Exposure

Photographer Adam Nadel, AB’90, captures images of malaria’s causes and effects, both scientific and social.

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The first image that caught my eye, as I walked into photographer Adam Nadel’s Field Museum exhibit on malaria, was of a cluster of Ugandan schoolboys. Their solemn, knowing faces turned toward the camera in a spare-looking classroom. Taped to the wall above their heads, a giant hand-drawn chart showed the number of students present for each day of the week. On Wednesday there were 35; on Monday only 15.

The photo’s caption calls malaria “the major reason” for missed school days in Africa’s largest countries, and a quote from the boys’ headmaster explains that the disease’s frequency at his school is down: these days students get sick with malaria only three or four times a year. It used to be ten.

“[Almost] half the world lives like this,” Nadel, AB’90, told the New York Times in 2010 when the exhibit, called Malaria: Blood, Sweat, and Tears, premiered at the United Nations building in Manhattan. More than 40 percent of the world’s population is at risk for malaria. Every year the disease infects at least 250 million people; 650,000—most of them children—die from it. And malaria is a preventable, curable disease.

When Nadel set out to create this exhibit, commissioned by the London-based Malaria Consortium, he wanted to do more, he says, than simply show the suffering it causes; he wanted to explain the science behind it and the social and economic forces that perpetuate it. And so alongside photographs of the sick and bereaved—a pregnant woman on an examining table, two children whose brothers died and two others who almost died themselves—the exhibit includes images of research scientists, rural health workers, a warehouse full of mosquito nets ready to be deployed, and a team of Nigerian men in heavy aprons and gas masks carrying canisters of insecticide. There are huge, haunting photographs of mosquitoes under the microscope: a feathery wing, a vast landscape of egg-shaped eyes, a proboscis looking more like a hoof than a mouth.

In one photo that is both joyful and ominous, a Cambodian boy opens his arms to the annual monsoon rains, which bring with them disease-carrying mosquitoes. In another a Ugandan man relaxes with his dog in his dirt yard; the caption describes how domesticated animals may have helped lower malaria transmission rates thousands of years ago—although, it adds, too many animals can also increase transmission. In a shadowy office illuminated by a single window, a local pharmacies director in Nigeria, who asked to remain nameless, sits alone at his desk. In the caption, he notes the death threats and “powerful consequences” that come with trying to enforce proper drug standards against counterfeiters. He explains that his pregnant daughter died from taking what turned out to be counterfeit drugs.

On the late-June morning when the exhibit opened, visitors trickled in and out: a teenage couple, a mother and son, two preteen girls waiting for their parents to catch up. Sooner or later, most of them wound up in the same corner where I found myself returning. There, juxtaposed with the photo of a mother cradling her sick son in the back of a pickup as she rushed him to a clinic, is a strange image of a man seated in a field, holding an orange tube to his lips. The device is an aspirator, used to catch mosquitoes for research, and the man, the caption explains, is a mosquito hunter in training, who has volunteered to put himself at risk by waiting for the insects to land on his body and then sucking them into the aspirator. He hopes to catch some 200 a night that way. “In order to capture the mosquito,” he says, “you must expose some skin.”

Malaria: Blood, Sweat, and Tears, which also includes a graphic novel depicting the disease, illustrated by Brazillian artist Kako, is at the Field Museum through December.

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