Published: October 2007
Lynn Johnson

Were you ever concerned you may catch something while you were out in the field?

No, not really. In fact, the only time I was sick, and I was really sick in Australia, was because I had some bad food. There is something about using a 2 1/4 camera, it's a very formal format. Even though I was pretty close, I wasn't quite as close as when I use 35mm film. That may have been the reason I didn't worry too much about catching anything.

You weren't concerned even when you were taking the picture of the young man with monkeypox?

Really, seeing his pain and his suffering I couldn't even think about myself. What was amazing about this story is that, even though it is about disease and the spreading of disease, we saw very few people who were ill. This young man was really the only person we saw that was sick from any of the diseases we were documenting.

Isn't monkeypox highly contagious? Did you wear any protective gear?

No, I didn't wear any protective gear. But yes, it is highly contagious. He was in a hut next to the family home because people understand how contagious it is. One of the things about monkeypox is that it gets into the throat, which makes it impossible to swallow. The poor kid, he was spitting around the hut and could hardly move—it was so incredibly sad. After I came out of the hut, one of the researchers said to me, "My God, I can't believe you're crawling around in there. You need to immediately get rid of those clothes and wash up."

What did you do with your clothes? You don't still have them, do you?

Oh yeah. When I went back to the monastery where the researcher and I were staying—the nuns had given us one of their cells—I took all the clothes and bundled them up in a plastic bag. One of the local nurses who treats people with monkeypox transmitted it to his family because he gave his clothes to his wife without saying anything. That's what taught me that I needed to be very clear with the woman doing the laundry. I wanted to be certain there was no confusion, so I had an interpreter and I walked with her to ensure she didn't touch them and that she washed them in boiling water.

Of all the diseases covered in the story is there one disease that scares you the most?

I think they are all dreadful diseases, but I'm hoping the story gives the reader a realistic perspective about these diseases and the people they really impact. Like this young man with monkeypox, he has no access to medical care. Had the scientists I was with not given him one bag of saline he may have perished. They were carrying the saline for themselves in case they got sick, but they gave it to him. That one bag of saline may have saved his life. (Note: Norbert Lohalo-Nkoy later died of complications of the disease.)

Did you encounter any sick animals during your time in the field?

For part of my time in the field I went with this team of scientists to the Odzala National Park in the Republic of the Congo. They were trying to dart and test gorillas for Ebola. They didn't dart a single animal. The writer and I went with the scientists every day for ten days but never saw a thing—no animals at all. And you know, I don't normally work on wildlife stories, so for me this was a real education in being patient. Animals don't show up by the clock, they just show up when they feel like it. A similar thing happened in Australia. I was with researchers who were trying to catch bats, and they caught very few. Everyone was very frustrated.

What did you do when the animals didn't show?

On the trip to find the gorillas, we were just waiting, waiting, waiting. That's what you see in the picture of Billy Karesh and the tracker, Prosper Balo. Finally the time was up and we left. But, as a photographer, if I'm in the field two or three weeks I can't go back empty-handed. I had better have something to show for all this time and money spent. So I started looking in a new direction. That's when I learned about Prosper's experience of loss—both of family and animals—to disease. Then the story became, for me, not so much about the scientist but the man on the ground who is up against these diseases.