Radar | Oct 17,2020
A tearful critical care nurse, heartbroken by the loss of a patient that reminded her of her mother; a young patient sitting with her back to the camera who had already written down her last words; a former soldier now working as a sprayer with protective goggles on his forehead and carrying a disinfecting kit - these are some of the moments that photographer Yonas Tadesse has managed to capture during his stay at Eka Kotebe General Hospital.
Every day for almost three months, he spent close to half an hour putting on protective gear against the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) before entering the nation’s first COVID-19 treatment centre. He would walk from his makeshift studio located in another building to have breakfast with the medical professionals on duty and then head over to the ward, camera in hand.
It was a lengthy but necessary part of the photographer’s daily routine as he documented the nation’s battle against the pandemic in its earliest days.
Bodysuit, face shield, face mask, goggles, gloves - all on top of one another with scotch tape binding the corners and gaps - were prerequisites before he set foot in the Hospital. Even his camera was not exempt. He would then spend at least four hours inside the treatment centre, trying to talk to patients and take pictures.
“It was difficult at first,” said Yonas. “People were reluctant. They didn't know who I was or what I was doing.”
In one of his online posts where he captured doctors surprising a COVID-19 patient with a cake for her birthday, he explains how it is hard to build relationships with the people he photographs as there is no way they can even see him.
So he spent most of the first month introducing himself, initiating conversations and explaining the project. The camera was also left behind in his room during this time. Slowly but surely, the patients started warming up to him and opening up.
"I think she just wanted to speak to someone that was not a doctor," he said, referring to one of the first patients he spoke to while doing his work. He became their confidant through time, sometimes serving as a much-needed link between the patients and the administration.
When he was not in the wards with the patients getting to know each other, Yonas was tagging along with the ambulance when it had to go and pick up an individual with a confirmed case or even to a funeral.
Entitled "Finding Meaning in a Pandemic" the photo project that he embarked upon documented frontline health providers and patients in their battle for survival and recovery, as he puts it. Yonas took 140,000 pictures during his three-month stay and gave the country a first-hand glimpse into what the frontline battle against the pandemic looked like. The photo series went on to be one of the winners of the Lens Culture Critics Choice Awards, an international photography award, and was featured in The Guardian's picture essay publication.
It was not just those receiving care at the Hospital that were surprised by what this 29-year-old photographer was doing. As he shared his first pictures online, explaining what he was doing, many were shocked, showering him with gratitude for offering them a look into what would otherwise have remained a shrouded affair when little was known about the treatment centres and the virus’s effect on patients in the country.
“It started with a simple question,” he said. “How will this pandemic affect us? I knew it would be answered differently by different people. Hence, I went out to find the answers in the way I know best.”
The photojournalist with almost a decade of experience under his belt went out with the only tool he needed: his camera.
“It wasn’t even about trying to be helpful. It was more of understanding and fulfilling my role in this. I was trying to find meaning," he said.
But despite his interest in the project, when he started there was little known about it in the country, and overcoming his own personal fear was challenging.
“It took time to get over it - to face the fear. I was so interested to go and work on this project, but I was also scared,” he said. “It was at a very early stage, and we had no clue how the situation with the pandemic would pan out.”
But he decided to do it. He pitched the idea to then newly appointed Minister of Health, Lia Tadesse (MD), who was fully on board.
“She chose to allow this project to happen,” he said, "to document such an important part of the country’s history.”
When Yonas started the project, there were only 16 cases in the country and no deaths. At the end of last week, there was over 72,000 confirmed cases, and over 1,100 have lost their lives to the virus.
But death was an all present factor even then when he first began.
Facing death in the pandemic and dignifying the lives of those that have lost their battle was one of the project’s missions, according to Yonas.
Every day as they took time to carefully layer one protective gear on top of another, it was a subtle reminder of what lay ahead and what was at stake. Working in such conditions was a safety requirement, but the heat inside the gear made it challenging. Five minutes into walking to the wards, the heat inside the bodysuits would be high and his vision already blurred due to the fog from his breath.
“On my third day there, I was talking to one patient when my face mask kept slipping down,” he said. “The plaster wasn't sticking properly. The girl that I was talking to told me she could see my eyes.”
That was one of the scariest moments for Yonas as he ran to get his face sprayed with disinfectant. Experiencing symptoms every now and then out of paranoia was common for him. But Yonas ended up contracting the virus himself.
“I'm not sure at what point I may have gotten it, but I started feeling strange all of a sudden one day about three months into my stay there,” he said.
He had finished the first phase of this project and was planning on post-production work. He took a COVID-19 test, a mere formality that ended up turning the tables.
It was not a result he nor the health workers at the Hospital, with whom he had developed a close friendship throughout the months, had expected.
“I didn’t know how to react,” he said. "I was shell-shocked.”
He was taken from where he was, at a site for the newest additions to the Hospital, in an ambulance that he had already ridden in multiple times. But this time he was the patient.
“I didn’t know who to tell or who to talk to,” he said. “I thought to myself that I had one life and that I had gambled with it.”
Yonas spent the next three nights lying in his bed, listening to the beep of hospital machines coming from the Intensive Care Unit one floor above with an overactive imagination and a fast-beating heart.
“I was having panic attacks,” he said. “I didn’t want to get an X-ray done, because I was scared that it would reveal something much worse.”
His X-ray revealed that he was physically fine, and with a doctor's reassurance he started getting back on his feet. And so, he ventured once more into the wards to continue his project, this time from the viewpoint of an insider.
“Some of the patients yelled when they saw me walking in with just a mask on,” he said.
After learning why, a patient or two reprimanded him, telling him he should have listened and stayed far away. He continued documenting, the work easier this time with fewer barriers between him, the patients and his camera. Even in the face of death, however, Yonas says he saw love, courage and strength in families in the treatment centre.
“One of the most inspiring people I covered there was a pregnant woman,” he said. “She was admitted initially with no symptoms, and her whole family had come to be with her.”
As the first COVID patient to give birth in the Hospital, her delivery was celebrated with a gift from the Office of the Prime Minister. But the risk of contagion was too high, and the baby was taken to another ward as quickly as possible.
“She saw her child through my camera lens,” said Yonas. “She was crying, happy to see her child. We made an appointment with her to publish those pictures of her the next day.”
But the woman had suddenly hit a critical stage and required intubation. The woman, with previous experience in health, knew the risk of intubation and was adamant about not undergoing it. After a push from the medics and the support of her husband, she was finally convinced to undergo the procedure.
"In the end, she didn't make it," says Yonas.
That was a tough day. It was sad, but there is another side to it, according to Yonas.
"It showed me the power of love and having someone in your life in those hard moments," he said. "I don't know how to put it into words."
He left the Hospital after three months, both as a photojournalist and patient. The project is not over, and the second stage will focus on a follow-up on a few patients and how they are doing now, according to Yonas.
As for the one he has just completed, Yonas is still figuring out the many ways it has changed him.
"Love and appreciation of family and friends is something I have realised more strongly through this experience," he says.
The way health workers put themselves on the line has shown him the importance of playing his part as well.
“They gave their best, and it changed people’s lives,” he said. “It's made me realise that we're all heroes every time we show up for our community.”
PUBLISHED ON Sep 27,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1065]
Radar | Oct 17,2020
Featured | Nov 21,2018
Commentaries | Jun 20,2020
Radar | Dec 26,2020
Radar | Aug 29,2020
Life Matters | Sep 19,2020
Films Review | Feb 09,2019
Featured | Sep 11,2020
Life Matters | Nov 14,2020
Agenda | Oct 24,2020
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