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Sick on the Road

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It's one of those law-of-averages things.

If you spend a lot of time on the road – the way photographers on assignment do – sooner or later, and despite your best efforts, you are going to come down with something.

And, of course, this doesn't apply only to photographers. Any kind of road warrior, from traveling sales rep, to reporter, to scientist, to simple frequent flier, increases his or her chances of becoming ill on the road simply by spending a lot of time on the road. There's the increased exposure to many more people. There's the close quarters of jam-packed airliners that then become flying Petri dishes. There's the inherent weakening of the body's defenses that comes from time-zone fatigue.

And, of course, there's the water. There's always the water.

"Traveling in a remote region of Zambia, Africa," notes famed Magnum shooter Bruce Davidson, "I ordered a bottle of water from a small restaurant, thinking I was being careful ordering bottled water. [But] I failed to make sure the bottle was unopened when it arrived at my table and to my dismay realized only after becoming violently ill that they had merely filled an old Vichy bottle with river water.

"I was forced to leave the next day after many hours of agony."

It probably was my own paranoia about the water that kept me well in June, 1984, during a frantic trek through Latin America covering then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. During that time we hit Cuba twice, as well as Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Water never touched my lips over the entire trip. I think I even washed my teeth with beer. I just made sure my food was well cooked and was able to enjoy myself. In teeming Panama City, for example, I may have taken a chance when, at a local restaurant, I ordered a fish soup that was the color of grey dishwater. But the place had been highly recommended, the soup came to the table steaming – and it was simply ambrosial. [My seatmate on this arduous trip was Fred Barnes, whose plan to avoid salmonella was more direct. He simply ate at every MacDonald's he could find, local cuisine be damned.]

In a survey of my photographic colleagues on how to avoid illness, or failing that, how to cope with it while traveling, I received many stories and lots of advice, including a novel use of beer and sugar as a cure for...well, you'll see.

Globe-trotting magazine and commercial shooter Kay Chernush, for example, responded to my query with a lot of practical tips, which doubtless accounts for the fact that in all her years as a traveling photographer she never has gotten sick while on assignment.

"But having lived in India for a year, I learned what precautions to take when working in developing countries."

"[I] never eat anything that isn't cooked or that can't be peeled – peeled by me....That especially means lettuce/tomato salads and fruit salads that have been sitting out. NEVER."

It should be noted that even in places where sanitation is not a huge concern, indigenous bugs that never bedevil locals can wreak havoc on travelers simply because they have not developed a tolerance for them over time. The lesson here is never to relax your guard.

"I drink sodas and beers from the bottle or can, not from a glass," Kay notes. "Once on assignment I made the fatal mistake at a fancy hotel in Rajasthan and relaxed my guard [and] allow[ed] my beer to be poured into a glass. The result was that I was sick as a dog for three days. All it took was one killer drop of water in that glass from the washing up."

Also, Kay says: "No ice. NOT EVER. And usually no ice cream either."

Kay echoed Bruce Davidson's affinity for bottled water ("with sealed caps," she smartly admonished) and also noted the need to drink plenty of it, especially in hot climates. In torrid places like Iraq, India and Yemen, Kay noted, "I always take salt tablets to replenish what gets carried off when I sweat a lot."

High though intestinal problems may rank on the traveler's list of things to avoid, one also has to guard against respiratory ills – and even changes in time zones.

In fact, Cameron Davidson, a veteran location and corporate shooter, maintains that "the biggest problem on the road is sleep deprivation."

"I once drove down the right side of the road in England [which is to say the wrong side] at the end of an around-the-world-in-fifteen-days shoot. Caught myself in a second or two and got back to the proper side of the road. I was beyond tired. Two weeks of multi-time zones killed me..."

Still, that can be a comparative picnic compared to the flu, bronchitis, or nowadays, SARS.

"I've gotten nailed by the flu and brought a nasty case of pneumonia back from China with me," Davidson said. But he notes thankfully that "down-and-out-can't-finish-shooting has never happened to me." But he has come close.

"Coming back from China in February nailed me good – took me out for two weeks. Laid in bed and felt like dying. May have been SARS, may[be] not; my doctor was not sure." Usually, Cameron reports, "if I am feeling bad...a couple of Mountain Dews with a good dose of Tylenol will get me through the morning." [Hey, whatever works, right?]

"I usually take Imodium AD and powdered Gatorade with me. It will save you. Actually, I did get sick once in Haiti. Came down with a super-high temperature and chills. Most likely bad water." Thankfully, Cameron was photographing a project with "a bunch of doctors and they fed me a couple of Cipro 500mg's over twelve hours and the next day I was back to normal."

The key, Cameron says, "is keeping a little kit with you. Imodium (which will save your life if you get dysentery) plus powdered Gatorade. Then I also squirrel away a Cipro from the Haiti trip just in case – plus the regular goodies like Advil and sinus meds."

