By Jim Colton
In the remote district of Kailahun in Sierra Leone, Red Cross workers dressed in what looks like silver space suits, carefully tread their way into primitive dwellings either taking samples from suspected Ebola virus victims...or removing their bodies. Unfortunately, this is not a scene out of a Hollywood Sci-Fi. It is very real…and very dire!
According to the World Health Organization, there have already been over 1,500 Ebola deaths so far with 3,000 people believed to have been infected in the current outbreak and the possibility of it infecting upwards of 20,000. Hundreds of medical workers have been exposed to the virus forcing them into three-week quarantines as they await their test results, while many remaining workers refuse to go to work at those same hospitals where the virus appeared.
In addition to relief workers, journalists have to venture into the affected areas to bring us the stories and images of this disease with no cure. And they have to undergo extreme precautions before, during and after documenting the crisis including continual scrubbing with chlorine solution, and wearing protective gloves and clothing. One of these brave photojournalists is Pete Muller.
Muller is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya where he documents stories on the African continent and elsewhere. He's an accomplished photojournalist whose work has appeared in publications like the Washington Post, the New York Times, TIME magazine, National Geographic.com, and Le Monde to name a few.
His numerous photography awards include being named TIME Magazine Wire Photographer of the Year in 2011 and the winner of the Overseas Press Club's John Faber Award in 2012 for Best Photographic Reporting from abroad. Other recognition has come from the Sony World Photography Awards, the Chinese International Press Photography Contest and the Open Society Foundation. He was recently named one of the most influential young people in foreign policy by Diplomatic Courier magazine.
Muller has had his work featured domestically in exhibits in New York, Washington DC and San Francisco and internationally in Colombia, Switzerland, and England. He has also contributed to advocacy campaigns for Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Nobel Women's Initiative.
His commitment to documentary storytelling is second to none with an emphasis on bringing light to issues like the consequences of war, poverty and social injustice. He has covered a myriad of stories including rape victims in the Congo, the struggle for independence in South Sudan, the crisis in Egypt and America's fascination with guns.
His most recent work for the Washington Post (see link below) covering the Ebola crisis, put him at great personal risk in dealing with an enemy you can't see....a virus. His images are powerful and stark and capture the fear and anxiety that millions of people are now faced with.
This week, zPhotojournal has a conversation with the extremely dedicated and very courageous Pete Muller.
Jim Colton: Tell us a little about your early years, how you came into photography and who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Pete Muller: I was exposed to photography and visual arts from a very early age. My mother, Paula, worked as a professional news photographer for the Lynn Daily Evening Item, was a stringer for the AP in Boston and worked at the SandPaper in Beach Haven, NJ and the Beach Haven Times. My father, Norman, was the head of art conservation for Princeton University. As a result, I grew up in museums and newspaper darkrooms, and my parents homes were filled with art and photography.
While I resisted their influence as an adolescent and teenager, as most kids do, I believe I subconsciously absorbed a lot from the environment around me. And while my father’s work was art-focused, he also possessed an insatiable interest in history—which he instilled in me.
I went on to study history and international peace and conflict resolution at American University in Washington DC thinking, perhaps, that I’d work in conflict analysis and response. I soon learned, however, that working in journalism was a contribution to the emerging historical record and photojournalism allowed me to fuse that interest with visual creativity. I also draw heavily on my education in conflict analysis, gender studies and history in my photographic work.
I increasingly look to painters for aesthetic influence, which is something that I attribute to the influence of my parents. I find tremendous power in the chiaroscuro styling of master painters like Caravaggio and the use of single, natural light sources made famous by Johannes Vermeer. In a different way, I am very moved by landscape paintings by Albert Bierstadt and other painters of the Hudson River School whose work emphasizes humans dwarfed by the beauty of the environment.
In terms of photographers, I've been influenced by a fair number of contemporaries. I am and always have been a great admirer of Jehad Nga, whose work, particularly in the mid-2000’s, was heavily chiaroscuro and painterly. I have great respect for the conceptual and intellectual work of Peter van Agtmael, whose work on the post-911 wars will be among the most powerful social commentary of this era. I admire the work of Richard Renaldi who captures such extraordinary vulnerability and intimacy in portraiture. I also have tremendous respect and admiration for photographers like Jason Eskenazi, Ron Haviv, Tim Hetherington, Christopher Morris, David Guttenfelder, Donna Ferrato, Daniel Berehulak, Robin Hammond and many others.
JC: You base yourself in Nairobi, Kenya. How did that come about....and why Nairobi?
