Q&A: Photographer in Liberia's Ebola Zone Encounters the Dead—But Also Moments of Joy
John Moore has shot in war zones, but West Africa presents different risks.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John Moore has covered wars in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among other places. But when he arrived in Liberia's capital city of Monrovia this month to report on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, he faced dangers of a different order.
Liberia has 972 probable, suspected, or confirmed cases of the disease, with 576 dead, more than any other country. Including the countries of Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, the death toll from Ebola has reached 1,350, according to the World Health Organization. (Related: "As Ebola Crisis Spreads in West Africa, Liberia's Deterioration Stands Out.")
Since Moore's arrival in Monrovia, there has been an attack on an isolation center that sent quarantined Ebola patients fleeing. This week, Liberian soldiers quarantined Monrovia's West Point slum in an effort to contain the virus, provoking clashes with neighborhood residents.
Moore spoke to National Geographic about the harrowing scenes he's documented, the personal risks he faces—and the humanity that endures.
What have you seen since your arrival?
I started photographing in the West Point area the day after I learned of the Ebola isolation center there. I was able to get access inside. It was a horrific scene. There were sick people and dead people in the same room. There were people with symptomatic cases of Ebola in the same room as those who may have been exposed but did not yet appear ill. They were not yet getting medicine. Nor were there IVs for hydration. That place was highly infectious.
Photographer John Moore dons
protective clothing before joining
a Liberian burial team set to
remove the body of an Ebola victim
from her home in Monrovia.
Photograph by Raymond Zarbay
The next day, I was there when a large crowd drove away a burial team and its police escort. People in the mob were shouting: "This [Ebola] is a hoax!" And they wanted to pull and did pull patients out of the isolation ward. One man carried out a child dangling from one arm, and they disappeared into the crowd. Everything was looted and carried away, including contaminated mattresses. If they did not have Ebola in their community before, it is fair to say that they do now.
That was over the weekend. What's happened since?
West Point is now under quarantine; it's blocked off. This is an attempt to slow the epidemic in the capital city. But 75,000 people live there, so there will soon be shortages of basic necessities unless the government quickly figures out a way to supply them right now.
I was able to get to the military checkpoint and go in. I photographed the whole way, as the military beat and pushed people back and beat them back with truncheons. I left with the military under a hail of stones.
Did you get hurt?
I was fine, and my equipment was fine.
Do you feel at more risk covering the Ebola outbreak—where the "enemy" is a potentially deadly infectious virus with a fatality rate of as much as 90 percent—than working in war zones?
This isn't more scary, but as with working in any dangerous area, it's a matter of risk management. Before I came, I researched necessary precautions to keep me healthy. I brought sets of anti-contamination clothing called PPE [personal protection equipment], which included coveralls, boot covers, gloves, masks, goggles, and so on. All of these pieces are for one-time use, and they are disposable. When I go into a contaminated area, I do so with health workers, and I put the gear on and take it off in a particular order, as they do.
Do you wear the protective suits all the time?
I brought a total of 24 suits. I won't use nearly that many sets—I've used five of them so far.
I was suited up whenever I was in the isolation center at West Point. That place was highly infectious. I would also completely suit up when accompanying burial teams into houses to recover bodies.
But people would riot if they saw me walking down the street in those anti-contamination suits. They would be afraid. And I don't want to agitate people further.
Do you feel safe as you're walking around there?
In addition to my fixer who is also my driver, I work with a community organizer there who is respected in the community, and I can walk around with him in relative safety. Without him all bets would be off. West Point is known not just for its squalor but [also] for its drug use, violence, and crime.
But I talk to people here all the time. Luckily, the language here is English, so I joke with people on the streets, compliment people on the food they're cooking or what they're wearing, and can interact in ways that hopefully makes them feel at ease in my presence.
What are you trying to convey in your photos from there?
I'm trying to show the daily life in that community, not just the news and the tragedy but what daily life is like. You also have many moments of joy, and I think it's important to show not just the tragedies but the humanity of a place.
For instance, there's a picture overlooking the beach of a couple dancing, which I thought was a very sweet moment. They are dancing and laughing and holding each other as couples do all over the world.
Are there other precautions you're taking?
I wash my hands dozens of times a day and am careful not touch my face. Because Ebola is transmitted by bodily fluids, many Ebola victims are caregivers who have been exposed to bodily fluids like vomit and feces and sweat and saliva.
What will you do with your unused protective gear when you leave?
I will give the extra unused sets to journalists here. I also brought many extra gloves, which I have given out on occasion at health centers where they didn't have enough.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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