Williamson Carson proudly provides photographer insurance to the award winning Simon Townsley

With Ebola declared a global health emergency earlier this year, internationally acclaimed photographer, Simon Townsley documented conditions in Congo. We speak to Simon about his work in North Kivu, the challenges and the inspiring “lullaby singers”. Who according to The Telegraph reports, “may just hold the key to defeating the disease”.

What was the aim of the mission?

I am working for The Telegraph on a long-term project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation covering Global Health Security issues. This takes me all over the world, often to countries with very difficult and complex security issues. This work has seen me twice win British Press Photographer of the year and visit over 120 countries around the world

How did the mission make you feel? 

This is one of the most challenging trips I have undertaken during my career, in the course of which I have photographed conflicts, natural disasters, and humanitarian crises around the world. The work in photographing these victims of Ebola was harrowing and difficult for many reasons. It was gruelling witnessing small children isolated in quarantine with a positive diagnosis, waiting to see how this awful disease progressed and wondering whether they would survive.

Small boy in quarantine smiles unaware of the fight he has ahead of him while a doctor in full protective gear stands next to him
Ebola outbreak, Beni and Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. 6 year old we call Bahati. His father, a soldier, died of Ebola a fortnight ago and his mother abandoned him. He has been in the ETC for just a day, and seems oblivious to the fight he has ahead of him.

It was also uplifting to photograph the work of Ebola survivors, who are now immune to the disease and volunteer to care for people suffering from this horrific modern plague. All of them have lost many members of their own families.

One particular group of these volunteers are the “lullaby singers”, who care for the abandoned and orphaned victims of Ebola sufferers. These children are potentially incubating the disease, and can’t be looked after by anyone but an Ebola survivor. They alone are not required to wear the frightening protective equipment that is de rigueur for other carers.

Ebola survivor named Esperance cradles a 5 month old baby boy in her arms whose mother died and they are struggling to find his father.
Ebola outbreak, Beni and Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Survivor and “Lullaby Singer” Esperance Masinda. Her husband was among the very first victims of the Ebola outbreak, catching it last July (and miraculously surviving). She caught it in August. As she fought for her life for a month, another woman looked after her baby. In gratitude, she wanted to help the children of other victims. The baby she was looking after is a five-month old baby boy, Bosco [not real name]. Bosco’s mother died on July 3rd; his father has yet to be found. Bosco has a 50/50 chance of developing Ebola because he was breastfeeding.

You’ve been involved in a lot of these missions before. Does it get easier or harder?

I was glad to be able to document such a critically important story. Bearing witness to this horror, the suffering and bravery of the people of the Congo was an immense privilege. In particular, I was moved by the selflessness of people who had themselves suffered the disease and seen it decimate their families – those who had lost everything but continued to give.

Two Lullaby Singers look after 25 day old twins
Two “lullabies” (Ebola survivors) looking after twins at the Butembo Ebola crèche Gentile Kahunia (R) Yvette Katungy (L) Two of Gentile’s four children, a 6-yr-old boy and a 2-yr-old girl, died of Ebola. She says that being able to take care of other children fills her with pride now that she can no longer take care of her own. Yvette was infected with Ebola by her brother, who died, along with four members of his family. Yvette and Gentile are looking after 25-day-old twins.

Was there anything that surprised or shocked you on this mission?

I was particularly moved by the case of a pregnant woman survivor whose baby had to be delivered and kept in an isolation room, as the virus often remains active in the amniotic fluid. What a terrible way to come into the world.

Ebola outbreak, Beni and Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A patient being treated in an isolation cube, Beni Ebola Treatment Center.

The Telegraph reported that Ebola treatment centres have been attacked and seven workers were killed. Do you ever feel unsafe doing this work?

This most recent trip in July 2019 to North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was particularly difficult, with civil unrest, dozens of armed militia groups, and a critical outbreak of the highly infectious Ebola virus.

I was working in conjunction with Unicef, and the trip involved visiting Ebola treatment centres in two locations – Beni and Butembo. Travel between these two towns took three hours on unmade roads through exceptionally hostile areas, that required us to wear ballistic jackets and helmets travelling in a UN convoy.

I spent some time in the community, where a deep suspicion of outsiders and even the existence of Ebola makes a very tense situation.

Ebola outbreak, Beni and Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. MONUSCO troops patrol Butembo.

What’s the best advice you could give to other photographers who go on these sorts of missions?

Working in these areas of the world is obviously difficult and complex, and you need the support of a responsive and flexible insurer in order to be able to function. This allows me to produce images that can have an impact around the world.

Joniste Kahambu, whose three-year-old son died of Ebola works as a “lullaby” at the Butembo Ebola crèche.

Simon Townsley is an internationally acclaimed photographer, winning numerous awards including the British Press Photographer of the year and Nikon Press Awards. For more information about Simon and his current projects visit http://simontownsley.com or follow him on Instagram. To read the full report about the Ebola crisis in the Congo visit The Telegraph.

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Williamson Carson support our photographers, wherever their work may take them. If you work in foreign countries, contact us so we can make sure you have the right cover for your needs.

Ebola outbreak, Beni and Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Beni Ebola Treatment Centre

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A lullaby singer holds an 8-day-old baby girl whose mother died of Ebola shortly after she was born. She is in intensive care and has a cannula placed in her head as it's the easiest place for them to find a vein due to dehydration.
Ebola outbreak, Beni and Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ebola survivor cares for a child in the intensive care section, Beni. 8-day-old baby, a girl (whom I will call Felicite). Shortly after Felicite was born, her mother died of Ebola. Felicite was taken to a creche but tested positive two days later. She has been in the centre for two days. Doctors placed the cannula in her head. Dehydration often makes it hard to find a vein.