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By Jude Palmer on

Meeting the challenge of Covid-19: ‘It’s what engineers do’

Photographer Jude Palmer discusses the stories behind the images in our new online exhibition, which capture engineers’ responses to Covid-19.

As the world faced a global health crisis, engineers got to work! I was honoured to be able to document the amazing achievements of these engineers as they used their skill, talent and passion to meet this moment in our human history. Incredible efforts produced life-saving devices including ventilators, rapid testing machines, and vaccine manufacturing instruments. Long hours were spent building hospitals, delivering oxygen tanks and so much more.

A worker at NHS Nightingale North West takes a break
A worker at NHS Nightingale North West takes a well-deserved break.

It was quite a daunting task to be able to capture these incredible people in a way that would do them justice, and tell the story of their achievements. It was also a logistical challenge, as they were all spread across the country, and we had a tight deadline. But these are the kind of challenges I thrive upon.

Storytelling and capturing moments is what I am all about as a photojournalist. We can all think of iconic images that stay in our minds forever. Images that have impacted the world and even changed the world. This is a moment in time I hope we will not live again; it has impacted upon every human being on this planet in some way, and the people on the frontline of tackling this disease have rightly been praised for their heroic work.

Dr Antony Robotham and colleague model face shields
Dr Antony Robotham (right) and colleague from the University of Plymouth model two face shields they designed using compostable and recyclable materials.

Engineers have worked silently and diligently, with equal passion, but they are not always in the headlines. This project was about putting them into sharp focus and placing them also at the forefront of this battle.

“I was called into the office early morning and I didn’t leave until 4am… I walked home through the silent streets of London as it rained heavily, thinking of the moment we were in, and how we as a team would work until we dropped to find the solution. It’s what engineers do.”

This quote resonated with me so much as I was photographing one of the engineers. Not only did I wish that I had been there to document that scene at 4am, but I also felt the total commitment he had to serve this country in its hour of need.

It sums up what I found with all the engineers I photographed. All had such passion for their role in fighting this pandemic. All were so modest about their contribution. After each shoot I left feeling totally overwhelmed with what I had seen and heard. Totally in awe of these human beings that were saving lives in the best way they knew how—through their engineering skills and talents.

A team from the National Physical Laboratory take a break
A team from the National Physical Laboratory take a break from building and testing prototype ventilators to get some fresh air.

I hope this shoot represents a celebration of their work, and of them as individuals. I also hope that it impacts upon the perceptions we sometimes have of engineers, in that engineering is a hugely diverse sector, and that there are many kinds of engineers. Some can build a ventilator from vacuum products, some can build hospitals in a million seconds, some can produce rapid tests for a disease currently with no vaccine.

Professor Zhanfeng Cui’s FREng team at the University of Oxford
Professor Zhanfeng Cui’s FREng team at the University of Oxford work on the Oxford rapid viral RNA test that can detect a Covid-19 infection in just 30 minutes.

As you look at the faces in the images I hope you see the scope, diversity and passion of engineers—but also the human face of engineering.

The engineering and clinical team at the University of Southampton
The engineering and clinical team at the University of Southampton developed an air purifying respirator for healthcare workers, the Personal Respirator Southampton (PeRSO).

Visit the online exhibition Engineering a response to Covid-19 to explore the full gallery of photographs. To find out more about Jude Palmer’s work, visit her website.

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