Fine art photographer Craig Sterling also has his own kit, which includes stuff you can't get here in the US.

When traveling in Italy, Craig advises, "go to the Farmacia...and pick up a box of meds called Actigrip. It is in a green box. Everyone has it in stock. This would never be sold over the counter in the USA. I got the flu two years ago while in Venice...really sick as hell. Actigrip totally masked the symptoms and I got better in 1-2 days...amazing."

He says flatly: "Keep it in your camera bag. It's just as important as batteries and a cable release!"

Maybe Actigrip would have helped me last January in Venice as well, when I developed a lovely case of bronchitis that threatened to seriously disrupt Judy's and my three-week shooting schedule. But I managed to go my friend Craig one better. I had a real live doctor look at me – virtually on a moment's notice – and for free.

What started as a cold shortly before we departed the States, blossomed into bronchitis after nearly a week of outdoor shooting in 20-degree weather, often at night. Happily, our friend Barbara, an Italian-to-English translator who lives in Venice with her architect boyfriend Giuseppe, telephoned her doctor, who said, in effect, "sure, have him come over this evening."

Dr. Antonello Iovane's consulting rooms are in the lobby of a crowded but tidy Venetian apartment building near the Piazzale Roma bus station. The throng of patients, young and old, jammed into the hallway between his two rooms reminded Judy and me of all those 1950s Italian film noir flicks – lots of dark shadows and harsh light. But Dr. Iovane himself was a delightful, ebullient guy who could tell in a minute from listening to my chest that I had bronchitis.

He simply handed me the antibiotics I needed and then refused to take a dime.

Judy and I returned the next day, this time with an autographed copy of my book, Faces of the Eastern Shore.When I travel, I carry several copies of this small paperback to give to folks who help us. And boy, did he ever. [Incidentally, I inscribed my book in Italian, thanking the doctor for his help to "un Americano fotografo infermo." This prompted Dr. Iovane to guffaw. Turns out I probably should have used the adjective "malato" instead of "infermo," since infermo can refer to someone chronically, or even terminally, ill.]

Still, of all the horror stories I heard in my survey, the best (i.e.: worst) was from Neil Selkirk, the renowned portraitist and corporate shooter – who freely acknowledged that he should have known better. His excuse was that at the time (more than 30 years ago) he was young and foolish (one might be tempted to say young and stupid) and doubtless thought that, at age 23, he was immortal.

The scene was exotic enough and the job glamorous enough: in Morocco for three weeks assisting the legendary Japanese photographer Hiro, who was shooting a lengthy assignment for Harper's Bazaar.

Near the beginning of the trip, in Zagora at the edge of the Sahara, Neil was wandering through a Saturday morning market with his fellow assistant Michael O'Neill, when he spotted a man smoking a pipe that almost certainly did not contain tobacco.

Suddenly taken with the idea of sampling some of the local product (he was 23, remember) Neil looked at the man, who offered him a hit on his pipe.

"Oh God," Neil remembers thinking," I don't like the look of the saliva at the end of this pipe." But he puffed anyway.

Within an hour, back in his hotel room, Neil was on the floor having convulsions, not to mention diarrhea and vomiting.

"We were supposed to be moving out that day," Neil recalled. "I remember Hiro coming in and saying, 'my God, what happened to him?'"

Since they could not very well leave this puking, convulsing 23-year-old in Zagora, Hiro and company packed Neil into the car for the several hour drive to the next town. To make things even more surreal, Hiro and his team were traveling as guests of the king of Morocco, who provided transportation, including the big Mercedes in which Neil was transported like a sack of cement.

Once at the next hotel, Neil said, "I was essentially carried motionless out of the car; they put me in a room and dumped me on the bed."

After a while, Hiro walked in with a fluted beer glass.

"When I leave the room, you are to drink this," Neil remembers Hiro saying. "You will be violently ill, but afterwards you will be better."

"Whatizzis?" Neil slurred.

"Beer and sugar," Hiro replied, "and you have to drink it in one gulp." ["I learned this remedy from a former German WWII Luftwaffe pilot...while I was on [another] location shoot for Harper's Bazaar." the veteran photographer recalled.]

Hiro left. Dutifully, Neil slugged the mixture down.

"After a few seconds I thought 'that wasn't so band,' then went like a rocket into the toilet."

After this latest restroom adventure, there were several more hours of sleep – and yet another car trip. This time, when Neil was dumped into his room, he slept for at least 24 hours.

"I felt like a million dollars," Neil said. Over the course of the next three weeks, everyone else in Hiro's entourage came down with something, "and I never got sick again."

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Dr. Antonello Iovane was my savior in Venice last winter. Not only did he see me on a moment's notice for my bronchitis, he also gave me antibiotics – and refused to take one Euro in payment.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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