Portraits of Life and Death

Editor Nancy Gibbs describes the stories behind this year's choice

By Nancy Gibbs

2014 has been a year of bearing witness. So many of the stories that demanded our attention arrived unfiltered, unexplained, often by way of a camera lens: the grainy images of police confrontations on city streets, the debate over the privacy of public figures whose phones were hacked, the elevator video of Ray Rice. Even the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, tweeting their way back to the 13th century while committing acts so barbaric that al-Qaeda denounced them, made sure the whole world saw their bloody handiwork by posting the videos of beheadings online.

But showing the frontline fighters in the battle against Ebola poses a particular challenge. Because the risks these men and women are taking are so great, reporting on their work involves some risk as well. After the outbreak was declared, our Africa bureau chief, Aryn Baker, visited Liberia, where she saw the devastating toll Ebola had taken on the country. Several weeks ago, when we began planning our Person of the Year coverage, we sent her back to catch up with the people she had encountered on her first trip. In late November she was joined by photographer Jackie Nickerson and deputy photo director Paul Moakley. Aryn met them at the airport in Monrovia. “I would hug you,” she said, “but that’s not something we do in public here.” In this usually affectionate culture, touch has been replaced by temperature taking.

(See More: The Ebola Fighters, TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year)

Our team kept a relentless schedule, following body–disposal teams who play a critical role in preventing the spread of the disease and tracking down doctors and nurses to interview and photograph them during the rare breaks in their 12-hour days. They watched men in Tyvek suits load body bags in the hard, white afternoon light. “All I could think about was how no family members were present to witness this final moment,” Paul recalls, “and all I could do was hold my head down in respect.”

Dr. Jerry Brown, the Liberian surgeon on the cover, runs both a hospital and an Ebola unit; he lives in a continuous loop of life and death, breaking away to celebrate when Ebola patients survive the disease and can be released with a clean bill of health. He grew up in the slums of Monrovia and dreamed of becoming a politician. But a rich uncle convinced him that he might have better luck as a doctor and paid for his medical school. “It’s something out of Dickens,” Aryn observes. “Without that wealthy uncle, I’m not sure where Liberia would be today. Perhaps ‘erased from the map of Africa,’ as Brown worried would happen if he didn’t do anything to stop the epidemic.”

Aryn was struck on this journey by the progress she saw. While Sierra Leone remains under terrible siege, with new infections reported every day, Liberia shows signs of getting the outbreak under control. The treatment wards are no longer filled to overflowing. People are returning to restaurants and marketplaces. “I think people had just gotten tired of living in fear,” she says. “You don’t realize what a toll fear takes on the body until you are relieved of it.” And yet even progress brings its own challenges, and not just the risk of complacency that could unleash the infection all over again. “Doctors and nurses told me that now that they could afford to memorize the names of their patients, they felt it more acutely when they died.”

(Why the Ebola Fighters Are TIME’s Person of the Year 2014)

The pain, frustration, joy and determination that drive the Ebola fighters are evident in the portraits that follow. Nickerson’s fine-art work has taken her all over Africa, from Congo and Malawi to Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where she lived for many years on a farm. “In her portraiture, Jackie always maintains a gentle distance with her subjects that allows her to capture something intimate, heroic and modern,” Paul observes.

For the fifth year in a row, our Person of the Year issue was overseen by deputy managing editor Radhika Jones. “When you look at the history of TIME’s Person of the Year covers,” she notes, “there are a lot of Presidents and heads of state.” Showing individuals on the covers whom few people will recognize represents a departure. “Many of the people in our cover story are unknown not only to readers but to each other,” she says. “But their mission unites them, and so does our story.”

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