How photographers capture a world besieged by infectious diseases

With coronavirus spreading, photographers must fight 'subtle paranoia' to show the disease's devastating wake.

By Whitney Johnson
Published 28 Jan 2020, 09:46 GMT
Hong Kong railway workers, in orange vests and face masks, check IDs of travelers at its ...
Hong Kong railway workers, in orange vests and face masks, check IDs of travelers at its Kowloon station. Hong Kong is among the places that has seen coronavirus patients since the pneumonia-like virus broke out in central China.
Photograph by Paul Yeung, Bloomberg, Getty

For these photographers, it’s not war – but it can be just as deadly.

To show the effects of infectious diseases to the world, Nat Geo photographers have been among those in close proximity to outbreaks of deadly illnesses and viruses, some not too different from the pneumonia-like coronavirus making headlines now.

As hard as photojournalism is normally, there’s a paranoia that grows when you are near a deadly disease, says Nichole Sobecki. The Kenya-based photographer worked last spring for Nat Geo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in hospitals, treatment centers, and cemeteries covering the ongoing Ebola outbreak amid conflict.

Clouds gathered thickly over the lines of mourners picking their way between recently covered graves as they walk to the burial of police officer Tabu Amuli Emmanuel (50) in Kitatumba Cemetery in Butembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on March 2, 2019. Perched on the hills overlooking Butembo, the largest city in northeastern DRC, this cemetery is where the victims of Congo’s recent battle with Ebola have been laid to rest. The person being buried this day was policeman Tabu Amuli Emmanuel, killed by armed men while defending an Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Ebola Treatment Centre in Butembo.
Photograph by Nichole Sobecki. National Geographic

“There’s a moment,” Sobecki tells my colleague David Beard, “when you start to suspect that everything around you might carry Ebola. The fabric of your shirt, your camera strap, the handle of the door to your room, even your own skin—it all starts to feel sinister. It’s this subtle paranoia even within myself that helped me to understand how a society can latch on to a lie and hold it tight. How false rumours could lead to very real violence.”

Lynn Johnson, who has covered SARS, Avian flu, and monkeypox among others for Nat Geo, was sobered photographing Norbert, a young man in Congo “who was suffering terribly with monkeypox. So courageous,” she recalled Friday. She, too, fought to focus in covering the “weaponised diseases” like Ebola, Marburg, smallpox. “As if there wasn't enough danger in the natural world that we have to make them more virulent to kill each other,” Johnson said.

Sobecki and Johnson emerged ready to work some more, but colleague Joel Sartore, best known for his Photo Ark collection of more than 9,800 vulnerable species, had been exposed to Marburg, which is in the Ebola family. “We had to get him on the first flight out of Uganda and then he was quarantined in his home,” says Photo Editor Kathy Moran. Sartore later had to endure a months-long chemo-like treatment to rid himself of leishmaniasis, a parasite transmitted by sandfly bites.

“Almost all of our photographers have been exposed to malaria, dengue, etc.,” Moran says.

To the photographers and reporters stuck among 36 million people in the lockdown of thirteen central China cities, the epicentre of the recent outbreak, Sobecki has this advice:

“Stay calm, follow the advice of health professionals, and be conscious of the difference between sharing vital stories and contributing to the spread of fear. The greatest disservice done to those living amidst an infectious outbreak is to take their very real, complicated reality and turn it into a horror-filled fantasy."

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