PM: I moved to Nairobi after living for three years in South Sudan where I covered that country’s precarious transition to independence, working mostly for the Associated Press. I felt exhausted after that period and wanted a base that was both more comfortable and sustainable and that facilitated easier movement around the continent.
Nairobi is East Africa’s most prominent hub from which a person can quite easily reach most destinations. It’s also home to many of the region’s journalists, researchers, aid administrators and experts and therefore affords a lot of opportunities to brainstorm and collaborate. Perhaps its most alluring feature, however, is that it’s in Kenya, which is an extraordinarily beautiful country.
I am perpetually fascinated with Africa’s extraordinary diversity and challenges. I think it’s only sensible that if an outsider has any hope of understanding the continent’s complexity, he or she must devote years to the pursuit. I've been working on the continent since 2007 and remain humble regarding the complex dynamics at play within many of its countries. I view every assignment and project as opportunity to learn on a steep curve.
JC: You recently had some work published in the Washington Post on the subject of Ebola in Sierra Leone. How did you wind up with this assignment? Were you covering the story before the assignment came?
PM: I was assigned to cover the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone by MaryAnne Golon, the Director of Photography of the Washington Post. I’d been in Nairobi before MaryAnne reached out. I don’t often work in West Africa so I had not been covering the story before the assignment came up. People often underestimate the sheer size of the continent. For me to reach Sierra Leone from Nairobi, for instance, takes almost eight hours of flying time. While I’m always eager for opportunities to work in different parts of the continent, I mostly focus on East and Central Africa.
JC: Please tell us a little about the preparations you had to take before you started the assignment and what additional steps or precautions did you need to take while you were there.
PM: Preparation for this assignment was both mentally and logistically taxing. I’d never covered a serious outbreak before and was therefore quite nervous about entering the environment. I spent several days researching Ebola, the nature of the virus and, more specifically, modes of transmission. I read just about everything I could find and the more I read, the more approachable the assignment seemed.
While it seems oxymoronic given Ebola’s highly contagious nature, the virus is not a particularly easy one to get. It is not airborne like the flu and does not really spread through casual contact. While it’s theoretically possible, people do not catch Ebola off of doorknobs or money, they contract the virus through close physical contact with the bodily fluids of infected and symptomatic people or through touching the dead bodies of Ebola victims. This is why health workers and informal caregivers are at such great risk.
This is not to say that I was cavalier during my time in Sierra Leone, however. I was extremely cautious of my surroundings at all times. I tried as best I could to refrain from touching my face while I was working and, most importantly, I washed my hands and gear with chlorinated water repeatedly throughout the day. I didn't come into physical contact with any other people during my time in the country. This was not just from my end. It seemed that the entire population of Sierra Leone was operating under a “no touch” policy. Being in a state of constant awareness is exhausting.
JC: You are covering a story that at its core, you can’t see. It's like covering a war with an invisible enemy. What do you look for in a story like this? How do you capture something as ethereal as fear or anxiety?
PM: There are many things about covering Ebola that feel like covering conflict. Perhaps more specifically, it feels like covering an insurgency where the enemy is irregular and comes in disguise as an ordinary person. While conventional wars can be more intense in terms of combat, insurgencies carry perpetual anxiety that, in some ways, is more cumbersome. That’s what Ebola feels like. You get nervous when strangers come too close. You recoil a bit and want to tell people to step back. You get a sense of tension in your gut, similar to what I've felt in Mogadishu or northern Mali. What was challenging was to remember that while the feeling is similar, absolutely no one in Ebola-affected areas wants to hurt you. Everyone is suffering the consequences of this awful virus.
JC: Were you ever afraid? If so, how did you deal with your fears and if not, why?
PM: Yes, I was quite afraid. Covering Ebola leaves you rethinking every move you’ve made. I had several sleepless nights in Kailahun district, particularly after covering burials. Unlike conflict, the potential dangers of Ebola are not immediate. In a conflict, if you get injured, it’s immediate and once you’re out of the danger zone you can relax. With Ebola, the threat is delayed and will manifest days or weeks after a fateful encounter. When fear set in, I tried to remind myself of all the precautions I was taking and of the rather unlikely prospect of contracting the virus in my role as a photographer.
JC: The Ebola virus, once contained to remote villages, is now spreading into larger cities like Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone with a population of over a million. I've heard that there have even been government restrictions put into place to reduce crowds. What have you noticed and what is all this doing to the psyche of the local people?
