• PROOF:
  • March 4, 2016

How to Photograph the Invisible

How do you photograph what you can’t see? That’s the obstacle that Chilean photographer Tomás Munita faced as he traveled to the favelas of Recife, Brazil, to photograph the story of the Zika virus.

Children play in Coelho, Recife, Brazil. Impoverished neighborhoods like this one, with rubbish all around, are breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Children play in Coelho, Recife, Brazil. Impoverished neighborhoods like this one, with rubbish all around, are breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Unlike other stories Munita has photographed, the main character was hidden. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also carries the dengue and chikungunya viruses, conceals itself in puddles of water, bottle caps, and litter, all of which go ignored on the streets. However, Munita discovered that the insect’s wrath was visible in the people that he met, whose lives have been turned upside down by Zika. “Mosquitos teem in poor areas,” said Munita over email, “so most of the affected people are in very difficult economic situations.” His resulting photographs tell the story of these people—their ambivalence, struggle, and, ultimately, perseverance.

Health workers fumigate a neighborhood in Recife, Brazil.
Health workers fumigate a neighborhood in Recife.

MALLORY BENEDICT: Describe the mood in Recife.

TOMÁS MUNITA: Resignation. Even though Zika is in the news all the time, for many it was just one more disease they could get, and many had already caught either dengue or chikungunya from the Aedes aegypti mosquito. But you can see rubbish and other water containers throughout the favelas. That was shocking to me. I was able to see larvae inside people’s water tanks, and they didn’t seem to care very much.

A physiotherapist works with children with microcephaly who have come in with their mothers to a children’s hospital in Recife, Brazil.
A physiotherapist works with children with microcephaly who have come in with their mothers to a children’s hospital in Recife.
A four-month-old baby born with microcephaly
A four-month-old baby born with microcephaly is photographed at his home in the Ibura neighborhood of Recife.

MALLORY: What were some of the obstacles you faced in this assignment?

TOMÁS: Most of the mosquito-affected areas are favelas. This is where mosquitos breed, and people are used to [living] with other diseases transmitted by the same mosquito. Getting to these places was possible but dangerous. I had to be careful and find the right people to take me in. I had to protect myself from mosquitoes as well—repellent, long trousers, and long sleeves were essential, but in such a hot environment it was quite exhausting. Another obstacle during the assignment was the slowness of the army and fumigation teams. Their door-to-door campaigns sometimes [lasted] 15 minutes, or if it was windy for [a] few minutes they would cancel the fumigation during that day. This was very frustrating.

Eight members of this girl’s mother have had Chikungunya and Dengue Fever, which are diseases born from the same mosquito which transmits the Zika virus.
Eight members of this girl’s family have had chikungunya and dengue fever, diseases born from the same mosquito that transmits the Zika virus.
Brazilian Army soldiers inspect a house in the Alto Jose Bonifacio neighborhood in Recife as part of their campaign to stop the spread of the Zika virus.
Brazilian Army soldiers inspect a house in the Alto Jose Bonifacio neighborhood in Recife as part of their campaign to stop the spread of the Zika virus.

MALLORY: How were families with babies with microcephaly coping with their situation?

TOMÁS: I could see a variety of reactions. Some were exhausted because the baby was constantly demanding. They had epilepsy attacks, trouble falling asleep, and were crying all the time. It was very stressful for the whole family. Some others were lucky, and the child was almost normal, at least for now. But all of them had different reasons to take their baby to the hospital almost every day, which means a full-day visit. Some people mentioned that they couldn’t work anymore and their [significant] other was fired.

Most of the mothers didn’t want to be photographed. They wanted to protect their babies’ identity because there is too much ignorance about microcephaly. One woman told me she was almost kicked out of a pharmacy because they thought her baby could spread the virus.

Jose Luis Henrique Silva, left, sleeps on the sofa as his sister, Katia Maria, holds her sister´s baby in the impoverished neighborhood of Coque, Recife. Brazil.
Jose Luis Henrique Silva, left, sleeps on the sofa as his sister, Katia Maria, holds her sister’s baby in the impoverished neighborhood of Coque, Recife.
Health workers fumigate a neighborhood in Recife, Brazil.
Health workers fumigate a neighborhood in Recife.

MALLORY: As a father, what was it like seeing the babies with microcephaly?

TOMÁS: It was something painfully sad and unfair. This whole disease affects specifically these young babies who are just opening their eyes to life.



This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tomás Munita photographed the Patagonia Cowboys story for the December 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine. See more of his work here.

There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jerry Schmidt
    March 13, 2016

    This is truly saddening.
    It graphically depicts the plight of poor and marginalized peoples.
    They bear the brunt of this disease because of poverty and the conditions they must live in.
    The result can only be generational failure when these children come of age.

  2. maria camila machado almeida
    March 13, 2016

    Thank you Mr. Munita
    I teach in the outskirts southern Brasil and will show your work to the neighbors in my school.
    Poor people have to work hard before we have similar situation as Recife. The Federal authorities have other interests.

  3. Jacqui
    March 13, 2016

    Very depressing pictures to look at, not something I choose to see.
    The reality: too many people, too much suffering, too many people, it will never end, because…there are too many people.

  4. Saipreeth Saidas
    March 6, 2016

    At times like this,I keep thinking why nature created mosquitoes.

  5. Lauren
    March 5, 2016

    I hope we never turn our eyes from the sufferings of others.

  6. Susan Hayek-Kent
    March 4, 2016

    this is beautifully photographed, and, oh, so very sad. not just because of the zika virus but for every other scourge that hits the poor.

  7. Silas S
    March 4, 2016

    This photographer has done what any other photographer would have done in highlighting the visible, the effect. A virus might sound too intimidating or abstract, at times even to a photojournalist. Factors like time, budget, and personal safety pushing and pulling him apart.

    It seems there is a connection between tree sap of a particular taste and human blood, and the aforementioned consequences.

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