This wasn’t a routine National Geographic assignment. It could be deadly, very deadly. Many news organizations wouldn’t send their personnel to cover it. But we did. We sent Pete Muller. And it was his unflinching yet intimate and fearless photographic approach that made this coverage so special.
“I thought with the correct precautions it was an approachable assignment, but that’s not to say that I wasn’t nervous,” said Muller.
Working in the midst of an invisible, deadly virus like Ebola forced Muller to think twice about what he was doing. “I spent several sleepless nights,” he said. “I think we all have neurotic tendencies around health issues, and you end up thinking through everything that you did, everyone that you came into contact with. Of course, as a photographer you’re asked to put yourself into positions where the risk levels are high to see burials, body collection, and people who are infected with the virus. You have to be in the proximity, and it is nerve-racking for sure.”
Two memories that I shook loose from Muller during our video interview (at the top of this page) take us into the deadliest Ebola outbreak in Africa’s history and to a remote forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The first memory is from the height of the outbreak in December 2014, when Muller found himself in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The country has had more than 13,000 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths from the deadly virus. Despite covering the carnage for weeks, Muller was frustrated. “For a number of reasons—for people’s sense of privacy and the parameters that typically govern cameras and recording devices inside of health facilities, plus our own safety—we were generally barred from seeing the real face of this virus,” he said.
But then things suddenly changed.
Inside a relatively safe area of the Hastings Ebola Treatment Center, he heard a commotion. A patient, delirious from Ebola, tried to climb an outside wall to escape. Muller followed and came face-to-face with the patient. “I thought, This is a terrible situation and I don’t want to make this picture, but I have to make this picture. It’s important,” Muller said. He finally found what he was looking for. “This is what this virus looks like,” he recalled. He learned from a doctor that the patient died not long after the picture was taken.
The second memory is from an extremely remote area of Africa, the scene of a typical outbreak: an isolated, forested village of bush-meat hunters where the virus erupts, kills, and fades. To get there wasn’t easy. Muller wrote:
“From Nairobi I caught a flight to Kigali, Rwanda. Once in Rwanda, I took a three-hour taxi ride to the town of Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu along the border with the DRC. From Gisenyi, I crossed the land border into the city of Goma, and I caught a plane that made stops in Beni—where a major insurgency [is] under way—and Bunia before landing in the isolated town of Isiro, [which is] surrounded by hundreds of miles of virgin forest. From Isiro, we gathered the necessary supplies of water, bread, toilet paper, and the like before heading out of town on a few rented 150cc motorcycles. After three and a half jarring hours on the motorcycles, we arrived in a small village.” His trip took three days.
Muller continued: “I worked a lot across DRC and I have never been in a place where the sense of suspicion and mistrust was more acute than it was in this area. So just getting people to talk to me, let alone allow me to follow them while they were hunting, was a real challenge.”
After spending a few days with the hunters and gaining their trust, they told Muller that if he really wanted to see how they hunt, they would have to “make the clothes.” Perplexed, he asked himself, What are “the clothes”?
“A day or two went by and I saw them skinning the trees, preparing all this pigment and stuff, and ultimately they crafted these outfits that really resemble something that looks like a leopard,” Muller said. “When I saw them putting them on I said, ‘Wow—we’re really seeing something very authentic here.'”
“I have a pretty strong fear of getting completely lost in the woods,” Muller said. “It’s something I’ve had since I was a kid, and it’s pretty acute in the middle of a jungle. You hike out in the dark and there are no trails or anything—you’re just hiking through the jungle. The [hunters] are barefoot. They have been doing this since they were boys. They move silently through the forest so as to not scare the animals that they’re hunting.”
“I’m lumbering around, sweating with my cameras, tripping on vines and stuff, and I’m trying to give them a little space, but that would ultimately mean that they would scatter off in a bunch of different directions,” Muller recalled. “I’d be standing there in the middle of the jungle hoping that they would come back for me.”