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David Handschuh, staff photographer for the New York Daily News, had just returned to his office when his editor told him to go to Littleton, Colorado. Six hours after watching the event unfold on television, he was at Columbine, covering the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
As a 19-year photography veteran, Handschuh had covered the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the Happyland Social Club fire in The Bronx, NY. However, Columbine was his first school shooting assignment.
For Handschuh, father of three, the shooting was an emotional experience.
"I cried at Columbine," he said. "A lot of photographers stood outside the church that day and did a lot of self-reflection. We asked ourselves why we do what we do and how we do it."
Handschuh said journalists who cover events like Columbine often relive the incident long after the headlines fade. Photographers, he said, may be traumatized not only when they're at the scene, but when they go back to the lab to develop images and every time they see the photographs.
For months after the shooting, he had flashbacks of scenes from Columbine.
"Photographers are exposed to multitudes of trauma," Handschuh said. "Every time you see the picture, whether it be on the front page of the newspaper or displayed for an award, you relive the sights, sounds, smells and the adrenaline that is associated with the picture."
The shootings at Littleton took a toll on journalists, he said. Stress counselors were brought into Denver newsrooms 48 hours after the shootings. In addition, debriefing sessions were held to give journalists a chance to talk about their reactions. Prior to Columbine, stress counseling and debriefing were fairly rare in newsrooms and some employers offered staff members who were trained in family counseling, but not in post-traumatic stress disorder.
While some have criticized the media for insensitivity during the crisis, Handschuh said the media acted responsibly and respectfully toward victims and their families.
"Most of us who have kids could relate to this tragedy," he said. "Many of the families reached out to the media and spoke to us as a way to tell the world of their loss."
For example, the Sunday after the shooting, Handschuh and other photographers stood at a distance away from the memorial service to give families and friends of the victims an opportunity to grieve without having cameras in their faces.
In addition, he said, editors showed restraint in deciding which photographs were published. He mentioned long newsroom discussions about using strong, graphic images.
"We're journalists, [but we're] also husbands, fathers, and a part of the community we cover. We're not aliens or callous bastards like many think."
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