The Digital Journalist
The Israeli Bird Flu Outbreak

by Rafael Ben-Ari

May 2006

Living in Israel, close to the Gaza Strip, and being a freelance photographer in a country full of news and even more photographers, I came to accept the late phone calls and very early-morning starts to beat the competition and meet the deadlines.

Not knowing much about the bird flu epidemic, which is engrossing the world, I was soon to learn and see more about it than I would have in any other job.

It was early Friday morning when the chief photographer of the international photo wire agency that I work with rang me with the news that a flock of dying turkeys had been found in southern Israel near Gaza Strip. They were suspected of carrying the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu and I needed to start to document the event immediately and send the images via FTP as soon as I could. As I knew that it might be a breaking story for me as a photojournalist in Israel, it was necessary for me to be resourceful, sociable, quick-thinking and as informed as possible.

An hour later I arrived at the first infected turkey coop in Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, with all my photography gear, much enthusiasm and a small scarf to cover my face against breathing in the disease. Being the first photographer to arrive I expected many more to come as this is commonplace with news such as this. I found the Kibbutz turkey coops to be empty of people as no one was working in the area so I shot a few images of the turkeys in their encasements, alive and well, and thought about moving on to the other infected Kibbutz, but decided to be patient and waited for someone to arrive. As I waited I took a short walk around the outside of the pens and found an open turkey coop door where infected dead turkeys sprawled out of it in a pile.

An Agriculture Ministry worker supervises the burial of infected turkey carcasses at Kibbutz En Hashlosha in the western Negev, Israel, on Saturday, March 18, 2006. The Agriculture Ministry started to kill hundreds of thousands of birds infected with bird flu or in danger of being infected with the deadly virus in three kibbutzim and a moshav.

Fortunately soon after, a poultry farmer arrived in his pickup truck with some foreign workers with signs in Hebrew reading "Danger! Contained disease. The area is closed and entrance is forbidden." Wearing a mask the poultry farmer handed me, I photographed the foreign workers hanging the signs on the fence surrounding the turkey coop while a poultry farmer dressed up in a biohazard suit and entered the fenced area. I knew at this point that these actions were more than precaution. As the other photographers arrived, I had a few good photos that were exclusive but not the winning photo. As the workers drove off I realized that it was unproductive for me to hang around so as I decided to go to the next infected Kibbutz Holit, I was asked to leave the area by an Agriculture Ministry officer who started to panic; it was their first time in dealing with a situation like this. So I left, but not before I found out when they were planning to start the culling of the turkeys to prevent the spread of the disease and to take them out of their misery. The Agriculture Ministry said that the culling by poison would start right after the weekend, first thing on Sunday morning, and that they needed to restrict the drinking water from the turkeys first so they would become dehydrated and drink the deadly poison as quickly as possible to prevent them from unnecessary suffering and further spread of the disease. In Holit I found closed turkey coops and nothing to photograph so I decided to call it a day and to send the pictures to the agency.

On Saturday afternoon I got a phone call from my chief photographer telling me that the virus was spreading rapidly and had been found in a few more settlements around Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, so the government had decided to prevent further spread of the disease and would not to wait until Sunday for the killing. They had ordered the Israeli Agriculture Ministry employees to start culling immediately by slaughtering all turkeys and chickens in a three-mile radius. My chief photographer told me that he needed a specific photo that conveyed the extensive culling of the hundreds of thousands of turkeys.

An hour later I arrived at the culling fields at twilight-time when the light was warm, so it gave a surrealistic look to the killing process that was going on. I got the camera from the front seat of my car and started to document the sullen and graphic burial process.

Carcasses of dead turkeys at Kibbutz Holit in the western Negev, Israel, on Sunday, March 19, 2006. An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 turkeys and chickens were killed in the area by drinking poisoned water after some birds tested positive to carrying the deadly H5N1 strain of the Avian flu virus.

The agricultural ministries were taking extra precautions while dealing with the flu and wore disposable anti-chemical suits plus face covers. They walked around the coop houses and started to slaughter the distressed and dying turkeys, taking a knife to their throats if they were not already dead. This was a very intense moment for me to photograph as the stench of flesh filled the air and the visual scene of the slaughtering was at times too much too watch but as far as I understood there was, unfortunately, no other way.

Night started to fall, and I still needed that winning photograph so along with a longer exposure at a fast ISO, I was able to show the workers dispose of the dead turkeys into a huge ground grave, dropped by a massive red truck against the dramatic darkening sky. I returned the next morning, stopping to get fuel and a copy of the paper with last night's published photo on the front page.

