Ebola: how Will Wintercross photographed the crisis

Lucy Davies talks to Will Wintercross about photographing the Ebola outbreak in Liberia

Can you tell us how you came to be photographing the Ebola outbreak in Liberia?

I’ve always kept a very close eye on stories emanating from Africa as it’s where I began my career, so as soon as it broke I was reading up on it. I really felt that while the death toll was rising, it wasn’t getting the coverage it deserved. I was aware of the previous outbreaks but the predictions on how serious this could be were alarming. I then saw a post by a friend of mine who is an aid worker saying that the situation was way more serious than in the past. I mentioned it to a few colleagues and a week or so later my editor called me asking if I’d go. As I was abreast of the story and its dangers, I knew what was involved and said yes immediately.

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Dominic Kolley who has survived Ebola holds his nephew, James Malbah who has the virus. Mr Kolley volunteered to go back inside the high risk ward at MSF Ebola Clinic in Monrovia to help look after his nephew.

How long did you spend out there?

I did a week on the first trip then five days on the second, not really enough, but I have to work within the time frames set by budgets and my editor.

How did you prepare for shooting, both in practical and in psychological terms?

Preparing practically is quite easy, I’ve been away enough times so I known exactly what to take; first aid kit, food, satellite phone - that's all fairly standard. If there had been any threat of violence, I would have taken a flak vest and helmet, but with Liberia, the threat was a hidden and more insidious one. Having a plan is essential, the "who what where when" element needs to be as organised as possible and agreed with colleagues back in London and on the ground.

Psychological prep is much harder and it is possible to think too much and back yourself into a corner, as I did on a previous trip to Syria. It's key to go into these situations with your eyes open and with a clear idea as to your objectives, be honest with yourself. I'd say a day or two is ideal for switching my head out of my London life. If you have any longer, it's too much and your mind grinds through too many "what ifs".

How did you prepare for the medical side of things, I assume you were given advice on not catching the virus?

I read up on how the virus is spread at length before flying out and while on the plane. Medecins Sans Frontieres had lots of freely available information but in terms of prevention, there are certain rules that must be abided by such as washing your hands with chlorinated water, not touching anybody, not touching your face at all.

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MSF staff prepare to carry a woman into the Ebola clinic in Monrovia, Liberia. Only the those most in need of care are taken in (WILL WINTERCROSS)

What was the first thing you did when you arrived?

My colleague and I met Ahmed, our fixer, at the hotel and ran through various ideas. I wanted to know what could be filmed and photographed and what the dangers were in doing so. Ahmed is also a photojournalist so he was perfectly placed to guide me as he knew exactly what I wanted. It's always best to sit down in a calm fashion and get all the plans and ideas laid out first, rather than trying to make decisions while on the road.

Do you work with the same fixer each time?

Almost invariably yes, although I’ve only been twice to Liberia on this story, I’ve worked with the same guy, Ahmed, and if I go back I will do so again. Trusting your fixer is absolutely imperative as they know the ground, the language, the customs, the idiosyncrasies and most importantly, they are connected.

Can you describe the kinds of things you saw?

Some of what I saw was so gruesome I didn’t photograph or film it as it was unusable, there's no point shooting something that I know won’t be in my edit, I have to be quite ruthless about it. At a government hospital there were people lying on the floor in the rain and mud, their clothes soiled and faces smeared with vomit and some of them were foaming at the mouth. As I pulled up in the car I saw one girl having a seizure and being held up by someone who turned out to be her brother. As I approached I noticed he had plastic bags on his hands as he didnt want to get her vomit on him, and he was holding her up so she wouldn’t choke. There was no rush to shoot this so I stood back and allowed Ahmed to get an idea of the situation before I approached. I then shot on a wide angle lens before moving in a little closer.

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15 year old Faja Kan is held up by her brother as they wait outside the JFK Hospital Ebola clinic in Monrovia. She had been lying in the mud for hours but was denied access until space became available. She had to be carried in by her arms and legs (WILL WINTERCROSS)

How do you make the call on whether to photograph someone who is obviously in distress or unwell?

That is always the hardest of decisions I have to make. I approach very cautiously, making eye contact with the people that are there so I can gauge the situation, and only once I feel I'm not being too intrusive would I start shooting. It's a very fine line and the journalistic value has to be constantly weighed up against how much I'm intruding. With Ebola, people are often so ill they don't notice me but I've still got to check my own moral compass as to what is acceptable and decent.

Did you wear protective clothing?

