Life Through a Lens
A passion for capturing the human extremities of life has seen British photographer Tom Bradley banged up in a Congolese jail, stranded and sleeping in a goat hut in Togo and staying in a leprosy colony in Nepal. Charlotte Walker reports…
I can sleep anywhere,” says Tom, unsurprisingly, after spending the past decade photographing Syrian refugees, Bangladeshi LGBT rights, Armenian prisoners and leprosy patients in 14 countries.
The 33-year-old has a life less ordinary; spending half of the year overseas, with the remainder staggered between staying with friends in London and occasional breaks at his parents’ home in the Wye Valley in Gloucestershire.
Among his photographic projects, most of which centre on themes of injustice, there is one mainstay; Tom has carved a niche for himself in photographing leprosy.
“As far as I’m concerned, I will be photographing leprosy for the rest of my life,” said Tom.
“There are so many layers to this disease – biological, social and political.”
While many people might associate leprosy with Bible stories or films like Ben-Hur, Tom’s first direct contact with the disease came through friends who had volunteered at Lalgadh Leprosy Hospital in Nepal.
“This was ten years ago now and after my two friends returned from Nepal, I visited the Nepal Leprosy Trust office in Richmond and told them I’d be interested in spending time photographing at their hospital, learning about leprosy.
“They set me up with accommodation at Lalgadh hospital, to which I have been on four occasions now. It was there I met Dr Hugh Cross, a podiatrist who has worked with people affected by leprosy for many years. It was after several conversations with him that I thought I should try to photograph leprosy across the world.
“I thought diseases like AIDS and malaria had been covered so well photographically but leprosy hadn’t. I saved up to go to Nigeria where I took some photographs for The Leprosy Mission.”
Again it was the injustice of leprosy that caught Tom’s attention. Not only the injustice that sees people with leprosy feared and cast out from their families and communities because of ancient beliefs, but the injustice that there are 3 million people globally today needlessly living with disabilities because they haven’t been cured soon enough.
There was a great effort to rid the world of leprosy in the run-up to the millennium, with the World Health Organization setting a target to ‘eliminate’ the disease, defining ‘eliminate’ as being fewer than one new case per 10,000 of the population.
“It is this word ‘eliminated’ that Dr Hugh Cross brought to my attention,” explained Tom. “The vast majority of countries across the world reached this ‘elimination’ status, bringing new cases globally from millions each year to around 250,000; however, this figure has stubbornly stayed the same for a decade now. The use of this word has convinced many governments to no longer invest in health services to completely rid the world of this cruel and disabling disease.
“So my project, Leprosy Eliminated?, questions the use of this word. I strive to explore the topic of leprosy in all its complexities, looking at all the different ways it affects people, as well as the ways people are fighting it. I want to show it exists in the world today, and without concerted effort it is not going away any time soon.”
Tom was educated at St Paul’s School in West London, where his father was also a maths teacher. He maintains close links to the school and continues to run short holidays for Christian Union students during the summer and Easter holidays.
“St Paul’s has an excellent Christian Union,” said Tom. “The idea is to provide a space where people can consider questions of faith and a spiritual side to life. It is a place where we encourage each other to grow. I know many of my closest friends through this.”
Tom took a gap year between school and studying Zoology at Durham University where he made his first visit to the developing world.
He said: “I had always wanted to travel and had my heart set on going to Africa ever since I can remember.
“I volunteered with an organisation working in Swaziland building a school for children orphaned by AIDS at a time when almost half the country was estimated to have HIV.
“In reality it was 15 incompetent Brits building a classroom, but it was a good organisation and life-changing experience.
“I took a friend of the family’s old film camera with me and spent a small fortune developing films, but I was hooked!
“I was then photo editor of the student newspaper and my degree took second place to photography. The reason I didn’t change course was there was an opportunity to work in a game reserve in Africa for two weeks near Johannesburg.”
Tom managed to build a name for his photography among development charities and travelled to Togo in the summer of 2010 with Mercy Ships, where he stayed for four months.
He said: “In the final month I stayed with one of the local volunteers in the capital of Togo, Lomé, in a small, local flat. I found out about a leprosy colony up in the north and set out on a four-day trip to the colony. My host in Lomé assured me there was no need to call ahead, so another friend and myself embarked on a ten-hour bus ride and a 20-mile taxi journey to the colony, which was run by nuns. We arrived only to be told by the nuns that there was nowhere to stay.
