A young man walks gingerly in his neighborhood looking for cleaner water to finish bathing in the slums of Kroo Bay in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photograph by Dominic Chavez.
When he finished shooting a project on maternal health in Sierra Leone commissioned by the Ministerial Leadership Initiative in 2010, Dominic Chavez decided to venture into Freetown’s worst slum.
“What happens when the women leave the hospital and take their babies back home to a place like this?” he thought as he approached what he referred to as “Chapter 2” of the issue during a phone conversation.
Diarrhea is second only to pneumonia as a cause of death for the nearly seven million children under the age of five dying each year from easily preventable diseases, according to the World Health Organization. In other words, unclean water, one of the main challenges to health and sanitation in the developing world, kills more children than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
“The neighborhood put a face to that statistic,” Chavez commented.
Chavez’s interest in global health goes a long way back into his 24-year long career as a professional photographer: it started in 1995, documenting the spread of the AIDS epidemic for the Denver Post.
“Global health issues are just as catastrophic – if not more – than a war,” said the photographer, who has covered conflicts all around the world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Eritrea and Ethiopia, to Iraq and Afghanistan.
As he tried to portray the complexity of the issue by showing the different faces and backgrounds of HIV positives at a time when so much stigma was attached to it, Chavez was struck by the “real responsibility” weighing on photojournalists.
“It made me realize that I had more heart than craft. I needed to step up my craft. You can have all the heart in the world – or the craft – but it’s not going to create change if you don’t have both,” he said.
For Chavez, the purpose of his profession is to help people – not by giving them money or a job, but to document and share their lives as an example for their communities. It’s all about helping make a change together.
During a trip to Sierra Leone documenting maternal and child health, Chavez met an “incredible” doctor, Samuel Kargbo – “a Michael Jordan of maternal health,” as he put it – who had committed his life to improve improving health conditions for women in his country. The doctor told him his motivation came from once seeing a woman being carried into a hospital in eastern Sierra Leone by a group of men. They said they had carried her on a stretcher for three days so she could give birth in a hospital, but she was on the brink of death when she arrived.
“Before we could lay her hands on her,” Kargbo told Chavez, “she died. I will never forget her.”
Chavez too witnessed similar stories of mothers and children dying, and knows this is the reason why he keeps on doing his work: it’s a way for their stories to be heard, and for them to be remembered.