Photographer and cinematographer Chris Beauchamp worked with director Janet Tobias on several projects in the past, so when she needed additional cinematography and stills for her new film Unseen Enemy, Chris was a natural choice. Tobias is an Emmy Award-winning director, producer, and writer who has also worked as a media executive focusing on healthcare. Airing tonight on CNN to coincide with World Health Organization’s International World Health Day, this documentary tracks the progress of modern day viruses like Ebola, Zika and Influenza.
Over the course of making the film, Chris worked as one of the six cinematographers during their time in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In addition to his motion work, Chris took it upon himself to make a photographic project about the people working in and around the dozens of Ebola Treatment Centers the crew visited.
One of the goals of Unseen Enemy is to help people understand the issues and complexities the world now faces concerning pandemics. In addition to making sure the public is informed, the film also seeks to encourage the political will to confront and address these issues – all in an effort to help scientists and researchers receive the funding and tools they need.
The production of the film proved to be a moving target, with ample physical and logistical challenges. Originally much smaller in scope, the project had to expand and evolve when the West African Ebola Crisis broke out in 2014. Along with the director, Chris had to adapt to constantly evolving conditions and figure out a way to make photographs that could encompass such a large and complex issue, without resorting to sensationalism or well-worn Hollywood tropes.
Chris also wanted to find a way to photograph these events that went beyond the bounds of traditional reportage photography. He eventually came up with the idea of combining studio portraits of treatment center workers with pictures of the objects they used to protect themselves from the virus. Seamless studio backdrops proved to be hard to come by in rural West Africa, so Chris improvised.
I wanted my portraits of workers in the field to be consistent….most of the treatment centers we traveled through were makeshift structures made with this ubiquitous blue tarp, which they use out of necessity because of how fast the disease can spread. I used it as a backdrop to emphasize the practicality and necessity of the material.
For Chris, photographing physical objects that represent the crisis, like respirators and hazmat suits alongside the workers themselves, allowed the photos to play off each other, ultimately giving more meaning and poignancy to the series. In all, Chris photographed well over 100 workers during his time in Sierra Leone and Libera.
The whole endeavor seems like it could be a harrowing experience, but Chris notes that photographing in a contaminated zone wasn’t as terrifying as one might think.
One thing that I think surprises people when I tell them about the project was how much less scary it was to actually be in West Africa during the Ebola crisis. It was much more terrifying to be in the US watching news coverage about the outbreak beforehand.
Ironically, the scariest thing about working on the project turned out to be waiting out the thirty day incubation period once he returned to the states. He was required to monitor himself for symptoms and report his temperature to the Department of Health and Human Services twice a day.
During his time in West Africa, Chris did have a bit of a scare when he contracted a nasty cold.
My temperature crept uncomfortably close to the line where the guys in hazmat suits were going to have to come and drag me off to the hospital quarantine… the mind can certainly conjure some unpleasant thoughts in that situation.
Although he did have a few “too close for comfort experiences,” Chris immensely enjoyed his time working on this project and meeting people along the way.
Since its creation, the film has been chosen to serve as the centerpiece to a global health awareness and initiative campaign. Chris hopes that the forthcoming campaign will help raise awareness about these issues and that his photographs will make a real difference to those affected.
Chris is also grateful to all those who worked alongside him creating the film, including the director, Janet Tobias, all of the Ikana team members, the producers, the other cinematographers, the editors, and of course the folks at CNN Films, Vulcan Productions and Johnson & Johnson.
My favorite part of the project was when I was able to connect with people on a personal level. I think people need to feel that their voice, their story has meaning so whether you’re filming an interview or creating a portrait you’re signaling to them that their story is important. There’s a very honest gratitude in that.
Be sure to tune into CNN tonight to catch the film! (It’s not fake news, we promise.)
You can check out the trailer below.
Unseen Enemy: April 7th 10 PM est on CNN
As seen on CNN.com
See more of Chris’ luminous photography at christopherbeauchamp.com