EDIT: Thanks so much for your questions! I had a lot of fun answering them, but I’ve gotta run now….

Hi, my name is Nichole Sobecki and I’m a photographer working with National Geographic. I’ve been living in East Africa for the last seven years and most recently covered the ongoing Ebola epidemic in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for the magazine. This is already the second largest outbreak of Ebola in history — and the first in an active war zone. Last month the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the outbreak is spreading at its fastest rate yet, nine months after it was first detected. I first traveled to eastern DRC in 2006 and it’s a place that means a lot to me. Witnessing this painful time for the country was difficult, but I continuously return to the courage of the health workers, survivors and communities working to end the epidemic.

Here are links to my previous work:

Proof: https://i.redd.it/qfth7d0k8ty21.jpg

Comments: 50 • Responses: 9  • Date: 

cheeseshrice196632 karma

Hi Nichole, welcome.

Given the current climate for seemingly ‘clickbaity’ titles, is this truly spinning out of control?

What are the WHO and CDC guidelines for your own safety, and what precautions are you taking to ensure your own survival from this deadly virus?

nationalgeographic44 karma

Unfortunately, I do think that the situation is escalating. New cases are increasing at the fastest rate since the outbreak began in August, and the capacity of health workers to treat and contain is becoming ever the more challenging due to insecurity and distrust. There were 21 new confirmed cases today alone.

As for guidelines to protect oneself and prevent the spread of Ebola, there are quite a few. Avoiding bodily fluids, large crowds, not touching anyone or anything to best of one's ability, etc. When you greet someone in the midst of the outbreak you bump elbows instead of shaking hands. Your temperature is checked and hands and shoes washed with chlorinated water before entering or leaving any public building or hospital, and at checkpoints. There is also a vaccine being used successfully under "compassionate use" by the WHO in the current outbreak.

GP_317 karma

Incredibly interesting job. Got a few questions. Feel free to answer any or none of them. Thanks for doing this AMA!

  1. What is the positive or cheerful moment you have taken out of this experience(personal or just overall)?
  2. Have any opinions or views changed since first traveling to the DRC?
  3. Any truly frightening or exciting moments stick out?
  4. Do most people know Nat Geo and what you do? Are you generally excepted when taking portrait type pictures? Do you explain what the pictures are for?
  5. Anything that makes you feel hopeful for the future in the Congo?


nationalgeographic15 karma

Glad to be able to chat with you all about this!

  1. The most inspiring thing about covering this story was getting to know a number of Ebola survivors, many of who are now working to support efforts to contain the virus, combat misinformation within their communities, or care for other Ebola patients. The ways in which they are moving forward in the face of great loss and continued stigma was totally humbling.
  2. I first came to eastern Congo in 2006 as a student, and have continued to return since. I've also lived in neighboring Kenya for the last seven years. So this was an exceptional, difficult moment, but not an unfamiliar place. It's a culturally rich, beautiful country, with a steely resilience built on the back of decades of instability. I learn from the people I meet there every time I go.
  3. This is the first known Ebola outbreak in an active war zone, so there were definitely a few frightening moments.
  4. Many people I met did know NatGeo (and enjoy the documentaries especially)! That made it easier to begin a conversation about where the images would go and how they'd be used, which is essential to doing this work. I always try to the very best of my ability to make this clear and ensure that the people who are allowing me access to their lives are doing so with full transparency and trust.
  5. Absolutely. It's facing many challenges right now, but is without a doubt one of my favorite places on earth.

N8teface8 karma

Hi Nichole, thanks so much for taking the time to do this AMA.

What precautions do you have to take when working around a highly contagious disease like Ebola? And in an active war zone?

nationalgeographic17 karma

I talked a bit about precautions when working in an Ebola zone in my reply above to @cheeseshrice1966. Regarding security though, there are a few things to add. As I'm sure you know, there are more than 100 armed groups operating in North Kivu so it's a very dynamic security situation. The most critical aspect of minimizing risk in such environments is the team you're working with on the ground. I was very fortunate to work with a talented Congolese journalist from Beni who was far more familiar with the situation and its complexity that I could ever be. We spoke about all of our security decisions together in advance (when possible), and I listened to his advice and learned from his knowledge. I also consulted with security advisors working with NatGeo, WHO and other experts on the ground to prepare and plan. I checked in with my editor every night to confirm where I was and that I was safe. A bit of humility and long term vision go a long way too.

IDKmaybs6 karma

What kinds of steps did you take to be sensitive in particular with this population/subjects of your story as you were photographing patients suffering from ebola? Were these steps any different from other stories you've covered?

nationalgeographic11 karma

I talked about some of this in the above reply to @GP_3, but a few things to add. Most importantly, because I was covering a health crisis, it was critical to ensure that anyone I spoke with about allowing me to photograph them knew that their access to health services and care would in no way be compromised by whether or not they said yes or no to me. I would also discuss how and where the photographs could appear, that they would likely be on the internet, and discuss any concerns people had. Especially in moments of great vulnerability such as this, images simply cannot be made without openness and a foundation of mutual respect.

NOSlurpy5 karma

If each person could make one single action to help with this epidemic, what would you recommend?

nationalgeographic8 karma

The ongoing epidemic is vastly underfunded, so I actually think that supporting organizations like MSF, the Red Cross, ALIMA, WHO and others who are doing such courageous work on the ground to end the outbreak would make a real difference. Educating yourself on the support your own government is providing, writing to your representatives to let them know this is a priority for you, and giving within your means could all contribute to ensuring that this crisis ends as soon as possible.

Leenzlions5 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA, Nichole. I would imagine covering something as serious as the Ebola epidemic would eventually take some sort of personal toll on you. How difficult has that process been for you and what do you do to take care of yourself on intense/stressful assignments like this?

nationalgeographic6 karma

Self-care is such an important part of this job, and not talked about nearly enough. I try to stay balanced and aware of both the difficult and joyful moments that exist in every situation, even one as difficult as an Ebola outbreak. I take a huge amount of inspiration from the people I meet in the process of reporting, and their strength and resilience. I try to listen to myself, recognize my own triggers, and be responsive when they appear. And some basic things like making sure that I get enough sleep, eat as healthy as is possible when on the road, and travel with my yoga mat.

josephkiragu5 karma

Hi Nichole, thank you for agreeing to this session. I have a few questions: 1) What’s causing Ebola to spread that fast ? 2) Are there any cultural beliefs/norms that are making it difficult to control Ebola ?

nationalgeographic5 karma

Two of the biggest challenges to ending the epidemic are insecurity and deepening community mistrust. This is a region that has suffered decades of neglect and conflict, with incredibly fragile health care systems. Violence also hampers the response effort in that infections tend to spike after attacks, as health outreach and vaccination campaigns are halted.

DeadWeightZEUS3 karma

What kind of coping mechanisms have you observed? I imagine living in poverty, in a war zone with the threat of deadly diseases would lead to incredible feelings of despair.

nationalgeographic8 karma

Great question. The thing I've found about places immersed in such concentrated tragedy and violence is that the pendulum always seems to swing just as strongly in the other direction too. So in the face of these challenges, there is also tremendous courage and sacrifice, communities coming together, support, love.

ILoveU3OOO1 karma

Is it true that ebola can reach other continents with air currents?

nationalgeographic8 karma

No, it can only be spread through bodily fluids.