• July 10, 2015

Searching for the Real Face of Ebola

Kurt Mutchler

This wasn’t a routine National Geographic assignment. It could be deadly, very deadly. Many news organizations wouldn’t send their personnel to cover it. But we did. We sent Pete Muller. And it was his unflinching yet intimate and fearless photographic approach that made this coverage so special.

“I thought with the correct precautions it was an approachable assignment, but that’s not to say that I wasn’t nervous,” said Muller.

Working in the midst of an invisible, deadly virus like Ebola forced Muller to think twice about what he was doing. “I spent several sleepless nights,” he said. “I think we all have neurotic tendencies around health issues, and you end up thinking through everything that you did, everyone that you came into contact with. Of course, as a photographer you’re asked to put yourself into positions where the risk levels are high to see burials, body collection, and people who are infected with the virus. You have to be in the proximity, and it is nerve-racking for sure.”

A body is removed from a building during ebola crisis
A burial team from the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health conducts a safe burial in Freetown on Thursday, November 27, 2014. The government of Sierra Leone mandates that all deaths in heavily Ebola-affected districts be treated as potential Ebola cases and buried in accordance with strict safety procedures. All photographs by Pete Muller

Two memories that I shook loose from Muller during our video interview (at the top of this page) take us into the deadliest Ebola outbreak in Africa’s history and to a remote forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The first memory is from the height of the outbreak in December 2014, when Muller found himself in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The country has had more than 13,000 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths from the deadly virus. Despite covering the carnage for weeks, Muller was frustrated. “For a number of reasons—for people’s sense of privacy and the parameters that typically govern cameras and recording devices inside of health facilities, plus our own safety—we were generally barred from seeing the real face of this virus,” he said.

But then things suddenly changed.

Inside a relatively safe area of the Hastings Ebola Treatment Center, he heard a commotion. A patient, delirious from Ebola, tried to climb an outside wall to escape. Muller followed and came face-to-face with the patient. “I thought, This is a terrible situation and I don’t want to make this picture, but I have to make this picture. It’s important,” Muller said. He finally found what he was looking for. “This is what this virus looks like,” he recalled. He learned from a doctor that the patient died not long after the picture was taken.

man crazed with ebola symptoms
Medical staff at the Hastings Ebola Treatment Center escort a man in the throes of an Ebola-induced delirium back into the isolation ward from which he escaped in Hastings, Sierra Leone. The man died approximately 12 hours after this picture was taken.

The second memory is from an extremely remote area of Africa, the scene of a typical outbreak: an isolated, forested village of bush-meat hunters where the virus erupts, kills, and fades. To get there wasn’t easy. Muller wrote:

“From Nairobi I caught a flight to Kigali, Rwanda. Once in Rwanda, I took a three-hour taxi ride to the town of Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu along the border with the DRC. From Gisenyi, I crossed the land border into the city of Goma, and I caught a plane that made stops in Beni—where a major insurgency [is] under way—and Bunia before landing in the isolated town of Isiro, [which is] surrounded by hundreds of miles of virgin forest. From Isiro, we gathered the necessary supplies of water, bread, toilet paper, and the like before heading out of town on a few rented 150cc motorcycles. After three and a half jarring hours on the motorcycles, we arrived in a small village.” His trip took three days.

landscape of road in congo
Ebola outbreaks occur in isolated villages connected by bad roads and trails, such as this one in the DRC. The 2014 outbreak in West Africa was different—it quickly spread to urban areas.

Muller continued: “I worked a lot across DRC and I have never been in a place where the sense of suspicion and mistrust was more acute than it was in this area. So just getting people to talk to me, let alone allow me to follow them while they were hunting, was a real challenge.”

After spending a few days with the hunters and gaining their trust, they told Muller that if he really wanted to see how they hunt, they would have to “make the clothes.” Perplexed, he asked himself, What are “the clothes”?

men stripping bark from trees
Bush-meat hunters from a small village in the DRC’s Orientale Province strip the outer layer of bark from a tree to make traditional camouflage they wear while hunting monkeys and chimpanzees in the forest.

“A day or two went by and I saw them skinning the trees, preparing all this pigment and stuff, and ultimately they crafted these outfits that really resemble something that looks like a leopard,” Muller said. “When I saw them putting them on I said, ‘Wow—we’re really seeing something very authentic here.'”

men painting camouflage for hunting
Bush-meat hunters cut and sew tree-bark camouflage, then use tree sap to paint dots on it.

“I have a pretty strong fear of getting completely lost in the woods,” Muller said. “It’s something I’ve had since I was a kid, and it’s pretty acute in the middle of a jungle. You hike out in the dark and there are no trails or anything—you’re just hiking through the jungle. The [hunters] are barefoot. They have been doing this since they were boys. They move silently through the forest so as to not scare the animals that they’re hunting.”

camouflaged native man hunting
A camouflaged bush-meat hunter hunts monkeys near his village in the country’s northeast.

“I’m lumbering around, sweating with my cameras, tripping on vines and stuff, and I’m trying to give them a little space, but that would ultimately mean that they would scatter off in a bunch of different directions,” Muller recalled. “I’d be standing there in the middle of the jungle hoping that they would come back for me.”

Pete Muller is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and covers politics, social issues, and conflict in eastern and central Africa. Muller is also a member of Prime Collective.

There are 3 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Brian Epping
    July 17, 2015

    Kurt, thank you for your response. I accept your point that reporting is always needed. However, I would like you to also address:

    1. Whether graphic and non-anonymous photos (as opposed to a written description) of another’s death are required to explain the story – or merely add to the spectacle and entertainment?
    2. Whether consent forms were obtained from either the individual or his relatives?
    3. What the implications of not obtaining such consent forms are. In the US, would this not put you at risk of a legal claim?
    4. Whether your editorial decision to publish these photographs would be different had the individual been American or European.

    My view is that “need for a story” does not justify this type of intrusion – certainly where verbal descriptions can tell the story on their own.

  2. Brian Epping
    July 16, 2015

    May I politely inquire whether a consent form was somehow obtained from the man with ebola captured in the photograph above? If not, is it right to use his image here? He has in all likelihood passed away – and if robbed by Ebola of life, robbed of his dignity in death by the prying attentions of this young and arrogant photographer.

    It is no coincidence that it is only really Africans who are photographed in death and never Europeans or Americans. This is because of the huge power disparity between photographer or publication and subject – where they are regarded as little more than animals and who have no recourse where there photo is used.

    In failing to secure a consent for the use of this image, you force the viewer to participate in what is little more than a form of “snuff photography”. Legally and morally, you are not far removed from those practising revenge porn – who release photos of women without their consent.

    I will be disappointed if you fail to publish this comment as there is a very serious ethical issue which overhangs the publication of this image.

    • Kurt Mutchler
      July 16, 2015

      There were many powerful situations where Pete Muller has put down his cameras and left the moment for only those present. Shouldering the burden of bearing witness is one of the toughest aspects of being a photojournalist—in Africa or beyond. In this case, telling the story, not just with this one image, but in concert with the others, was important, remains important, to give an understanding to those around the world of the horrors of the Ebola epidemic. Without this type of reporting, we are all blind.

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