An Epidemic Evolves

Photographer Returns From Ebola Zone With Searing Images, Memories

Pete Muller talks about his two trips to Sierra Leone to cover the deadly outbreak.

This is the final part of a four-part series that examines West Africa's Ebola crisis. 
Read the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here.

Photographer Pete Muller recently spent two weeks in Sierra Leone, his second visit to the West African nation since mid-May when the current Ebola outbreak struck the country. Muller, who is based in Nairobi, Kenya, felt compelled to cover the outbreak, which has infected more than 22,400 people and killed more than 8,900 in West Africa. Muller has covered wars and other catastrophes, but in Sierra Leone he witnessed one scene so searing he hopes never to see another like it.

Were you anxious about going to Sierra Leone?

I didn't really know much about Ebola when I was assigned the first time. I spent several days reading about how you get it and how you don't, and trying to get my head around what it was going to be like as an experience.

What convinced you to go?

I read an interview with Peter Piot, who discovered Ebola in 1976. [Piot, a physician and microbiologist, has done extensive research on the virus.] He said, "I'd be fine to sit next to somebody who had Ebola on the subway as long as they don't vomit on me." If a guy who knows that much about it would say that, then I feel relatively comfortable.

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A Red Cross burial team takes samples from a woman believed to have died from an Ebola infection in the village of Dia, Sierra Leone. Because the bodies of Ebola victims are extremely infectious, the woman was later interred using a rigorous "safe burial" process.

You brought rubber boots, Tyvek suits, and chlorine tablets to protect against infection. Did you feel that was enough?

You just make sure you don't touch anything, nothing touches you, nothing touches the cameras.

Did you notice differences on this second trip?

In August, there was this very eerie sense that Ebola was just going to take over everything. Everybody had fled. The hotels were vacant. You felt very alone. This time, in the main hotel in Freetown [the capital of Sierra Leone], you had dozens of people involved in the response. It felt somewhat more normalized.

What about the people?

I think people are exhausted at this point. Hotels have closed. People lost their jobs. There's not much tourism; there's not as much movement from one place to another. But life is continuing.

At one point when you were in an Ebola treatment unit, you saw a man basically lose his mind. Can you describe what happened?

He was in a very advanced stage of his infection, experiencing delirium. He made a break out of his isolation ward and went into the back courtyard and tried to scale the wall. He soon collapsed to the ground and was convulsing.

This was in a part of the treatment unit where the staff aren't dressed in protective gear. Did anyone try to help him?

Everybody kept yelling for somebody to dress quickly. It was driving rain, and I was watching this guy convulsing on the ground amidst all the smoke from the trash being burned. It was really bleak.

Do you know what happened to him?

He died shortly after that. By the following morning he had died.

Was he trying to escape because the facility wasn't well run?

They really do incredible work at that facility, which is called Hastings. They have a survival rate far higher than many of the other [treatment units]. I fear that the picture gives an impression that things at Hastings are out of control, but that's not the case. It's just a graphic picture of how bad Ebola gets.

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Molai Kamara, who lost his family to Ebola, sits alone at the Hastings Ebola Treatment Center in Sierra Leone. Believed to be about 12, Kamara survived the disease but still suffers from ulcers and has trouble walking.

You took a number of pictures of children orphaned by Ebola on this trip. Do any of them stand out in your memory?

I saw this one kid when I went back to Hastings for a discharge ceremony of 56 survivors. This 12-, 13-year-old kid was sitting alone inside. I asked what's going on with this kid, and they said his whole family died. He had nowhere to go. He eventually was put into a car with some other kids to get additional care, and then he'll have to figure out where he's going to go. The atmosphere outside was excited—people survived and they're going home and finally their saga is over—and here's this kid who survived also but has a whole new set of terrifying problems.

You also spent some time shooting pictures of burials.

Anyone who dies has to be treated as a potential Ebola case. You're forbidden legally from touching them, from touching their belongings, doing any type of funeral ritual. There are lots of people who would close the eyes of someone who had passed away. These are fairly universal things. And all completely forbidden.

What should people take away from what they're hearing about Ebola?

You look at the Westerners who've been infected and the vast majority have survived, which means that Ebola is a survivable virus. It really pulls at your heart to see that this disease that in a certain setting is manageable is having such a devastating effect. Imagine if they had the infrastructure we have in the United States?

Would you go back?

Certainly. Hopefully, we're telling better stories about how this thing came under control and everybody rallied.

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A safe burial team in Freetown, Sierra Leone, pauses to allow friends and family to pray over the body of a 27-year-old potential Ebola victim. Burial teams now interrupt their work so people can pay their respects to the dead.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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