FLINT, Michigan -- Last year, when Flint native Jenifer Veloso was working as a nurse in a COVID-19 ICU unit in Ann Arbor, she -- like many frontline workers -- found herself struggling to cope with unbearable amounts of trauma, death, pain, and stress. To manage, she turned to her passion -- telling stories through photos.
“I was having a terrible experience, and then also hearing people (outside of the hospital) say COVID isn’t real or it’s exaggerated,” said Veloso, who grew up in a home near Flushing Road and Chevrolet Avenue. “I thought sharing the stories of frontline workers would help me get through it and also show people what was happening.”
In March of 2020, she began taking pictures of people in Genesee County dealing with various aspects of the pandemic -- nurses, EMTs and first responders, environmental service workers in hospitals, and police officers. She met up with them before or after shifts, on days off, or even between calls in some cases and photographed them in different parts of Flint.
“I wanted to photograph them in the places where patients were coming from,” she said.
Over the course of approximately two months, she took photos, interviewed people, and shared images and stories on her website and Instagram page. A hashtag she used on her Instagram posts caught the attention of Meghan Horvath from StoryLab, a research institute at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom. StoryLab had begun putting together a digital archive aimed at collecting stories from healthcare professionals from all over the world working through the pandemic. Horvath came across Veloso’s photos and wanted to use them in the project.
Eventually, that project morphed into a documentary that Veloso’s work will be a part of. Veloso was a panelist during a talk on March 9 promoting the documentary entitled, “Covid Through A Creative Lens: How Have Healthcare Workers Used Creative Expression to Make Meaning Of Their Worlds?” The virtual event featured clips from the project and several collaborators from around the world, including Veloso, talking about their work.
“It didn’t feel like real life (when asked to participate),” Veloso said.
Veloso, who is a Flintside contributor who covers social justice issues, is a graduate of Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Flint. She has worked in healthcare, but developed a deepened passion for photojournalism and telling stories after reading a memoir by photojournalist Lynsey Addario.
“She was going all over the world, getting people to trust her, and telling hard stories without exploiting them (the subjects),” Veloso said. “I read her book and thought, ‘This is the coolest job ever.’”
A story Addario shared about being cheered on by Syrian refugees who wanted her to share their story about what was happening to them with the world was powerfully motivating for Veloso, and made her consider a career change.
“As a nurse, you can’t get ahead of the ball of violence or poverty,” she said. “You’re just cleaning it up all the time. I wanted to do something that brings attention to what people experience.”
Veloso’s background in nursing has helped her as a journalist, though. The empathy required in nursing is similar to how successful journalists build trust with people they are reporting on, especially when reporting on sensitive topics. Her first responder stories came about, in part, because she had earned trust and was connected to people locally who work in all facets of healthcare.
“Honestly, a lot of people knew me as an ER nurse for so long, they really trusted me from the very beginning because I had that bond,” she said. “It was really easy to have those conversations. It was a cathartic experience. People wanted to talk about it (what they were experiencing). Even at the end of those interviews, people would suggest the next person I needed to talk to, so I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to keep going.’”
Veloso, the daughter of Brasilian parents who immigrated to Flint, is a completely self-taught photographer and journalist. She teamed up with friends to launch a blog called “We Are Kathy” in 2018 that tells empowering stories about women. Veloso didn’t want to be dependent on a photographer to take photos for the site so she, “just got a small camera and started practicing.”
Since, she has taken courses online, read, and followed the work of photojournalists like Addario, Carol Guzy, and Amy Vitale, among others. She also credits several mentors, including former Flint Journal reporter Sarah Schuch, Flint Journal photographer Jake May, and Ann Arbor photographer Britt Hueter among the people who have helped her supplement her passion with the skills needed to be a successful journalist.
“I’m self-taught, but along the way, I’ve had people give me pointers. I’ve read, I’ve watched YouTube videos just to learn,” Veloso said. “There have been different people who have helped me and invested in me who probably didn’t even know they were investing in me.”