While on assignment in West Africa, I often joked that if not for the extreme poverty, deadly diseases and the occasional civil war, this place could be paradise. Dark humor aside, the truth is that after six months in the region, I know I will never forget the people and landscapes of this long-suffering and forgotten corner of the planet.
Producing news video content for the United Nations Ebola mission, I covered every aspect of the epidemic and documented the international response. What had begun with the mysterious death of a 2-year-old boy in Meliandou, a remote village in Guinea, had quickly spread, soon becoming the biggest Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak in history. Arriving at the height of the crisis, my job took me all over Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the epidemic was raging, as well as to Senegal and Mali , which were also affected. Ghana, which remained Ebola free, was the coordinating center for the international response and was my home base for the first couple of months.
Ebola is a virus that preys on kindness—a human quality that is in high supply in West Africa—infecting mostly those who attend the sick as they come in contact with bodily fluids. Constantly on the move, I traveled almost daily from the political power centers to the most remote villages.
I spent my days in field hospitals, burial sites and the quarantined homes of the affected families. I followed contact-tracing and case-finding teams through towns and villages, sometimes literally chasing ambulances as they searched for suspected patients in seemingly impossible to find rural addresses. From presidential palaces and ministries to mud huts and overcrowded slums, my assignment gave me a unique perspective of what I soon found to be not only an admirably proud and resilient society, but also a beautiful, gentle and joyful people.
Perhaps as a counterbalance to the gravity of the subject matter I was covering for my assignment, in my free time I began pointing my camera in other directions, exploring aspects of people's daily life that had nothing to do with Ebola. In every crisis, be it war, natural disaster, or epidemic outbreak, after the initial shock, people fall back into a certain degree of normalcy.
This was no exception.
In my pictures, I purposely started avoiding photographing those elements that had come to define the epidemic. Chlorine water buckets, Thermoflash thermometers and the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) worn by health workers, so ubiquitous in the international press, are nowhere to be seen in my work.
Instead I began to focus on those things that in my eye mark the true essence of the people of West Africa.
Busy Eagan Street market in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Women fishing in Lungi, Sierra Leone.
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Portrait of hip hop performers at beach concert at Panama Beach, in Monrovia, Liberia
Group of children posing for the camera in Forecariah, Guinea.
Women and girls at the door and windows of their home in Coyah, Guinea.
Kids playing table game in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Man sitting reading a book in Centre ville, Conakry, Guinea / Girl talking on cell phone in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Boy crossing street in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Fishermen in Bamako, Mali.
Seller girl under mango tree in Monrovia, Liberia / Girl selling hats at street market in Dakar, Senegal.
Woman walking on a hilly street in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
The whole region is one, and their destinies are interlinked. As long as Ebola is not eliminated from all countries, it will continue to threaten all of West Africa. But even before Ebola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea were hardly a magnet for tourism and trade. Other diseases such as endemic malaria, added to a lack of basic infrastructure and echoes of recent political violence, had kept these countries off the beaten path.
As the epidemic slowly wanes down, West Africa can now start looking beyond Ebola. Perhaps this time the region can finally get on the path to achieving, if not paradise, a degree of well-deserved peace and prosperity.
Woman walking past bird mural in Jamestown, Accra, Ghana.
Jorge Luis Rodrigues with Siah Tamba Survivor at
IOM, Ebola Treatment Unit In Grand Cape Mount, Liberia.
Photo: Martine Perret
Jorge Luis Rodriguez is a TV news producer based in New York City, working for United Nations' Television. In December 2014, Jorge went on assignment to West Africa as a videographer for the UN mission deployed to lead the international response against the Ebola outbreak. The material produced was regularly picked up and used by all major international news networks. In his eight years at UNTV, he has interviewed dozens of international newsmakers, including political figures, scientists and business leaders, as well as many artists and celebrities in their roles as UN goodwill ambassadors. Parallel to his career, Jorge has a long trajectory in the arts, including photography, painting and film.