Amidst the chaos caused by the Ebola outbreak in Africa, Nairobi-based American photographer Pete Muller was one of the few to enter the epicentre of the epidemic, camera at the ready.
The resulting photo series — titled The Viral Insurgent: Ebola in Sierra Leone — is a poignant documentation of the pain, suffering and heroism as witnessed from the frontlines as the disease ravaged the West African nation. It won him first prize in the General News Stories category of the 2015 World Press Photo Awards (dubbed the “Oscars” of photojournalism).
The compelling Ebola series is among 145 press photographs currently on display at The World Press Photo exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, where Muller spoke to Prestige and other press about his harrowing experiences in the field — despite being a veteran in conflict and disaster zones.
The 33-year-old’s interest in conflict dynamics have previously compelled him to work in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan, where he captures viscerally provocative images of the lives and experiences of those in the region. His ongoing work, A Tale of Two Wolves, also underscores the complicated themes of masculinity, male experience and violence.
The series that won you a World Press Photo award was on the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. What led to you document the spread of the epidemic?
The lion’s share of the work that I do deals with political issues, wars and conflict — humanitarian crisis. So when the Ebola outbreak really started to ramp up about two years ago, I was asked to deploy. It was a very unsettling story for me to work on. I was asked to go in the week just after the international public health emergency was declared in August 2014. The virus was really beginning to spread out from the remote areas of southern New Guinea. And I took some time to think about whether or not this was something I was ready for. I did a lot of research on the modes of transmissions, how you get the virus and most importantly, how you don’t get the virus, before I made the decision to go. The pictures that were submitted are a compilation of pictures I did initially for the Washington Post and subsequently, for National Geographic magazine.
Now that you had time to reflect, what was the experience like?
To be able to observe the devastation that happened as the virus progressed from the rural hinterlands, where the speed of transmission was not as intense, into the densely urban centres, was an extraordinarily intense and really devastating experience. I’m just grateful now that we can show these pictures and that this very dark period in West Africa’s history is behind us for the most part.
How did you get into photography?
My mother was a news photographer for the local paper where I grew up and my grandfather was a portrait studio photographer so everybody in my family is into visual arts. But I did not think that I would go in this direction at all; I thought I would go into policy work — working on conflicts. But I [started] as a print reporter and then I became interested in photography as a means of engaging with the world of journalism, doing it in a way that also satisfied my interest in visual creative arts.
Did you always want to bring about change through your photos?
Yes, to some extent. I do have somewhat of an optimistic idea that through photography, we could potentially create change. I try to be realistic in my expectations on what we can accomplish, but yes, I do think it’s important that at least people know what’s going on and we can advocate, to some degree, for things that are helpful for these people in bad situations.
What goes through your mind when you take a picture: Telling the story or educating people with each picture?
I think of all of those things to a certain extent. It varies depending on the situation. Sometimes things transpire in a way that is incredibly intense and incredibly fast-paced, so in those cases, you just kind of revert to your instinct and what you’re compelled to do in those moments. But fundamentally, my interest in photography and photojournalism is largely for education. As photographers, we have to get out and see things that other people may not want to nor get a chance to go and see. It is then our responsibility to share that information, not only for the purpose of posterity and historical record, but also for the purpose of education. So I am largely driven by an impulse to contribute to discourse and to contribute to education.
Who do you typically reach out to?
Because the [presentations I give tend to be in academic settings,] most of them are younger people and academics. For instance, I recently presented the work I was doing about masculinity and violence at an international security studies conference. Those who attended were all academic practitioners — PHD candidates or professors at universities — and those working in foreign policy.
Do you find that they are receptive to photojournalism?
Very. The academic and policy community are always driven by studies and different matrixes of looking at things. I think a lot of them find it really refreshing to have a photographer come in, who, in some ways, speaks their language. My own education was not in photography and I do speak the language of social science and conflict analysis, but I bring first-hand and frontline accounts that are expressed in a different way.
The World Press Photo exhibition runs till February 21 at the National Museum of Singapore.