Images of tuberculosis: An interview with photographer David Rochkind

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Photographer David Rochkind

Continuing our series in recognition of World TB Day, Science Speaks interviewed David Rochkind, a celebrated photographer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Newsweek. After getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, he moved to Caracas, Venezuela where he worked for six years as a photographer for various U.S. and European news outlets. He has been in Mexico City for the past two years. David has done three photo exhibits on tuberculosis; the most recent of which will be on display today (Friday March 25) from 10 am to 4 pm, and Tuesday March 29 from 5:30 – 8:30 pm at Eastern Market in Washington, DC. His work will also be showing at Monmouth University in New Jersey for the month of April as part of their Global Understanding Conference.

How did you get involved in photographic reporting on TB?
I was interested in health issues in migrant populations, and decided to apply for the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. When researching a different proposal, a friend mentioned this TB epidemic among the gold mining population in South Africa. As I researched it, it seemed like a valuable, under-reported story – a small sampling of how TB is affecting populations across the globe. I proposed to do a five-week trip to do this piece, and I got the fellowship. I then got more interested in doing similar stories across the world.

What is the theme of your most recent TB project?
This was the third of three trips I did about TB. The images from my South Africa trip were in various outlets, and won the Stop TB Partnership’s Images to Stop TB Award in 2009. Part of that award was a grant to do additional work, so I chose to do a month-long trip to India to report on tuberculosis in the slums of Mumbai – which I saw as a good counterpoint to the more rural story I did in South Africa.

After that trip, I applied for a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to do a piece in Moldova.  I was looking to add to the body of work I’d already done, and one of the areas I hadn’t covered was this issue of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB) and Moldova has one of the highest rates of MDR TB in the world. I thought that the new geographical location would give a nice breadth to the project:  three different regions, three different ethnicities, and three different ways TB is affecting communities there. So I specifically wanted to go to Moldova to see the specific threat MDR-TB poses to Eastern Europe. I was in Moldova for four weeks. The images look at, among other things, how lack of access to health care and lack of education and awareness about TB have led to a surge in the overall percentage of cases in the country that are multidrug-resistant, and how that is affecting the families and communities in the places where it’s found. It’s meant to look at what the emerging threat of TB globally is and the importance of treatment and prevention and what some of the consequences of that are.

I used all three projects – South Africa, India and Moldova – to produce the educational program, which was funded by a grant from the Lilly MDR-TB Partnership, and launched on World TB Day.

Tell me about the educational program.
I worked with the Educational Development Center to launch an interactive educational website yesterday, on World TB Day – The idea is to get into schools and get kids to learn about TB and general themes of public health.  So we created a website of all of this work I’ve done to teach people about tuberculosis. The introduction uses photographs to relay information about what TB is, how do we spot it, how do we stop it, etc.

The educational materials include an advocacy packet by RESULTS so if kids or other viewers are moved by the project/pictures and want to do something to affect change having to do with TB or any issue, we provide them with the tools on how to be an advocate – how to write your legislator, how do you fundraise, how do you submit a letter to the editor, etc.  The website can be used by students, patients, or even to teach legislators what TB is. The Education Development Center in Boston created two lesson plans to go along with the website, all free, to help teachers guide students through the site. The lesson plans provide visitors with interactive worksheets to engage with themes, images and health in general in the developing world and help them to think critically about global health issues and why they matter to us.

We’re really trying to get the educational program out there. We’ve specifically designed it to be free and easy to use. It fits in a three-day period so teachers can fit it into busy schedules. It comes with curriculum requirements that teachers can use to fit into their lesson plans. They don’t’ need additional materials.

What can visitors expect to see at your photo exhibit at Monmouth University?
The photo exhibit has 20 images from Moldova, South Africa and from India. It’s really a promotional tool for the educational project. In the actual exhibit, photographs are evenly split giving a sense of how TB affects people in these different geographic regions.

Which do you consider your most impactful photograph?

David Rochkind / Pulitzer Center

There is an image of a woman who is lying in her bed and she’s co-infected with HIV and TB. She’s very weak and very frail, living in the small town Balti, Moldova. She had a lot of trouble – she’d been unsuccessful in being admitted to a hospital in her town or in the capital city. It was just her father and her living in her house. She wasn’t able to do much on her own and was dependent on her father for much of the care giving. She did get some support from Speranta Terrei, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), one of the only organizations in the country working on TB,

The picture is representative of the isolation a lot of patients have and the lack of access to treatment and guidance and education to understand how the disease is going to impact their lives. She passed away a few months after I took the photo. From when I met her until the time that she died, her life may not have been defined by her illness, but her life is symbolic of what can happen without support of a large health system or a small community health system. There is only so much that these small NGOs can do.

One thought on “Images of tuberculosis: An interview with photographer David Rochkind

  1. Pingback: The voices of TB | Science Speaks: HIV & TB News

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