To date, the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen some 2500 people infected, of whom more than 1500 have died. Yesterday (7 August), Save the Children announced that the death toll for children has now risen above 500. These figures demonstrate the rapidity with which the disease is spreading: in the first six months after 1 August 2018, when the disease first broke out, just under 100 children died of Ebola. In the six months that followed, over four times as many children lost their lives.
These are harrowing figures but it’s important to remember that every single one of them is a person; a person who left behind family and friends who continue to deal with the turmoil sweeping the area. Photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, someone who has produced a lot of work in DRC, travelled with Save the Children to the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak in the war-torn east of the country and the result is a beautifully moving series of portraits of those at the heart of the crisis.
On how he approached photographing his subjects, Hugh tells us: “Ebola is a cruel disease that transmits through close proximity; health workers and families of an infected person are in huge danger. This rips through communities, leaving stigma and pain. With this in mind, I wanted to take simple portraits that speak to the power of character needed to survive and bear witness to such emotionally traumatic events.”
Hugh’s photographs are far from sensationalist, instead portraying the civilians and health workers on the ground in a sensitive and intimate manner. While they are heartbreaking, each portrays the strength of the individual. On this point, Hugh adds: “I found it especially important to photograph the quiet strength of the health workers; this epidemic has been defined by suspicion and mistrust, with attacks on medical staff and treatment centres meaning that nurses, doctors and clinic assistants place themselves at immense personal risk on the frontline of the response.”
This distrust comes as a result of the region’s years of neglect and war – secluded communities are wary of health workers and their motives which has only served to further the crisis. The DRC is in state of trauma, and so photographing these individuals required tact. “Last year I also photographed a project for Save the Children in the same province, North Kivu, looking at children affected by conflict. This was a valuable experience for covering Ebola and working with vulnerable communities," Hugh explains. “With sensitive and distressing topics at play, I’m constantly thinking about the larger ethical considerations. I’m never looking to frame someone in a dark or victimising style, as well as keeping an easy dynamic; handing the camera to a child for them to frame images and mess around is my sure-fire way to get everyone relaxed before I take my ‘serious’ shot.”
Accompanying many of the images, especially those of children, are testimonials of their stories. Hugh tells us about one of the young girls he worked with: “This girl, whose name has been changed to Sifa for child protection reasons, tells a story of Ebola transmission that is heartbreakingly common for the region. A friend had returned from the town of Butembo where his mother had died of Ebola (the 12th death in this family). Before the mother had passed, she had apparently touched him as part of a blessing. This friend was infected, but before he was taken to the treatment centre, he had spent days playing and interacting with the village, including Sifa.
“Health workers then came to disinfect his house, this process happens in full protective suits, a very alien and intimidating sight to witness. After a frightening and nerve-wracking 22-day wait until it was clear she had no symptoms herself, Sifa thankfully hadn’t contracted Ebola.”
While photographs ultimately can’t help slow down the disease, Hugh and Save the Children’s series incite compassion and weigh in on the gravity of the situation. “Congo’s almost permanent state of crisis leads to compassion fatigue, with thousands of lives written off as statistics,” Hugh adds. “Earnestly, I believe portraits and photographs are the best way to show the stories at the heart of a huge emergency such as Ebola. Relating to members of these communities shows what is really at stake in the region, especially since the work of NGOs such as Save the Children is stopping the virus spreading further and potentially devastating lives across East Africa as it has done here in Congo."
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