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Dec 4 2008 4:40 PM

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Panel: Where Photojournalism and Treatment Intersect

"Let's hold hands to show we are united." Though the image above was taken by photojournalist Donna DeCesare, the idea behind it came from this spontaneous thought from one of the image's "protagonists" (a term DeCesare prefers to "subject"). Nancy and her six younger siblings were displaced by three days of torture and killings by paramilitaries that left more than 40 villagers dead in El Salado, Colombia in the year 2000. Though it would be dangerous for them to reveal their faces or full names, through DeCesare's unique collaborative approach, they were able to choose, creatively and expressively, how they would be seen.

Last night, Donna spoke about her approach at a panel discussion sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, the Open Society Institute Documentary Photography Project and the Columbia University School of Social Work. The panel included Grace Christ, Columbia professor of social work, and Jack Saul, director of the International Trauma Studies Program, and Dart Center executive director Bruce Shapiro as moderator, and their conversation ranged across the contradictions and potential commonalities in the methods and goals of journalists, social workers and clinicians.

Christ spoke about her work with children and families of firefighters killed in the 9/11 attacks, and told a story where she saw a "conflict of goals and efforts" between therapists and the media. Julia, a young teenager whose father was one of the highest fire chiefs killed on 9/11, stood alongside her younger sister at his memorial service at St. Patrick's cathedral and read a poem that was really a letter to her father. For the one year anniversary, she was asked to read the poem again at a major public event, but she was separated from her family by the coordinators, and left with anger instead of catharsis. As Christ said:

"The aim was that people would understand how children understand these things ... The impact on the group was terrific ... The impact on the individual ... was not so good."

Saul lauded DeCesare's approach:

"The principles she's employing are the principles we try to teach therapists: to create a sense of safety for people … to realize that people who are severely traumatized don't often know how to protect themselves."

He emphasized the importance, when interviewing victims of those radically disempowered by trauma, of not only giving interviewees choice at every step of the way (the choice to cancel the interview; the choice to take a break), but also of giving them a meaningful context in which to tell their story. This, Saul said, "is one of the most important routes of recovery." The further step in DeCesare's work, in which the "subject" of journalism is made a protagonist and an agent in the creative process, Saul related to art therapy.

"I think that’s an extra step from just telling one’s story … It’s moving to making decisions creatively about how one want to represent one’s story … That extra step is something that’s extremely important in the process of healing."

Of course, this doesn't mean that DeCesare's method is the one all journalists will take, or that her method is without its contradictions. Pressed by a questioner on whether there was ever a conflict between her role as a journalist, and her responsibility to the public, and her responsibility to the individual, she responded:

"I’m clear that [to be a therapist and advocate] is not my main goal … but I feel that as a human being I always want to bring that in."

Donna DeCesare's exhibit "Sharing Secrets: Children's Portraits Exposing Stigma," from which the image of Nancy, above, is drawn, can be viewed online as well as in person at the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Bruce Shapiro

  • Bruce Shapiro is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, encouraging innovative reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide from the Center’s headquarters at Columbia University in New York City. An award-winning reporter on human rights, criminal justice and politics, Shapiro is a contributing editor at The Nation and U.S. correspondent for Late Night Live on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National.

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