By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences
For these photographers, it’s not war, but it can be just as deadly.
To show the effects of infectious diseases to the world, Nat Geo photographers have been among those in close proximity to outbreaks of deadly illnesses and viruses, some not too different from the pneumonia-like coronavirus making headlines now. (Pictured above: Face mask-wearing railway workers in Hong Kong).
As hard as photojournalism is normally, there’s a paranoia that grows when you are near a deadly disease, says Nichole Sobecki. The Kenya-based photographer worked last spring for Nat Geo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in hospitals, treatment centers, and cemeteries (below) covering the ongoing Ebola outbreak amid conflict.
“There’s a moment,” Sobecki tells my colleague David Beard, “when you start to suspect that everything around you might carry Ebola. The fabric of your shirt, your camera strap, the handle of the door to your room, even your own skin—it all starts to feel sinister. It’s this subtle paranoia even within myself that helped me to understand how a society can latch on to a lie and hold it tight. How false rumors could lead to very real violence.”
Lynn Johnson, who has covered SARS, Avian flu and monkey pox among others for Nat Geo, was sobered photographing Norbert, a young man in Congo “who was suffering terribly with Monkey pox. So courageous,” she recalled Friday. She, too, fought to focus in covering the “weaponized diseases” like Ebola, Marburg, smallpox. “As if there wasn't enough danger in the natural world that we have to make them more virulent to kill each other,” Johnson said.
Sobecki and Johnson emerged ready to work some more, but colleague Joel Sartore, best known for his Photo Ark collection of more than 9,800 vulnerable species, had been exposed to Marburg, which is in the Ebola family. “We had to get him on the first flight out of Uganda and then he was quarantined in his home,” says Photo Editor Kathy Moran. Sartore later had to endure a months-long chemo-like treatment to rid himself of leishmaniasis, a parasite transmitted by sandfly bites.
“Almost all of our photographers have been exposed to malaria, dengue, etc.,” Moran says.
To the photographers and reporters stuck among 18 million people in the lockdown of three central China cities, the epicenter of the recent outbreak, Sobecki has this advice:
“Stay calm, follow the advice of health professionals, and be conscious of the difference between sharing vital stories and contributing to the spread of fear. The greatest disservice done to those living amidst an infectious outbreak is to take their very real, complicated reality and turn it into a horror-filled fantasy.”
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Today in a minute
Apologized: That would be the U.S. Archives, less than a day after it was disclosed that it had altered a photograph from the 2017 Women’s March to cover up signs criticizing the U.S. president. The firestorm of criticism of the nation’s historical record-keeper prompted essays on how other nations, such as Russia, had airbrushed historic photographs to alter a nation’s memory. On Thursday, the archives announced it had restored the original, undoctored image of the Women's March.
Opening tomorrow: Or re-opening, to be precise. The International Center of Photography, in New York, welcomes the public at a much larger location. Among the inaugural exhibitions:“Tyler Mitchell: I Can Make You Feel Good,” in which the Brooklyn photographer explores ways to interpret Black identity, especially in positive ways, across several media.
Censored no more: As a U.S. Army photographer, Ben Brody figured out which of his photographs his bosses would and wouldn’t let the world see. “Soldiers looking calm or stoic. Yes,” Brody told the New Yorker. “Soldiers looking angry or frightened or exhausted or confused or lost with eyes like the bottom of the ocean. No.” A decade after his service, Brody came across his hard drive of 25,000 of his images—and has put some of them into his memoir, American Servicemember.
Photographing impeachments: David Burnett was there for Watergate. The Clinton impeachment, too. Now, Trump’s impeachment. "Essentially, you’re trying to photograph the unphotographable," Burnett tells Isaac Chotiner, in an article that features a collection of such images. “It’s an idea. It’s a thought.”
Approaching 10,000: With his latest portrait of a vulnerable species, the volcano rabbit, photographer Joel Sartore has reached 9,844 in his Photo Ark collection. The volcano rabbit exists only on the slopes of four volcanoes outside Mexico City. See more in the collection here.
Watch: The Cave, the Academy Award-nominated documentary on an underground hospital during Syria's civil war, premieres tomorrow at 9 p.m. eastern/8 p.m. central on the National Geographic Channel.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Nap time: Raised on yak milk, a Kyrgyz baby naps in a yurt in Afghanistan's remote Pamir Mountains, surrounded by buckets of curdling milk. This image is part of our global look into the diet of various self-sufficient communities, which found lower heart disease rates among the world’s foragers. “If we want to glean any information on what a nomadic, foraging lifestyle looks like, we need to capture their diet now,” says nutritional anthropologist Alyssa Crittenden.
Read: The evolution of diet
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The big takeaway
Keeping love alive: Photographer Abelardo Morell wanted to give his wife something other than flowers for her birthday. So he began giving her photographs of flowers—layered bouquets in fantastic designs, using a camera obscura technique. Then it became a series and a book, Flowers for Lisa, named for his wife, Lisa McElany, Daniel Stone writes for Nat Geo. Did McElaney appreciate the gestures? “I see them as keepsakes,” she writes, “proof positive that what connects us is real.”
Subscribers can read: Tired of giving his wife flowers, a photographer has created something anew
Photo tip of the week
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Come back Monday for Debra Adams Simmons on the latest in history. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, George Stone on travel, and Rachael Bale on animal and wildlife news.
One last glimpse
Iron City: Originally published in 1949, this photo, part of an in-depth article on Pittsburgh, certainly gives the viewer “a feel for the industrial weight under which the city was built,” says Sara Manco, our senior photo archivist. “Heavy emphasis on industry drove this article, with many of the photos featuring workers in plants and factories across the city.” These days, the air is cleaner, the city is home to more than 30 craft breweries, and it was named one of the best cities in America in 2018 by Nat Geo’s Traveler magazine. (Disclosure: This newsletter's curator is from Western Pennsylvania).