“An old man was walking along the road and I asked him if he knew of anywhere we could stay. He led us to this clearing where there was a small group of huts. He brought out a goat from one of them and gestured to his wife to sweep [the hut] out. We stayed there for two days.”
Tom said on another occasion he was staying in the Congo taking photographs for American Leprosy f Missions, which involved travelling for seven hours on the back of a motorbike to a remote town on the Congo river.
“I didn’t realise it was so far and didn’t bring any of my documents,” he said. “I then saw the police chief dressed in white with a gold wristwatch and gold sunglasses. Basically, he wanted money and wanted to make an example out of me for not bringing my passport.
“I was thrown in a ten by 15-foot cell with seven other inmates and a bucket in the corner. The next afternoon, security for the government got me out. [I was] covered in mosquito bites.”
On another occasion he stayed with a friend in Khokhana leprosy colony in Nepal, supported by The Leprosy Mission, for six days.
“I encountered the most extraordinary stories at Khokhana,” said Tom. “I met a man who used to work as a mountain porter in Nepal. He lost all sensation in his feet because of leprosy and [had] frostbite. To stop the spread of the gangrene that would emerge from this, he amputated his own feet with a pair of nail scissors. He actually kept the nail scissors on a key ring.
“There was also an older lady known as the ‘Tiger Woman’. She was forced to live in a hut outside her village after villagers found out she had leprosy. One day a storm destroyed her shelter and she sought refuge in a nearby cave where a tiger lived. She said the tiger used to snarl at her but never attacked her.”
Tom said life can be lonely living in remote parts of the world but, in many ways, it is a lifestyle that suits him.
“I think I value relationships more living like this,” he mused. “Most of my closest friends are from school but I also value new relationships. Sometimes it can be a lonely lifestyle. But human values are the same across the world and are not dependent on countries, culture and borders.
“Dhaka in Bangladesh is the city where I have spent the most time and in Sierra Leone and generally in West Africa I always feel at home.”
Predictably, Tom’s lifestyle has taken its toll on his health.
“I have been ill numerous times and as a result cannot drink beer any more,” he said. “Likewise, I can’t really drink milk any more. I had malaria in Sierra Leone and have permanent tinnitus after getting a fever in the Republic of the Congo. But apart from that I’m doing pretty well!”
Tom has had his work published in variety of publications and by a number of charities, including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, BBC, CNN, BuzzFeed, The Leprosy Mission, World Wildlife Fund, Mercy Ships and the Nepal Leprosy Trust.
At the time of writing Tom is back in Nepal, the country in which his international photographic journey began a decade ago. He is based at The Leprosy Mission’s Anandaban Hospital, which became a recognised disaster response centre by the government of Nepal in the wake of the 2015 earthquakes, which killed around 9,000 people and left behind a lasting trail of devastation.
Although a specialist leprosy hospital, the clinical skills and compassion demonstrated by its team –which reached out to 18,000 earthquake victims with emergency medical care, food parcels and tarpaulins and roofing sheets for shelter – raised Anandaban Hospital as a beacon of light throughout Nepal and neighbouring India.
Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, the leprosy hospital once hidden away on the hillside and avoided by local communities is now inundated as its services suddenly became widely known and respected. But with patient numbers doubling to 40,000 a year since the earthquake, it is a hospital under immense pressure with the same number of staff working tirelessly around the clock to ensure no one is turned away.
The Leprosy Mission’s Heal Nepal campaign seeks to find new cases of leprosy early, before a person become disabled, as well as giving people the care and surgery they need to work and provide for their families once again.
Within 24 hours of receiving the cure, a person affected by leprosy is no longer contagious. By finding leprosy early before nerve damage leaves hands and feet numb and vulnerable to wounds, The Leprosy Mission’s team at Anandaban Hospital can prevent permanent and avoidable disability, as well as bringing real hope of seeing an end to this ancient disease forever.
Anandaban Hospital in Nepal is critical in its vision to see the disease finally confined to the history books. Thanks to UK Aid Match from 27 January to 27 April, all donations to the Heal Nepal campaign will be matched by the UK government.Visit healnepal.org.uk for more information or ring 01733 370505.
To see more of Tom Bradley’s work, visit tom-bradley.com