Unlike many photographers who seize upon moments of crisis, Sara B. May, a Seattle-based photojournalist, has chosen to document an aftermath instead—the aftermath of Sierra Leone’s battle with Ebola virus.
In the series After the Crisis, now on view at the Leica Store DC, May offers more than a dozen color images that capture how ordinary Sierra Leoneans—who have suffered seemingly endless hardships of poverty and political instability—adapted to the aftermath of the 2014 Ebola outbreak that hit West Africa.
“During the years of the Ebola crisis, learning one’s ABCs meant complying with public health directives to ‘Avoid Body Contact,’” she writes in a prologue. “In the aftermath of Ebola, many struggled with lingering fears of crowded public areas, yet longed to regain human connections.”
May’s images are so detailed that they sometimes capture individual grains of sand on the subjects’ legs. The fact that they show such everyday interactions underlines their emotional impact.
In one image, a young boy, seen from behind, climbs a small flight of steps on his way to cross a decrepit bridge; his perseverance suggests no less a triumph than Rocky ascending the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In another image, the simple kick of a soccer ball on a dusty pitch twists a young footballer into a pose worthy of a classical statue.
In one dimly lit image, a girl sits on a bench, spied by several boys through small windows into the room; what initially seems like a creepy tableau turns out to simply be a girl waiting with her classmates to go on stage at a talent show. (An image of one act from that talent show, taken from above, both freezes the dancers mid-movement and shows the children in the audience taking it in.)
May wisely provides a bit of narrative to accompany her photographs, noting, for instance, that the bakery employees in one image work 12-hour shifts in 100-degree heat, yet she adds that they are thrilled simply to be able to work, since it beats the round-the-clock quarantines they endured during the depths of the Ebola outbreak.
In another series of images, May tells the story of Francis, a young boy who lost both of his parents to Ebola. Adopted by an uncle and a severely ailing aunt, Francis endures not just deprivation but, in one image, the rage of his aunt for bringing back the wrong change from the store. A coda offers one small bit of hope for Francis: He starts to experiment with a camera he’s been given and dreams of being a photographer. May’s work reminds us how worthwhile such a pursuit can be.
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