The Missing Human Stories of the Ebola Epidemic

This link is an article by the New York Times about the photography of Daniel Berehulak.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for his work covering the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. I thought this article was important because the photos show the human side missing from most Ebola coverage. As the readings for this week’s class show, many articles talked about statistics of numbers of people affected without telling their stories. Berehulak told many moving stories of victims, and I personally had the biggest emotional response to the photos of healthy looking children who passed away shortly after the photo was taken. These photos showed how quickly the disease progresses. The article also started off with a very affecting quote. “It preys on our humanity — on everything that makes us human. People can’t hold their loved ones in their last dying moments because that’s when the virus is the most potent.”

In addition to telling emotional stories of ebola survivors and victims, the photo series also showed the ineptitude of the government response. Many other articles blamed the crisis on poor hygiene and perpetuated stereotypes about West Africans. The photos of bodies of Ebola victims who passed away outside of hospitals and treatment centers were extremely effective in conveying the lack of resources and medical personnel. They were also very moving since Berehulak often included images of mourning family members nearby.

Berehulak won the photography prize in April 2015. Do you think reporters would have covered the epidemic differently if his photos had gained more attention at the height of the crisis? If there were more journalists like Berehulak working in West Africa, do you think the media would have spent so much time covering the couple of Ebola patients and the possibility of the disease spreading in America?


7 Responses to “The Missing Human Stories of the Ebola Epidemic”

  1. I can definitely understand why Berehulak’s photography gained so much attention and renown. The way he displayed the picture next to a short excerpt about what happened after the picture was taken was really powerful, and told the story very effectively. I appreciated how he was really able to make viewers empathize with the people in the photos.

    I think that Berehulak was able to succeed in a lot of ways that other journalists did not. When I looked at these pictures, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the massive statistics or the chances of Ebola coming to the U.S that other journalists focused on. I just felt really, really sad for the suffering of each person in each individual photo. I think that was what Berehulak was trying to accomplish. He wanted to capture the humanity, or loss of humanity, in this situation, and make people care about other people instead of themselves.

    I’m not sure if the epidemic would have been covered differently if these photos had gained popularity earlier. The fact of the matter is that an epidemic has so many different sides to it that need to be addressed. People need to see how people are suffering, but they also need to know how many people and who is suffering and how it is spreading, etc. Berehulak succeeded in capturing the suffering of the people in an Ebola-plagued country, but that isn’t the only story in this epidemic.

  2. While I agree with you both, I think that there is an important undercurrent of us vs. them, Western-oriented coverage. Because, even though some of our readings commented on how inhuman and scare-tactic-oriented Ebola coverage was, there were stories. The problem was that they were the panic-induced stories of AMERICANS only. Thomas Duncan’s story was told, as was the story of the nurse he infected. Texas was a story.

    But West Africa, that is where the dehumanization and ignorance seemed to infiltrate most. That is where the stories lagged. And I thought that Berehulak’s photography was beautiful and relatable; the facial expressions were so strong, they transcended language and culture.

    Still, I find that some of the articles we read had different and somewhat conflicting goals. By trying to tell a more human story, do they scare the audience even more? I’m not entirely sure. But I did feel somewhat more afraid of Ebola when I saw the images of the gravedigger, or the man who so happily learned that he was Ebola-free days before he would watch his five-year-old son die. I personally filtered out some of the Ebola hype, as Jon Stewart’s segment suggests, but was indeed afraid when I saw the photographs.

    Perhaps that is exactly what Berehulak intended; to scare and pain his viewers in a way that was still manageable and not blown out of proportion.

    The only issue with the photography is that it gave me little context. I was left with emotion but not facts. Nothing was dispelled for me by seeing those images; he may have humanized the victims of Ebola in West Africa, but I’m not sure I heard the full story either.

    • Your comment makes me think about what the purpose of photography is in reporting. In the article that Alexandra provided, the photos have been purposefully taken out of context to tell a story about Berehulak’s work rather than Ebola. But, if you look back through the NYT archives, you can see the photos published along with news pieces that provide the context and facts.

      Personally, I think that these photos do exactly what was needed for the coverage of this topic. Africa is a complicated and diverse place, and it’s not often portrayed accurately in media. These photos have characters, they have situation, there are drastic differences in the way people are dressed. There are some photos that didn’t make it into that particular slideshow of politicians visiting areas that have been affected. I can tell you in words that people are outraged or that there’s a crisis, but the photo shows you exactly what that means. They say, “This is how things are,” and beg the question, “Why are they that way?”

      So, I guess, what I see here is the photographer playing to the strengths of photography and the reporters playing to the strengths of reporting.

  3. I think there is a very interesting debate happening now, actually, in regards to the terrorist attack in Paris – a Western nation – and the coverage it received while other terrorist attacks in non-Western countries have gone severely underreported. I don’t think people are leaving out stories; they’re leaving out *some* stories.

  4. Although the photos are moving and certainly a wonderful piece of coverage of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, I feel that even if more reporters covered Ebola like Berehulak it would not have changed the primary Media coverage on stations such as CNN, NBC, or FOX. This is because, as one of the videos pointed out, American politicians saw the Ebola epidemic as a gateway to undermine the opposite party. Therefore, I feel as though the fear-mongering in the United States could not be stopped by reporting that spurs empathy and shows the tragic reality in West Africa.

  5. The media responds to what the public is interested in and I think much of the Ebola coverage was alarmist and focused on the magnitude of the epidemic over personal stories because the public was more concerned about the potential impact in the United States. Statistics about the rapid spread of ebola and health officials’ inability to contain it fed into fear that Ebola could become a real health threat in the Western world. Those affected by Ebola who the media did cover from a personal angle were Western aid workers who became infected and were treated back in their home countries.

    I don’t know if it’s fair to assume that reporters deliberately ignored the stories of people suffering in Africa. For example, this weekend, after there was social media backlash about the supposed absence of articles on the attacks in Beirut, journalists wrote rebuttals highlighting coverage of Beirut that the public didn’t recognize. (See this article in Vox Yes, media organizations could’ve chosen to bombard the public with personal narratives instead of frightening statistics, but they are somewhat in the business of sustaining themselves financially.

    Which brings me to a more (personally) vexing question – How do journalists reconcile what gets covered and how with their commitment to serving the public interest? Do they approach the (sometimes) contradiction from a position of compromise? Do journalists who work for Fox news believe that they are presenting information accurately? It may be naive to suppose that people work in journalism because they want to tell important stories and not to feed into the public’s appetite for clickbait. How do you continue to work in an industry that increasingly seems to be dictated by the public instead of dictating to the public what is important?

  6. I can really see why Berehulak’s photos got so much attention and recognition. They’re very gripping. I also think that you bring up a really interesting point on the added humanizing perspective that these photographs bring. This is an especially valuable one, since I feel a lot of the Ebola coverage in the US failed to covey the human element of the story. What the media chose was to scare people using numbers and statistics, somehow succeeding at covering a disease that killed so many humans without really covering the victims themselves.

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