The devastation was mind-boggling. The distress on some of the turkeys' faces and the people that I met made me want to walk away. But being a professional photographer, you need to put your emotions aside and to focus on and capture the things that happen in front of your eyes.

An Agriculture Ministry worker carries carcasses of dead turkeys in a forklift at Kibbutz Holit in the western Negev, Israel, on Sunday, March 19, 2006.

Over the next few days, I visited many infected turkey coops and I met many people that were in charge on the killing and as I got more and more involved in the bird flu prevention efforts I felt greater sympathy towards the subjects. I also found myself overwhelmed by the realization that I was one of a very few photographers to cover the event. Some just could not see or bear the intense smell of the hard massacre of the birds. I went through all the places where the flu struck in Israel and covered the event as closely as I could until the Israeli government declared that all media personnel were restricted from entering any infected areas until the eradication of the disease was complete.

Eventually, over a million turkeys were killed since it all began and the Israeli poultry farmers asked the government to declare it a 'national disaster' so they would be compensated, but because the Israeli elections were the next week, it never happened. [Farmers were later compensated 2.15 million Israel New Shekels: 4.15 NIS = $1.] Israeli people stopped buying turkey products and some factories have been shut down until it was confirmed that there was no infected meat to find its way to the consumers and spread to or even kill humans. Today Israel is still under the threat of another outbreak.

There were a few aspects and points of view for this story that were covered:

  1. From the agriculturists' point of view and the loss of their product and the hard work that they put into growing their poultry. Would they be compensated?
  2. The workers that had to kill the turkeys by poisoning or slaughtering them. How did this affect them?
  3. The Agriculture Ministry officials that supervised the prevention of the spread of the disease and fought against time to bury the remains before other birds or animals would eat the infected meat and pass it on. Were they doing everything possible to prevent the spread of the disease?
  4. The last was the consumers of poultry products who stopped buying it and how they would influence the meat factories in Israel, Europe and the Middle East. Did the bird flu stop people from eating poultry products?

Advice to all photojournalists if they come across an event like this:

  • First, wear a face mask and full protective clothing including plastic shoe covers. Be prepared and have this ready beforehand.
  • Second, always introduce yourself before photographing and show your press card when you are asked by officials to do so.
  • Make sure that the authorities accept you being there and that you do not interfere with their task, and in case they won't let you to stay close, walk back and try to photograph the action from a distance with a telephoto lens.
  • Make sure you get your car cleaned by the authorities before you leave the infected area so as to not spread the disease to other parts of your country.
  • Be aware of what is going on around you and be ready to be where the image moment will happens.
  • Focus on your subject and always look for the effective emotional picture.
  • Be friendly with others and respect them to get their help.
  • Be patient. Often the best photos happen when you have thought to give up.
  • Master your photography equipment so it becomes second nature when the moment arises.
  • Try to take advantage of problems or situations like mixed light sources, inaccessibility and be creative.
  • The ability to anticipate action will come with experience.
  • When captioning images, remember the five Ws: who, what, where, when, why.

The essential equipment for news photography:

  • Two bodies of professional digital cameras (Nikon or Canon)
  • Two lenses :

    -Option A: Fixed 20mm (ultra-wide angle) on one camera and 300mm (telephoto) on the other camera

    -Option B: Use zoom lenses -- 17-35mm on one camera and 70-300mm on the other camera

  • Monopod
  • Speed light flash plus battery pack
  • Road map
  • Notebook and a pen
  • Do not drink too much fluid as you can miss a shot when you are looking for a toilet
  • Do not carry photography equipment, more than you can run with
  • All-weather jacket or photography vest
  • Bum bag/pouches for lenses
  • Swiss Army knife
  • Press card – try to get one from the local police if you intend to publish images in local or international news
  • Comfortable walking shoes and pants with lots of pockets

© Rafael Ben-Ari

Photographer Rafael Ben-Ari is from Israel and became an on-location photographer in 1994 after gaining a Professional Photography Diploma from NYI and studying at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. He then traveled the world to immerse himself in many manners of work and cultures. Being able to speak fluent English, Hebrew and basic Arabic, Rafael has enabled himself to work in most parts of the world, living in countries such as England, Australia, New Zealand and is now based in Israel. Rafael has covered events such as the America's Cup, the Salvador Carnival and the Israeli Disengagement.

© Rafael Ben-Ari

Dispatches are brought to you by Canon. Send Canon a message of thanks.