The fashion blogger documenting the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone

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Kathleen Lee Joe

Saidu is an off-duty cleaner who works inside an Ebola unit.

Saidu is an off-duty cleaner who works inside an Ebola unit. Photo: Freetown Fashpack

Jo Dunlop is an Australian UNICEF consultant currently based in Sierra Leone. The creative force behind the street style blog, Freetown Fashpack, she dedicates her spare time to capturing the kaleidoscopic prints and eye-jolting colours worn by locals on a daily basis.

Last year, when the world was overcome by the Ebola epidemic, that focus shifted just slightly. As a counter to the fear-mongering newscasts, Jo started documenting the people who'd been affected by the disease, cataloguing their stories through interviews and portraits. Through this, Freetown Fashpack has evolved into telling a bigger human story – combating the stigma, dispelling the myths and celebrating some of the unsung heroes of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Jo took a moment to tell Daily Life about her mission.  

How did you find yourself in Freetown?

Bilikisu Koroma is an Ebola nurse and a survivor herself.

Bilikisu Koroma is an Ebola nurse and a survivor herself. Photo: Freetown Fashpack

I arrived in Freetown over three years ago to work on a maternal health programme with UNICEF. Since then I have worked on several other projects, mainly around health. Recently, I have been based in the main tertiary hospital in Freetown, supporting a small organisation that has been managing an isolation unit during the Ebola outbreak. I have had the great privilege of working with a team of international and Sierra Leonean nurses, doctors and cleaners who keep a 20-bed unit running safely. They have the hardest job in the world and to be so close to their world has been inspiring and devastating in equal doses. 

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My work in health has been balanced by my side project  – Freetown Fashpack – which attempts to showcase the bold and vibrant style of Freetown locals. I also use it as a fundraising platform to support a group of young athletes. 

How did your blog evolve from being about street style to telling a bigger story?

Miniratu is a surveillance officer who works at the Freetown Command Centre, a unit that coordinates the management of ...

Miniratu is a surveillance officer who works at the Freetown Command Centre, a unit that coordinates the management of Ebola cases. Photo: Freetown Fashpack

When Ebola emerged in Sierra Leone in May 2014, it started spreading quickly from the provinces to the capital. Within just a couple of months, all districts of Sierra Leone were affected and the whole country became involved in an enormous effort to fight this horrible disease that was destroying communities. The blog provided a platform to share the experiences of those affected by Ebola and paint a more balanced picture of what was happening in Sierra Leone. Mainstream international media tends to present sensationalist images and shocking reports – indeed, what was happening was shocking, but there are so many human stories of courage and inspiration that also need to be shared.

Your blog captures fashion outside of traditional fashion contexts. Why was it important that you keep this focus while covering the current health crisis?

I really wanted to keep the focus on the courageous people of Sierra Leone and show that, anywhere in the world, in any crisis or disaster, life does just keep going on and so does fashion. It was interesting photographing frontline healthcare workers and looking at their uniforms, as well as the remarkable Ebola survivors and giving an insight into their world.

How hard is it to get people to talk about the virus?

I sit in a hospital each day so many of my subjects are working close by. There are so many great stories and interesting people ready to tell them. Sierra Leoneans are generally very open and warm and happy to share ­– many want the world to know what they have experienced. The Ebola outbreak has been overwhelming and heartbreaking – people have lost family members (sometimes entire families), friends, colleagues and their communities have been torn apart. Many people also live in fear of catching Ebola. 

Who are the unsung heroes you seek to celebrate on the blog?

I have tried to focus largely on the Sierra Leonean health care workers and ward staff who have been at the heart of the Ebola response. They have had a relentless task of working on Ebola wards doing work that is physically and emotionally very tough. An Ebola unit is a challenging environment that most people would not choose to be in, the work inside involves some really difficult tasks like bagging up corpses and cleaning dead bodies. They are also trying to find a human connection with dying patients and provide them with a sense of dignity all while wearing a suffocating white plastic suit. Breaking bad news to anxious relatives is unthinkably tough and is also part of the routine.

Of the people you've photographed, whose stories have stood out?

Bilikisu Koroma is an Ebola survivor who lost 17 family members to Ebola. After leaving the ward and then regaining her strength, she returned to Connaught Hospital in Freetown to work as a nurse, this time on the Ebola unit. Her partial immunity to the disease has meant that her risk of catching it is lessened. She also understands from a patient's perspective what it is like to be sick with Ebola. She is just enormously courageous and despite suffering so much loss as well as stigma, she just gets on with it.

Your photographs are powerful in that they cut through the scare mongering and mythology surrounding the Ebola crisis by capturing life there in a very real, day-to-day way. What's the broader impact of this kind of documentation?

I think stories like mine put a human face to the statistics, reports and shock footage that we commonly see in mainstream media. I think it's important to always remember that behind this big news story are human beings who are stepping up to fight, who have lost their family and friends and who have suffered themselves. While there has been a lot of sensationalist reporting, if you dig a little deeper you can also find beautiful stories of courage and inspiration. Unfortunately these are not always the ones that make headlines. Hopefully more human stories help to break down the myths, misconceptions and stigma around the disease and foster a greater understanding, including the idea that this disease is a problem that belongs to the entire world, not just those in West Africa. I thought it was fantastic that the Ebola fighters were named "Time Person of the Year". A very well-deserved title for all nurses, doctors, cleaners, surveillance officers and burial teams on the frontline of this devastating outbreak. 

Do you believe your blog has helped to decrease the stigma surrounding the disease?

I hope so! It takes more than just a few blog posts though. The stigma surrounding Ebola and anyone affected or even just linked to Ebola in a relatively small way is enormous. In the extreme and most widespread cases, health care workers, survivors and those that have lost relatives are hugely stigmatised. I know so many Sierra Leoneans who have been abandoned by their families and thrown out of their homes because they are seen as a risk to others. I also know health workers, mostly from the UK, who returned home to find they were disinvited to Christmas, a wedding, or family reunion. I have just been back in Australia for a month and while most of my friends and family were extremely warm and welcoming, I also knew that certain people were scared to be around me. Despite the huge body of evidence that demonstrates otherwise, they couldn't overcome their own ignorance. 

What positive feedback have you gotten?

I receive some lovely comments from people all over – in Sierra Leone and beyond. It's nice to know people have been reading. The best feedback though is from those featured on the blog. It's nice showing people their photo. They feel recognised and acknowledged. 

Are you to continue living in Freetown for the foreseeable future?

I'll stay for a little bit longer. I would love to be in Sierra Leone when there are no more cases of Ebola, which will hopefully be some time this year. I've built a life here and it's a place that is very hard to turn your back on, there is so much I will be giving up when I do eventually leave. I can't imagine never returning though. Sierra Leone and its people have a very firm place in my heart. 

Do you hope to expand upon this project?

I hope I can continue to keep gathering stories and recording the experiences and fashions of Sierra Leoneans. There is also a doco series in the works.