Skip to main content

Photographer reflects on 18 years of chasing polio

Skip to main content

Exhibit documents the scope of polio eradication efforts worldwide


The exhibit “Chasing Polio,” on display at the Chicago Center for Photojournalism in Chicago, USA, through 29 May, captures an extraordinary 18-year journey. Photographer Jean-Marc Giboux traveled to 17 countries to document the effects of polio and the wide-ranging fight to eradicate it. He spoke with Rotary International, a sponsor of the exhibit, about his favorite photos, his most challenging ordeals, and how a Rotary member helped him at a crucial moment.

Jean-Marc Giboux

Image credit: Monika Lozinska

Q: How did you become interested in photographing polio eradication efforts?

A: In 1997, I was looking for a good story about our entry into the 21st century. I saw a story in the Chicago Tribune about Rotary and polio eradication, so I called Rotary and said, “I’d like to do a story. How can we do this?” We talked for a long time, and ultimately The Rotary Foundation gave me a grant to document this work. The next year, the photos were published in Life magazine, and a week later the World Health Organization asked me if I wanted to go to Sierra Leone for them. I had no idea I was getting into this for 18 years. It just happened.

Q: Are there particular countries where it’s easier or harder to photograph people?

A: I’ve been going to India for 25 years, so I’m very comfortable in India. I can find my way around, and Indian people are pretty good about being photographed. I went there probably 10 times. Afghanistan and Pakistan were more difficult. In Afghanistan, you need a translator, and it can be difficult from a security standpoint.

Q: Is it hard to photograph polio eradication work in general?

A: The experience of photographing polio vaccination was usually very positive. You arrive in places where there is poverty, there is war, and you’re coming in with a group of people who are simply there to help. I got a pretty good reception everywhere.

Q: What are your favorite photos in the exhibition?

A: There’s one picture from Sierra Leone of a group of kids sitting together in a home for disabled children. I love that picture. You know, they are just school kids.

Insulated ice boxes set out to dry at a health center. One main challenge in any immunization campaign is maintaining a cold chain, which means keeping vaccines at the right temperature from when they’re produced until they’re used. Delhi, India, 2004.

Courtesy of Jean-Marc Giboux

There’s another picture, of this guy walking with a cooler [in Afghanistan]. I would spend my day following the immunization workers going door to door. That was in 2002, when I was able to do this without a police escort. After that it became dangerous.

Q: Were there times when your alliance with Rotary helped you get the photos you wanted?

A: On my very first morning in Kano, in northern Nigeria, I went out to take pictures. I didn’t take a single picture before I got arrested for having a camera. Two big guys just got me. Then I saw a policeman in uniform. I ran to him and asked, “Are these people legit?” and he said, “Yes, they are immigration [police]” or something. So I went with them in their car.

  1. A child affected by polio plays at a facility managed by the charitable organization Cheshire Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1997.

  2. Children affected by polio in line in the schoolyard at the Amar Jyoti Research & Rehabilitation Centre. At the school, children with and without disabilities learn together. Delhi, India, 1998.

  3. A mother takes her child to a polio vaccination center in the midst of civil war in Sierra Leone. A government soldier guards the road that leads out of town, toward the conflict’s front line. Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1998.

  4. Children affected by polio find refuge from Sierra Leone’s civil war at the Freetown Cheshire Home. Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1998.

  5. A government health worker goes door to door in the villages of the Zinda Jan district during the National Immunization Days in Afghanistan. Herat province, Afghanistan, 2002.

  6. A Pashtun father with his child during Afghanistan’s National Immunization Days. Government health workers went door to door in the villages of the Zinda Jan district to administer polio vaccine. Herat province, Afghanistan, 2002.

  7. Food is distributed in the Maslakh refugee camp. Herat province, Afghanistan, 2002.

  8. In 2004, India’s last polio ward, in St. Stephen's Hospital in Delhi, provides reconstructive surgery for people who have been paralyzed by polio. Delhi, India, 2004.

  9. Children pray before classes begin at Akshya Pratisthan. The private institution provides rehabilitation in an environment where children with disabilities (caused primarily by polio) and children without disabilities live and learn together. New Delhi, India, 2004.

  10. Nurses and health workers gather at the Fara Block Community Health Center in India to celebrate the first anniversary of the country being certified polio-free. Mathura, India, 2015.

They took my passport, and for two days I was not able to get out of the hotel. But a Rotarian, the local president of the Rotary club in Kano, kind of negotiated for me. He never told me what he did, but he got my passport back.

Q: Did you anticipate challenges like that when you began taking polio pictures?

A: I had no idea what I was getting into. The first place I went was Ethiopia, and I wanted to go into the south to see some tribal areas. It was the rainy season, and we got stuck in the mud in the middle of the night. I was able to photograph the vaccinations, but it took me around three days to get back. That was the reality. In the same way I made my way there, the polio vaccine had to get there. It was quite interesting to see the difficulty. Putting two drops of vaccine in the mouth of a kid is not that difficult. Making it happen is the difficult part.

Learn more about Rotary’s polio eradication efforts.

— May 2024

related stories

Highlights of World Polio Day 2023

Polio-free India: It seemed impossible until it was done

UNICEF executive director: Women are the key to eradicating polio