Michael G. Seamans is a photojournalist based in Waterville, Maine. He traveled to Sierra Leone from Maine in December 2014. The below questions were asked by visuals editor Brian Feulner as part of a QnA with the photographer.
As a photographer what was your goal of this trip?
The goal of this trip was to understand the issues driving the spread of the Ebola virus in Kono district, Sierra Leone. I volunteered two weeks to photograph the response efforts by Wellbody Alliance. Wellbody is an NGO which has been providing healthcare and other social services for the people of Kono district for the past 8 years.
I came to know the organization during a previous reporting trip in Sierra Leone with author/journalist, Greg Campbell, who is best known for his book Blood Diamonds, that exposed the world to the ugly workings of the diamond trade in West Africa.
How difficult was it to travel to Sierra Leone from Maine, and get access to the aid area?
It is not easy. However, the Ebola epidemic has streamlined it a bit. Before the outbreak there were two layovers leaving from JFK in New York City. One 16-hour layover in Casablanca and another quick stop in Monrovia before reaching Freetown.
The trip becomes a bit more tricky once in Freetown. A bus ride and a ride across one of the most dangerous harbors in the world in a small water taxi get you to Freetown proper. The taxis are sketchy and people are warned ahead of time that these boats sink often. And this is done in the cloak of darkness. No flights land during the day at Lungi airport.
Access to the aid areas is difficult depending on which aid areas you are trying to get to. I was working in Kono district, in far eastern Sierra Leone along the border with Guinea. Traveling to this district is easier during the day. I made the trip at night. I was traveling to the district after the government locked it down due to a spike in Ebola related deaths.
They closed the district border on the 3rd of December allowing only government officials and NGO healthcare workers through. And even then they would only let select vehicles through with the proper stickers and identification after 5 p.m. If you did not have the proper identification you would be held up until 8 a.m. the next morning.
Luckily, I was in a vehicle with the proper identification.
The roads are fine for the first 100 miles. Fast speeds on smooth roads made the first part of the trip rather easy and comfortable stopping only for the checkpoints set up by the government and certain villages. We passed through about a dozen in the first 75 miles where each vehicle occupants’ temperature was checked with an infrared thermometer. I was traveling with two people. Alaji and Ali. They work for Wellbody Alliance.
The rest of the road after Port Loko, one of the hardest hit regions in rural Sierra Leone, was slowed to a crawl. The roads became teeth-chattering kidney-bruising rutted roads that slowed us to under 5 mph at times. They resembled off-road trails more than they did roads. The rainy season left the roads in horrible shape passable only by 4-wheel-drive trucks in most parts. The final 100 miles took us nearly 7 hours to drive.
The real trouble arose once we entered Kono district. Every village had a checkpoint and villagers manned the ropes with flashlights and a strong sense of authority. We were searched several times to see if we were carrying dead bodies. We made it to Koidu City by midnight.
Some of your photos show deep sadness in an area that is in need of dire help to fight this virus, what was the emotional impact on you as a photographer while there?
It was difficult to see the Sierra Leoneans deal with this new disease. They have been crippled with infectious diseases for as long as they have been a country. Dying young is nothing new to these people.
They boast the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Half of the population has malaria on any given day. And they are still dealing with Tuberculosis and leprosy in addition to typhoid fever and yellow fever.
The toughest part of all of this is that they are incredibly rich with natural resources such as diamonds, precious gems and natural gas. They should be the Saudi Arabia of Africa with this natural resource wealth. But corporations and government corruption have shortchanged the people for decades.
The Sierra Leoneans are very gracious and hard working people. So it is very difficult to see them stuck in this situation. Ebola is a horrible illness that thrives on compassion and care. It spreads most easily to those who offer comfort and care to the afflicted. And those people who are infected are family members, healthcare workers and doctors. The family is the first line of care in their culture.
There are few alternatives in terms of healthcare for these people. It has no prejudice as to whom it infects. But the irony is that those who are infected become infected because they are caring for someone who is sick with the virus and the ugly cycle continues.
That is the hardest part to see. And knowing that if there was a stable and reliable healthcare system in place this virus would be stopped in its tracks. It just highlights the need for healthcare. Not just a cure for Ebola.
Talk a little bit about what the aid workers are going through to try and deal with Ebola.
Time Magazine was right to name the Ebola fighters Man of the Year.
What these healthcare workers are doing is nothing short of heroic. Ebola is a very scary disease that is easily transmitted when a patient is showing symptoms. And they become more contagious the more infected they become. The people in the direct line of fire are those people who offer direct care and comfort to the infected. It is the ugly truth of this virus.