I didn't wear protective clothing as I wasn’t going into the homes of dead people or onto the high-risk wards. I did however wear specialist wellies which I sprayed with chlorine after being in an area where there were known to be infected people. I was also mindful of the negative response that wearing protective clothing might spark - shortly before arriving in Liberia for my second assignment, eight health workers were murdered in Guinea by villagers mistakenly thinking that the health workers themselves spread the disease. This level of ignorance and denial is one of the main things fueling the virus.

Did you have to take any other precautions?

The main precaution is hand sanitisation. Most shops and hotels have chlorinated water outside them to wash hands and footwear and while that is a good thing, the place they are most needed is in the slums where people are living in squalid conditions - a perfect environment for contraction.

Were the people around you taking precautions?

The people I was working with were taking absolute precautions and it was important we looked out for each other as it was in everybody's interest to ensure that we were all following protocol. It's no good one of us behaving if the other doesnt as he could put the rest of us at risk.

Did you speak with any of the doctors out there? And any of the victims? What kinds of things did they say?

The doctors I spoke to were terribly pessimistic and not surprisingly so. Since I was there a few weeks ago, the situation has deteriorated. All of the victims I saw were so ill they were unconscious but I did speak with one man who had survived (pictured at the top of the story). He said he was terrified when he tested positive but luckily for him he was at the Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic where they are working flat out to save lives. He talked of his nightly prayers and said that God was key in getting through the fight. This is a common problem, people believing that Ebola has something to do with God and if they pray to Him they will recover. As far as I'm aware, no one has recovered using this method. After he tested negative, and therefore would be immune to the virus, he volunteered to go back into the high risk ward to look after his four year old nephew.

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Ebola undertakers ready themselves to remove the body of a 19 year old woman, dumped in the wheel barrow, who is suspected to have died from the virus (WILL WINTERCROSS)

Were there any particularly challenging moments?

Being at the gates of various clinics was always the most challenging as people were either in a desperate state, lying in the mud and so on, or their loved ones were in a desperate state and they were upset, trying to get them help. As every clinic is full, people can only be admitted once someone has died or recovered. One of the MSF workers told me that every day he had to make inhumane choices concerning who to keep and who to turn away. Of course, if you stop and think about it, it's very hard to see someone fighting for their life or the pain on the faces of their loved ones. I don't know how they do it.

How do you tackle these very dangerous situations?

Before approaching a specific situation on the ground, I always think about the potential for Hawthorne effect [where subjects change their behavior, simply because they are being studied], and whether my presence will provoke an otherwise unnatural response. In Liberia, where people are left to die outside hospital gates, in the street, anywhere, I have to assess how dangerous it is to approach someone who is now very infectious. If they are still alive, do they have loved ones close by for example, and how they in turn might respond.

When faced with situations like these, Ahmed would get out of the car first to speak to people; he would have to explain what I was there to do. On one occasion I arrived at a government clinic and a 15 year old girl was slumped in the mud, her face covered in vomit and she was having fits. Aside from the obvious threat of infection I was very careful not to be too intrusive, I had keep my own sense of humanity and to preserve her dignity. I remember one woman howling that her sister was dying. I didn't photograph her or film right away and gradually approached her but she was so distraught that she didn't even notice me.

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12 year old Nancy Kpoto stares through the bars at Massaquoi children’s centre, which has been converted into an Ebola orphanage. She too had the virus but was treated early. Her parents died within a week of each other and it was her that found her father’s body. So hurt by these events is Miss Kpoto, that she spends most of her time in her dorm and has become terribly shy (WILL WINTERCROSS)

Were you working alongside other photographers and journalists when you made these photographs?

I was with a colleague, but due to the fear that Ebola has sown, there are very few journalists covering it. On our first trip in early August, we were the only journalists in Monrovia.

Were you able to edit your work in the evenings whilst you were out there? Or did you need to come home to London and look at it again once you were out of that environment?

I edited all my pictures in the field, including one video package - both of which I filed from the field too, and that was working at capacity with no down time. Shooting video has added an extra level of work, probably three times what I would have done purely for stills. Once home, I edited two more video packages and a wider set of pictures for an online gallery.

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What was in your camera kit bag?

I take three Canon 5D bodies, which are fairly small, with a 50mm, a 24mm, and 70-200mm lens, this way I'm fully covered to shoot stills as well as video and the primes give me superior quality. I also have a high quality microphone and headphones for recording sound and interviews.

Are you off to the region again soon?

Yes, Oxfam has asked me to work with them this week in Sierra Leone.

How do you decompress from something like that?

I tend to decompress privately, I don't talk about what I've experienced in any great detail - I don't have the inclination. Once I get back to London I switch out of a state of being super-focused on my goals, safety and dealing with what I’ve experienced, to being relaxed and seeing friends. Going home to my parents in the country is always a great way of decompressing too.

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Will Wintercross.

 

 

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