Reporting on Zika Families — and Their Resilience
Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights from The New York Times.
It was the mothers’ tenacity that struck Adriana Zehbrauskas more than anything else.
Ms. Zehbrauskas, the photographer who captured the images published in today’s front-page article about Brazil’s Zika epidemic, wasn’t sure what to expect when she arrived in Escada.
On one hand, this was a homecoming of sorts: Ms. Zehbrauskas, who lives in Mexico City but was born and raised in Brazil, knew that her familiarity with the language and the culture there would come in handy when working with her subjects.
On the other hand, she knew this would be an especially difficult assignment, one that would force her to confront the uncertainties and hardships faced by families whose children are afflicted with microcephaly and other Zika-related illnesses.
But what she found, to her surprise, was a transformative sense of resilience.
“These women, they’re incredible,” Ms. Zehbrauskas said. “Their routines are so intense, so difficult, that I felt I had to work 20 hours a day to do justice to their stories.”
Far from shying away from the spotlight, many of the women profiled in the article were eager, in the end, to share their experiences — though it often took several visits to gain their trust.
“There was a lot of press a year ago, and many women got a lot of financial help — people would send donations,” Ms. Zehbrauskas explained. “But people don’t talk about Zika like they used to. Many families now feel that they’re facing this alone.”
Pam Belluck, who wrote today’s article, also felt a poignant sense of hope throughout her time in Brazil. Ms. Belluck, after all, has two daughters who are close in age to one of the women, Íris Adriane do Nascimento Santos, profiled in the piece. (Íris gave birth, at age 14, to a daughter who exhibits microcephaly and a range of other complications, including seizures.)
“Here’s this girl, who’s the same age as my kids, and who’s had to give up on her schooling and completely change her life for a future that’s so different than what you’d want for any teenager,” Ms. Belluck said. “I’m full of admiration for how strong she is, and how self-assured she seems to be about her baby’s treatment — asking question after question, getting up at dawn and going to four appointments a day.”
Tenacity, though, wasn’t all Ms. Zehbrauskas and Ms. Belluck witnessed. There were challenging moments, too — as when Íris described the depression she felt shortly after giving birth.
“In the moment, when I’m photographing, my camera works as a shield,” Ms. Zehbrauskas explained. “I have to be very attentive to details, to technical details — and for me that dulls the emotions a bit.”
“It’s only afterwards that everything sinks in,” she said.
As a reporter, Ms. Belluck had no such shield. And because she conducted most of her interviews through an interpreter, she had more time — when waiting to understand what someone had said — to experience a given moment’s emotional freight.
“The waiting made it feel like I was somehow more involved, and more exposed,” she said. “All of these other sensations — things I was seeing, hearing, smelling — had time to seep in. It all felt more visceral.”
Ms. Zehbrauskas traveled to Brazil twice for the story, first on a 10-day trip this past September with Ms. Belluck and Tania Franco, an interpreter, and again on a five-day solo trip in January.
Between the two trips, she kept in contact with the women she’d photographed, talking and exchanging messages via WhatsApp. Many of the women sent updates on their babies’ health; Ms. Zehbrauskas also shared stories with them about her own son, who’s 14.
“They’re very present in my life,” Ms. Zehbrauskas said. “All of them.”
And she plans to keep in touch with the women in the months and years ahead. “I hope that this story might help in some way, that it might bring some ongoing attention to the situation,” Ms. Zehbrauskas said.
“Because for many of these women,” she added, “this is just the start of a new life. For them it’s a story that’s just beginning.”