These healthcare workers are working in incredibly difficult conditions where the slightest mistake could mean death for them. They know this and still walk in to those Ebola Treatment Units and offer comfort to the infected. It takes a special person to do this for a complete stranger in a strange and dangerous part of the world. They deserve the respect and admiration of their nations.
Were you concerned for your own safety and did you take any precautions?
My rational mind and irrational mind were constantly at odds. I am not a healthcare worker. My contact with Ebola infected people was from a safe distance. I was not walking in to the ETU’s and offering direct care to the infected. Yet, I was still constantly paranoid that I could contract the virus by touching the wrong door, rubbing against the wrong wall or bumping into the wrong person.
There was one day that I was photographing the mallei at Kono Government Hospital in Koidu City. It was complete confusion and utter chaos. A woman lay on a paved walkway between the Ebola isolation unit and another building. She was in dire shape and other people were just stepping over her as she lay on the ground. Helpless. Only feet away another woman wandered out of the Ebola isolation unit. I had to point it out to a healthcare worker that was following for the day. He and other healthcare workers corralled her back into the isolation unit carefully. That was when I realized just how dire the situation was in Kono.
A report had come out that 82 bodies were piled up in a building at the hospital that day. I was very concerned and never really mentally recovered. Even though I knew that I didn’t touch anyone or come in contact with anything that could be infected. Even though I was constantly washing my hands and gear with a chlorine solution, I couldn’t get the notion out of my head that I had somehow contracted the virus. I was reassured by American doctors that I was staying with that it was highly unlikely that I had come in contact with the virus; my irrational mind was taking over my rational mind.
A couple of days later I was following healthcare workers and the Sierra Leone Royal Armed Forces as they conducted a surprise sweep of two remote villages in rural Kono district near the Guinea border in search of hidden Ebola infected people.
Once gain my irrational mind and rational mind were at odds. I suppose it is healthy and smart to be on guard. It offers a level of heightened awareness that as a non-healthcare worker, I needed.
I was not armed with the in-depth knowledge of understanding infectious diseases like the doctors and nurses that are there working. My understanding of Ebola transmission is limited, much like the majority of Americans. It was a challenge each day to maintain composure. Every little symptom I felt was magnified under the threat of Ebola virus around me.
It is nearly impossible to go to Sierra Leone and not feel sick or a little off. It is an incredibly taxing trip just to get there. If you get there and remain healthy you might as well buy a lottery ticket.
The precautions I took were simple. Lots of hand sanitizer, washing my hands with chlorine solution every chance I had and checking my temperature 10 times an hour. Avoiding contact with everyone and keeping my hands to myself.
Don’t touch anything.
If you can do that you will be safe. And even if you don’t, just remembering that you have to have direct contact with someone who is infected and showing symptoms in order to contract Ebola. That is the biggest thing. No one has ever been infected by indirect contact. It is always traced back to a moment when they have touched someone infected or touched a dead body.
Has this trip changed your view on how Maine has dealt with the recent Kaci Hickox situation in the county?
Yes and no. I understand now that there needs to be time for Mainers to understand how this virus spreads.
If it were as infectious as the average American thinks it is, then the numbers would be far higher in West Africa than they are. Sierra Leone’s population is just under 7 million people and yet only 9,004 total cases have been reported. This is a country that has dire poverty with very little infrastructure. Clean water is hard to find and people live very close to one another. If Ebola were as contagious as we are treating it here the numbers would be through the roof in West Africa.
We need to understand the virus on a practical level. I understand the fear, because my mind succumbed to those fears at times while I was there. Like I said earlier, my rational mind and irrational mind were constantly at battle. Now that I have some distance from it I can once again see it clearly. I was in the middle of it and did not contract it. At least not through the first 15 days of self-monitoring under the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why? Because I didn’t come in contact with anyone that is infected with Ebola. A person has to come in direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluid. It is not transmitted like the common cold or flu.
Can what photojournalists do in documenting global health issues have an impact?
Yes. There is nothing more powerful than seeing what is happening. There is no interpretation needed to understand an image. It is simple, direct and to the point.
Michael G. Seamans is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has been recognized by the National Press Photographer’s Association, Colorado Press Association, Colorado Associated Press Editors and Reporters, and the Maine Press Association. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Usa Today, The Atlantic Online, Daily Mail London, and many other publications worldwide.
Mike’s professional photojournalism career has brought him from the front lines of the Ebola epidemic to the rebel operated diamond mines in Sierra Leone to the steep rock and ice of the Moose’s Tooth in the Alaska Range. His documentary work has covered issues ranging from poverty and terminal illness to high angle adventure projects in the world of climbing and mountaineering. Mike is currently a staff photographer for Maine Today Media and has interned at newspapers The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La., the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Wyo., and worked as a staff photojournalist at the Fort Collins Coloradoan.