Few people are likely to know the names or recognize the faces of the five men and women who appear on the cover of TIME’s People of the Year issue. They are ordinary people who have made extraordinary sacrifices in 2014 to stem the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa. “They’re not just saving their own community. They’re saving us too. They’re saving the whole world,” says Jackie Nickerson, the photographer for four of the five the covers.
Together, the covers along with the photographs in the issue by Nickerson and Bryan Schutmaat offer perhaps the broadest portrait yet of Ebola’s frontline fighters–23 of the thousands of people who have risked their lives to stop this epidemic. “There are many others we’re not showing but we wanted a range of the different kind of efforts that are required to fight this fight,” says Nancy Gibbs, TIME’s editor. “Some of them are native to Africa and some of them have come from all over the world and we wanted to capture that across our five covers.”
“Because we’re spotlighting people who are unknown to our readers, which is very rare for Person of the Year, we wanted to make sure that what they do is apparent,” says Radhika Jones, the issue editor for Person of the Year. The photograph of Dr. Jerry Brown, the medial director and general surgeon at the Eternal Love Winning Africa Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia “is an image that takes you immediately to the work that this man is doing. When you look at the whole history of TIME’s Person of the Year covers, there are a lot of presidents, head of states and leaders. This is a very unique image for this franchise, and I think it’s one we will remember for a long time.”
Nickerson traveled from Paris to Monrovia for the assignment. Schutmatt traveled from Amsterdam to Geneva, London and then to the United States to shoot portraits of scientists leading the search for the Ebola vaccine.
Dr. Jerry Brown, 46, medical director and surgeon in Monrovia, Liberia
“There was a kind of gravity to the way Dr. Jerry Brown and his staff were working,” says Nickerson. “When we met Dr. Brown, we had the idea to do something very simple against a plain color, something of a more formal portrait. And then, he invited us to go into the Ebola Treatment Unit, into the reception area where he gets dressed. It was a very simple, bare room. It had a single light bulb, and I just thought it captured the atmosphere and gravity of what they were doing.”
Salome Karwah, 26, caregiver at the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic in Monrovia
“She’s an [Ebola] survivor and an incredibly brave woman,” says Nickerson. “When we met Salome, she was a typical young woman, she was all dressed up, she had jewelry on and she was a little nervous about having her picture taken. But then, she put her scrubs…she became very calm, a little bit introverted. She showed me where she worked in the Médecins Sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders (MSF) compound. We just wanted a plain background, so we came out of the dressing room and [this shot was taken] right there.”
Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, physician with Samaritan’s Purse
“Kent was working in West Africa doing a lot of hard, selfless work to help people out,” says Schutmaat. “I met at his church in Fort Worth, Texas. TIME’s photo editors and I felt that since he was a man of faith and since he was guided by that faith, it would be good to photograph him in there. And while the portrait is very formal, the whole meeting was very informal. We talked a bit, tried a number of different set-ups using natural light. I had no inclination to shoot for the cover. I was just shooting how I normally would shoot.”
Ella Watson-Stryker, 34, health promoter with MSF
“We took this picture very early in the morning, because everybody at MSF is incredibly busy, everybody is doing very important work,” says Nickerson. “And here we are, we come along and we’re trying to take them away from their important job. It literally took us 10 minutes to do that shot; and she was distracted, she wanted to do other things. What I love about that picture is the fact that it’s just her. She’s not trying to be anybody else. She’s just standing there because I have to take her picture. And she’s a very attractive person, but you can see the tightness in her face because she’s been working in Liberia and Sierra Leone as well. She’s had a long run of it.”
Foday Gallah, 37, ambulance supervisor in Monrovia
“Foday’s story is heartbreaking,” says Nickerson. “He contracted Ebola when he was trying to comfort a young kid, who was incredibly distressed. ‘I just had to pick the kid up and comfort him,’ he told us. Of course, he got vomit all over him and that’s how he got Ebola. He’s the shinning example of what the right thing to do is. He’s a shinning example that we should all try to follow. He really did touch me with his story. I don’t usually like to use the word hero, but I have to use it here.”