The Photojournalist Who Stared Down Ebola
His disturbing images are what despairing victims and survivors in Liberia hoped the world would see. An interview with Getty Images’ John Moore, speaking from his quarantine.
John Moore, senior staff photographer and special correspondent for Getty Images, has been on the frontlines of a major border crisis, an assassination, and multiple bloody civil wars.
Nothing has compared to the haunting two trips he’s made to Ebola-ravaged Liberia in the past three months. While the World Health Organization reports that the numbers in the country have begun to slow down, already 6,619 people have been infected with the disease—nearly 3,000 of which have died. Midway through active monitoring at his home in Connecticut, he spoke with The Daily Beast about what he’s seen.
When were you most recently there?
I left Liberia on Oct. 17 after being there for about 2½ weeks. It was my second time there; I went in August as well. I was one of very few international media on the ground. I hope that my footage was able to influence at least in some way the international response, but I hope that the images did not contribute to fear or hysteria.
What was different this time around?
The international response had increased. On the first trip I took photos of Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, while it was still in early stages. When I returned in October, the U.S. government and WHO were all trying to catch up. The epidemic was certainly worse. It had grown quite a bit, but it was very hard to gauge how effective the international response was in slowing it down at that point.
What do you think of people saying that it has gotten better in Liberia?
I left several weeks ago. I know it’s easy for people to say, ‘Well, we’ve been there for a couple months now. How come we haven’t seen an effect at all?’ But these things take time. It takes weeks if not more to build an Ebola treatment center and more time to train the staff so that they can work safely. That said, it’s been reported that the spread of the virus has slowed and that the caseload is going down. It remains to be seen whether that’s correct, or whether people are not reporting their family members who are sick because they want to bury them instead of turning them in.
You worked in the impoverished slum near the capital of Liberia called West Point where violence has erupted several times during this epidemic. Did you feel safe?
Working in West Point on both of my trips, I’ve always worked through a local community organization. It’s a place with high crime, but being somewhat respected locally, I was able to operate without much fear. Of course the presence of virus in that area is scary, but when I photographed I’ve always taken precautions and I think those kept me safe.
What were some of the stories you hoped to convey through your photographs?
Every person has a story and in the case of Ebola victims it’s often a very tragic story—or at least a very scary one. In the case of that particular image, I was photographing at MSF near the capital and a health worker was carrying a small child—a little girl—to a camp for suspected Ebola cases. She had just arrived. I came to later find out that she and her mother survived, which was a bit of good news in a story that isn’t always uplifting to cover.
What kind of precautions do you take, and do they make it difficult to do your job?
I wear the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) clothing, but only in certain environments while in isolation centers or when I come into burials or into homes collecting bodies. While photographing the people outside, I was not wearing PPE. It would have terrified these people to see me in that sort of outfit, and they’re terrified enough already.
The picture you took of the boy lying in the alley also seemed to strike a chord. Did you get feedback on that one?
At the time, I wasn’t able to read what was written up about that boy. He was one of six children who had been in the Ebola isolation center that had been overrun. So he had been cast out onto the street and I found him several days after the closing of the center. And he was very weak and dehydrated and in terrible condition. Members of the community were mostly afraid to touch him. He had been sleeping on the streets. Although he did receive some medical treatment before being taken to a hospital, he died the day after those pictures were taken.
Does one of the pictures you strike more than the others?
Well there was one moment when a man collapsed in isolation and hit his head on the concrete floor, and his wife was standing over him grieving. She was afraid to touch him. He died the same day. Actually seeing someone perish is horrible for people to see—whether you have covered tough stories in the past or not.
How does photographing this epidemic compare to others?
I’ve worked in many conflict zones—just this year in Ukraine, but also in places like Iran, Venezuela, and Mexico immigration. Every place I’ve visited has been dangerous, but nothing quite compares to photographing the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. Ebola is an invisible enemy. You take all the precautions you can, but you can’t fully know if you’ve taken enough.
Those images you took of people saying goodbye to the bodies of their loved ones are particularly haunting. What was it like to be there?
I spent several days accompanying Red Cross burial teams as they did their rounds picking up the bodies of Ebola victims around Monrovia. It’s a very sensitive scene when that happens. Typically if I saw family members nearby, the survivors, I would speak with them. I would give them my condolences and tell them what I was doing—trying to show the world the crisis in Liberia. Some people said no and I respect that. But in most cases, Liberians did want the outside world to know. Still, we have to be very careful when people are going through one of the most difficult moments of their lives, losing their loved ones. We have to be sensitive and I hope I was. I tried to be.
There was, in particular, the burial sequence that seemed to stand out—where the woman is reaching out toward the body passing her. Can you describe that scene?
This one woman crawled toward the body of her sister as the burial team carried out the body, carried the body bag away. She tried to throw soil onto the body bag—that’s because Ebola victims are cremated, which is contrary to Liberian custom of burial. And so when people see the body bag being taken off they know that’s the last they will ever see of their loved ones and it’s very traumatic for the family members to not have the closure of a burial.
Were you able to witness any normalcy in West Point?
Yes, I spent quite a bit of time photographing daily life there. Life does go on for people—and of course the schools are closed and so children are outside. Schools being closed for an indefinite period of time causes the same issues for Liberian parents as it would for American parents: They’ve got a kid around all the time. They’ve got child-care issues and work problems, so families have to deal with that.
Any other powerful moments?
I spent time photographing Ebola survivors. You would think that surviving Ebola would be a life-changing experience in a positive way—and of course it is—but once these people go home, many of them are stigmatized in their community. One woman who contracted Ebola as a midwife while delivering a baby said the community won’t even allow her to draw water from the well. As I see the stigmatization also here in the U.S., of West Africans and health workers coming back, I can’t help but see how the fears are sadly not only in Liberia but here as well. I personally think that American health workers, diplomats, and military personnel working in West Africa are American heroes. I hope they will be treated as such when they come home.
Will you go back?
Health-care workers, journalists: We all have lives outside of work. Adding an extra three weeks of quarantine on to every trip makes it hard to fit this coverage into our lives. The answer is: I don’t know. I hope there won’t be reason for me to go back.