Coronavirus) depicts close-up photographs of subway riders’ hands: latex gloves, a pole grasped with a disinfectant wipe, a coat sleeve pulled down over a palm.

Even more noticeable are the facemasks. As businesses and public spaces begin to reopen, people are being encouraged, if not required, to wear facemasks. And healthcare workers—not just providers but also other frontline staff—have donned increasing amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, respirators, gowns, and face shields.

The availability and use of PPE is of unquestionable vital importance; (Epidemiology of and Risk Factors for Coronavirus Infection in Health Care Workers) however, it is a strange twist that the invisibility of the coronavirus has been made visible in the covering of one of our most defining human features—the face.

In response, healthcare workers have started a movement (#PPEPortrait & #HeartSelfie) in which they fasten printed selfies to their chests on the outside of their gowns. What at one time seemed like a self-involved act—the ‘selfie’—is now just the opposite. Turned outward, these selfie portraits help to humanize the people who are risking their lives to care for others (Portraits on COVID-19 protective gear reveal human faces providing care) and enable patients to see the heroes behind the masks. A similar concept was first developed in 2014 by artist Mary Beth Heffernan for use in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak.

This movement is an important reminder of the simple assurance that a smile can offer, and of the nuanced power that facial expressions hold during times of intense fear and uncertainty. #PPEPortraits and #HeartSelfies offer a way to reclaim the invisible space in which the coronavirus lurks, allowing us to connect with each other in moments of great need.