I’ve never really felt at danger at any point in my travels, any more than you do on a drive to New Mexico or a commuter flight to Atlanta. In all likelihood your home neighborhood is a more dangerous place than anywhere save a war zone, and I mean that.
Liberia might just be a war zone.
For the first time, suiting up for the ebola unit, I felt nervous. Not really afraid, not really even fearful, just a foreboding nervousness. It took a good forty-five minutes to suit up. First scrubs, then consecutive layers of plastic booties, rubber boots, Tyvek suit, three layers of gloves, an apron, two hoods, two masks, goggles, and finally tape sealing everything. There is no air conditioning in the unit, in the middle of Liberian rainy season, and it was stifling.
I walked through the unit, following Dr Brown, the foremost ebola doctor perhaps in the world, a little GoPro in my hand. At first it was all right: I could handle it. As we toured the unit, and passed into consecutively worse wards, I began to doubt myself. An hour and a half in, and suddenly I knew I couldn’t go much further.
It wasn’t the convulsing, the bodies, the blood, the excrement, or the vomit that signaled the end for me: it was a needle. I’ve always been good with shots, too. This time it wiped me out. I was holding a flashlight as Dr Brown was injecting an ampule of adrenalin into the arm of an unconscious woman. I felt my vision fade. I couldn’t breathe. Suddenly my stomach wrenched. The short walk towards the exit took forever. As the hygienists were spraying me down with chlorine and I was slowly disrobing the various layers, I barely had the strength to lift my arms. I changed into my clothes and sat on a bench for fifteen minutes and breathed while an hygienist dunked my GoPro in a bowl of chlorine.
Ninety minutes inside an ebola unit changed the perspective of the entire trip. Venturing inside a unit means one of two things: you’re either very brave or very stupid. I’m pretty sure I know the answer for myself.
It took a very long time to absorb the ebola trip. It didn’t feel very real while I was there, even though it was objectively one of the realest things I’d ever experienced. It hardly felt human, and the more I think about it the weirder the experience was.
Here’s something to consider, though. Unless you’ve actually been somewhere, you’ve got no idea what it’s like there. You aren’t supposed to take my word for it any more than you’re supposed to take Sky News for it.
See, the ebola outbreak in West Africa was a media storm of yellow journalism and sensationalized fodder. Most people have completely forgotten about it by now, but for a few months I think a lot of folks were too paralyzed by abject fear to leave the safety of their living room.
In the middle of my week in Monrovia, I was surprised in the middle of the Liberian night by a barrage of emails, texts, and messages from both people I know and people I had never met. The local ABC affiliate had gotten hold of a Facebook post concerning me and Liberia, and ran a story called “Ebola Fear Spreads to Arkansas” with a lead-in that said “the first case of Ebola on American soil is only five hours away…photographer Gil Gildner is currently in Liberia”.
It’s never nice to have the hometown six o’clock news present you as the poster child of ebola.
People went into conniption fits. Messages from strangers included verbatim phrases like “don’t come anywhere near my family!” or “face the consequences!” or “you should stay in Africa” and, the crown jewel, “I would like to know where Gil will be so that I can make sure my children stay as far away from his location as possible.”
I spent the next twenty-one days after my return huddled in my apartment eating quesadillas and oriental stir-fry.
The fear was needless. I’d seen a Sky News team outside one of the ebola units. They set up the entire shoot to seem as dramatic as possible. They dressed the reporter in a full hazmat suit, while behind the lens the cameraman and producer stood in shorts and a shirt. They found a Liberian whose brother had just died from ebola and pulled the most tearful interview possible. Meanwhile, the producer sits on the tailgate of their Mitsubishi Pajero and snacks on Clif bars.
Nonprofit photography: what’s the bias?
It brings up interesting points on journalism, storytelling, or really any form of communication. The words can be entirely true, but the tone of them can tell an entirely different and false story. The video one shoots of a conflict or situation can be entirely true, technically, but it’s what you’re not showing that can be the real truth.
It’s something so complex that it’s difficult to find the differences between black, white, and grey. And that’s why I think the code of journalistic ethics today is flawed. Opinion is important: it might actually be paramount to actual, technical, verifiable facts. And that’s why I consider gonzo journalism, personal storytelling, like Poitras in Citizenfour, to be actually much more true than traditional newspaper journalism.
Because it’s impossible to write, or edit, or film, without portraying your own bias. So you might as well embrace it, tell your story, don’t lie, and make sure people know that you’ve got a very strong opinion and you’ve let it show in your work.
It’s impossible to avoid. It’s probably more of a lie to tell yourself you’re unbiased.