Published: July 2007
John Stanmeyer

At the tail end of monsoon season, photographer John Stanmeyer made his way to Kolkata, India, looking for water. The annual storms usually flood much of the city, and the standing water provides a vast breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. But a hot sun baked the city for two weeks straight. Not a drop fell. The day before his flight home, it finally poured, and Stanmeyer was able to wade through the streets. The sewage-filled water "was disgusting, but you don't really think about that," he says. "You just think to yourself that this is the best way to deliver the story to readers so that they can fully understand urban malaria. I wanted them to feel it." A father living with his family in Indonesia, Stanmeyer felt very connected to this story. "There's a lot of malaria where we live," he says. "Fortunately, my children haven't had it. But malaria doesn't know economics, gender, or race. It only knows geography, and that geography extends across the entire equatorial region of the planet."

Best

It was extraordinarily uplifting to see the astonishing recoveries of the patients at Kalene Mission Hospital in northern Zambia. So many of them were children, some less than a year old. In this part of Africa, the challenge is just getting to the hospital. Many patients don't make it that far. But for those who do, the medicine can produce remarkable results.

Witnessing the work of the doctors and nurses—most of them foreigners who are paid close to nothing—was enough to confirm my faith in humanity. Their strength of character against incredible odds and circumstances just shines through. Take Nurse Alice Turner, who'd been volunteering at the mission for 14 years. She was unable to find a vein in the arms of a boy who was lapsing into coma. But she located one in his head and administered medication there. In short order, I could see signs of life as the child reconnected to his human spirit. A few days later, he was smiling and playing with his mother. That had to be one of my best moments.

Worst

In Kenya, many of the malaria patients I encountered were in HIV wards, where about half of them end up dying. Even though they may not be in the advanced stages of AIDS, their immune systems are so shot they simply can't survive the assault of the malaria parasite.

I've spent more than seven years photographing AIDS throughout all of Asia and was deeply saddened to realize that those fellow humans already suffering from one of our planet's greatest health problems are also deeply affected by malaria. This is one of humanity's greatest needs: to find a cure for both HIV/AIDS as well as treatable, affordable solutions to malaria.

Quirkiest

I was with my driver on a pothole-filled road in the far northwest corner of Zambia when suddenly our car broke down. We were on our way to the Kalene Mission Hospital, the final and most important destination in my assignment. Without coverage of this hospital, the story would not have been complete. I was desperate to get there. After an hour of futile tinkering, we gave up on the car, and I thought, Oh my God! I can't finish this story properly! None of the few cars that passed us would stop. Then along came a truck trundling down the road. As it drew near, the driver yelled out "Hey, Uncle!" In this nation of 12 million people, here was my driver's nephew, miraculously appearing out of nowhere hundreds of kilometers away from his home district. As our great luck would have it, he had a towrope with him. Eventually, we got to a place where I could rent another vehicle for the last leg to Kalene. I arrived a day late, but I was still able to complete my coverage. That chance encounter on a Zambian road in the middle of nowhere was such an improbable coincidence that I count it as a mystical experience.