PM: Yes, governments in Sierra Leone and Liberia have imposed quarantine measures on heavily-affected areas. The Sierra Leonean regions of Kailahun and Kenema are effectively cut off from the rest of the country by a network of checkpoints. As is the case in all situations that prompt draconian measures, people experience tremendous frustration.
Of course, many people are not infected with the virus and want to conduct their usual affairs. Business people need to move to conduct dealings, people want to visit relatives, seek medical treatment and other daily life things. Given that people may be infected but not yet symptomatic, however, the government has decided to restrict all unapproved movement in a bid to stem the spread of the virus. While the frustration at the checkpoints is palpable and could, at some stage, lead to unrest, I understand the government’s position. They are dealing with a crisis the likes of which have not been seen since the country’s civil war.
JC: Hospital workers in contact with Ebola victims are quarantined for 3 weeks to see if the virus emerges....and remaining hospital workers refuse to go to work. How is the medical industry coping with this?
PM: The health system in Sierra Leone is among the weakest in the world. In better times, it struggles to deal with ordinary health issues. With the introduction of this highly dangerous hemorrhagic fever, it is safe to say that the system is entirely overwhelmed. Despite extraordinary donations from the international community, I saw healthcare workers in Kailahun that still did not have adequate supplies of rubber gloves, goggles, rubber boots and other basic forms of protection against the Ebola virus. If these donations are not making it to these frontline health workers in the heavily affected districts, one wonders where the funds are going.
JC: The story is getting huge play in the media worldwide. Ebola deaths are really a small number compared to other illnesses. Is there a real crisis here or do you think the media is playing on people's fears?
PM: The Ebola crisis is very real. It’s largely lethal and communicable nature makes it a major threat to stability in these already fragile states. While it’s true that Ebola has killed but a fraction of the number of people who die from Malaria and other endemic diseases, the risk it poses to regional stability is by no means proportional to the numerical rates of death it causes.
The virus is the origin of the current crisis but it has profound ripple effects for various other sectors of society. It’s having a devastating impact on regional economies. It’s causing food insecurity in certain areas. It has the potential to reignite political tensions in fragile, post-war societies like Sierra Leone and Liberia. If the outbreak is not brought under control, I fear that we will see a situation in which Ebola is but one of many significant, consequential problems.
All that said; I believe Ebola does play to the human fascination with drama and intrigue. In some ways, this outbreak sounds like a Hollywood script. People fixate on the most dramatic parts of it, namely the hemorrhagic nature of Ebola. Onlookers imagine that every Ebola victim dies screaming while bleeding from every orifice. In fact, many front line medical workers i met said the hemorrhagic symptoms of Ebola are not particularly common. While death from Ebola is far from pleasant, it has taken on perhaps unrealistic or exaggerated dimensions in popular imagination.
JC: In your personal statement on your website, you say you hope people who see your pictures, "...will be compelled to take action against some of the injustices of the world." What action can the average viewer of this body of work take? Are there organizations where one can send donations?
PM: There are a few truly extraordinary organizations providing essential support during this crisis. Both Doctors Without Borders and the International Federation of the Red Cross (see links below) are doing extraordinary work under dire circumstances. The Red Cross burial workers in Kailahun are drastically overstretched and need more basic resources, namely more vehicles that will allow them to reach more bodies. My friend and colleague, Ben Solomon, of the New York Times, did a very moving piece about these teams. (See link below) Either of these organizations would be worth supporting.
JC: Will you be going back to continue coverage of this story...regardless of whether you are on assignment? What's on the horizon for Pete Muller?
PM: I will continue to monitor the situation in the coming weeks and months and evaluate if and how I’ll remain engaged with coverage. I think it’s a very important story with serious global impact.
JC: What advice can you offer to other photojournalists who might be considering a trip to Africa to cover this story?
PM: I think that caution and vigilance are paramount when covering this story. As photographers we want to get close to things in order to make compelling pictures. Like in conflict, it is very important to be cognizant when you may be crossing lines and taking risks that are too great. It’s hard to pull back from what might be a powerful image but we need to practice restraint and self-preservation at times. I certainly didn't want the Ebola assignment to be my last!
JC: Any last thoughts you'd like to share with our audience...either on this specific story or your photojournalistic philosophy in general?
PM: While covering Ebola was unique in some ways, it is certainly not exempt from the normal parameters of sensitive social documentary work. I think it is essential to engage with aspects of the experience outside of the virus itself and the inherent drama of men in space suits. As in all other situations, people continue to live their lives. Things are different, certainly, but life goes on under these very challenging circumstances. It is important that we reflect that in our work—that we put the virus into context.
Facebook: Pete Muller
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