While reporting on Ebola, the smell of chlorine ‘is one of the most comforting smells in the world’
— Ben C. Solomon (@bcsolomon) August 10, 2014
It's like being immersed in a swimming pool. Constantly. But the smell of chlorine and bleach don't bother Ben Solomon.
"The smell is one of the most comforting smells in the world for me," he said in a Skype interview. "All my clothes are ruined, and I'm totally OK with it."
Solomon, a foreign video journalist with The New York Times, is currently in Liberia. Before that, he spent three weeks in Sierra Leone, documenting the devastation of Ebola.
"It's the most challenging story I think I've ever covered," Solomon said. It's depressing, frustrating, infuriating, but it's also an honor, he said, "and a privilege to be able to tell these people's stories."
Reporting on Ebola from West Africa is hard. At first.
"And then you kind of ease into the precautions," Solomon said.
The stories about Ebola and death tolls and hospitals unequipped to deal with the situation are intimidating. And there's not a lot of training for covering situations like those now in West Africa. It's been a long time since a viral hemorrhagic fever broke out this big and this gruesome.
"There's not a lot of knowledge of this," Solomon said.
And so the first step, actually going in and starting to work, is the most complicated. Then, you learn as you go. He's gotten more comfortable over time, learning how to approach people and places, which situations require gloves and boots, which require the full hazmat suit (that makes it really hard to do his job.)
And then, it's just a matter of percentages.
-- "I'm not gonna touch anyone today," that's 50 percent of the risk.
-- Don't touch your face. That's another 10 percent.
-- Clean your shoes before and after visiting a home. That's five percent.
-- Wear gloves, that's about 2 percent.
"Everything is just adding to the hope that you'll be safe. There's no guarantee, there's no exact figure," Solomon said. "You just have to have it in your mind all the time that one touch could kill you."
— Ben C. Solomon (@bcsolomon) September 10, 2014
In small ways, all the time, he's surrounded by the most acute moments of hope. In the midst of something horrible, there are people trying to help, people acting humanely, people who still have hope.
It's also hard.
"We're watching kids die all the time," he said. "It sucks to watch an 8-year-old girl lose all her energy and two days later be dead. It's a hard thing to watch for anyone."
But when you work in conflict areas, those moments of hope show up, too, Solomon said, and that's what he wants to show. This isn't just a story of death tolls and disease.
"These people are human, just like you and I, and they deserve to have their stories told."
Every couple days, he takes a day off, stays at a nice hotel with a pool, eats a good dinner. He feels kind of guilty about it, but stepping away from the story helps keep him vigilant.
"If you become too unaware, too comfortable, then you're in danger of messing up."
Before and after every shoot in a place that has been exposed to Ebola, Solomon and a reporting partner take 20 minutes to clean off every spot that they can.
Like the smell of chlorine and bleach, it's a comforting ritual.
"It's the most affirming part of the day," he said. "To be able to clean yourself off so that, God willing, you're killing whatever's on you."
I also have a Twitter list of journalists covering the outbreak.