Lee Weissman documents pandemic’s emotions, historical moments
'COVID made me want to be better on a daily basis,' photographer says
As a photographer, it’s about getting the shot. In just an instant, you can make or miss it. Lee Weissman ’80 reached for a camera at just the wrong moment, missing Odell Beckham Jr.’s one-handed catch. The guy standing next to Weissman got the iconic shot of the then-New York Giants wide receiver that filled two pages in Sports Illustrated and was seen virtually everywhere.
Weissman keeps a copy of the photo — not just because he’s a football fan, but to remind him to keep working hard. Missing the shot makes you want to go out and get the next one.
Over the past two years, Weissman has been able to get pictures that make a football catch or anything else he shot in the news world look like a miniscule blip in time. As the staff photographer for Northwell Health — a major healthcare provider with 23 hospitals and almost 80,000 employees — he was the only person with a camera allowed into the company’s hospitals during the pandemic.
“COVID made me want to be better on a daily basis,” Weissman says. “I wanted to make our [doctors and nurses] look the best I could. I cannot explain to people the sheer guts it takes for them to go to work every day. Their ability to cope and get the job done is mind-boggling.”
Weissman says Northwell made every effort to keep him safe on the job, providing the necessary protective equipment for him to wear in the hospitals. At no time did the company tell him that he had to take on a particular shoot. He figured if others could be brave, he could be, too.
“There were times I went outside and said to myself: ‘What the hell did I just watch?’” Weissman says. “The first time I went to a COVID ward, and a doctor told me not to touch anything I was wearing, I took a deep breath and thought, ‘here we go.’ I waited two weeks to see if I would get sick.
“We had the first person to get the vaccine outside of a clinical trial. I was there that day when the first nurse got the vaccine. I followed the vial off the UPS truck until it got into her arm. My wife told me I witnessed history and asked me what I was thinking. I said I was just trying not to screw up.”
Weissman has always loved photography; he taught himself on film cameras that forced you to get the shot right because digital editing didn’t exist yet. Instead of pursuing a photography career, he enrolled in Binghamton University’s School of Management (his father said it was a safer bet) before embarking on a 10-year career in mutual funds. That time was enough to tell him he didn’t want another 10 years on Wall Street.
He left for the news business, working at several New York papers, and spent a dozen years on NFL sidelines photographing for the New York Jets. Weissman has been patrolling the sidelines for more than 25 years and will continue to do so as long as he can.
As fun as all of that was, it doesn’t match the pride he feels in his current work.
“I consider [the COVID photos] to be the best work I’ve ever done,” Weissman says. “This has been humbling and life-changing for a lot of people, including me. I live it almost every day and I can never say enough good things about the people I work with.”