Self-Study Unit 3: Photography & Trauma

Photojournalists are part of the team of first responders whenever a tragedy occurs. They are there to document the news event in pictures and their work can have a strong and lasting impact on the public consciousness and themselves.

Because photographs can have an impact that words alone do not, photojournalism — the photographic documentation of a news event — plays an essential role in news reporting. Photos have the power to make people think, feel and take action. They may horrify, reassure, anger or take the breath away. While words can describe the aftermath of a disaster — a tornado, a plane crash, a school shooting — a photo visually communicates the pain etched in victims' faces, the mangled metal and strewn debris, the wounded bodies being rolled away on stretchers by paramedics. Of course, good writing can evoke strong emotions as well, but certain photos have an impact that is immediate and startling.

Rothstein writes that “the photographic image speaks directly to the mind and transcends the barriers of language and nationality” (1974, p. 15). In his book, Photojournalism, he defines photojournalists as “observers of people and events who report what is happening in photographs; interpreters of facts and occurrences who write with a camera; skilled communicators whose images are transmitted visually via the printed page” (p. 15). (See Part 2 of this online curriculum for a wide array of photos that have been recognized for their visual power.)

Photoeditor Bryan Grisby, in News Photographer, wrote about the philosophy of veteran writer-photographer Phil Douglis, who Grisby says believed that photojournalism had the potential to go beyond “routine documentation or illustration of day-to-day affairs.” Grisby quoted from an essay Douglis wrote in the mid-1970s, which said in part: “[W]hen … photographs contain content that confronts the viewer's intellect as well as his emotions, the reader can actually be provoked into an internal intellectual dialogue. The photo can stimulate his thinking instead of simply showing him what something looks like, or grabbing his attention. It can go far beyond the stated and often limited reason for appearing in the paper in the first place” (1996, p. 10).

Linking the visual image with emotions and cognition is clearly what many photographs accomplish. “In the blink of a shutter,” writes Seattle Times staff writer Melanie McFarland, “photographic images can dig out emotions even the most finely honed prose can't capture.” Reviewing a television documentary called, “Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” McFarland calls the show “reality television with real value.” In it, photojournalists talk about the photos that won them fame.

The documentary reveals that some photographers who shoot traumatic images find it painful to revisit the place where the photos were taken. Even years later, they find it difficult to talk about the images they captured on film.

Others compartmentalize their emotions. “In order for (Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Stanley J.) Forman to shoot his winning photographs of a woman and child plummeting from a collapsed apartment fire escape,” McFarland writes, “he had to put aside his shock. Artistically the photo is a master work. Emotionally, it's terrifying to see a woman in the last moment of her life. (The child survived.)”

So photographs not only have an impact on readers and audiences, but on the photographers themselves.

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma has not only focused on the effects of trauma on people who may be the subjects of news stories, but it has also looked at the effects that covering such stories can have on journalists. Photojournalists are part of the team of first responders whenever a tragedy occurs. They are there to document the news event in pictures. And their work can have a strong and lasting impact on the public consciousness.

This is the third module of the Dart Center’s online curriculum. Module 1 helps to explain what traumatic stress is and why it is important for journalists to know about its effects. This module looks more closely at the work of photojournalists and focuses more on those who work in print. Video journalists for television share many of the same issues discussed here, but their historical context and other aspects of their work are different and should be dealt with in a separate piece. The goal of this module — Photography & Trauma — is to examine the important work of photojournalists in the context of traumatic stress. It begins in part 1 with a historical overview of journalism and photography, and then continues with some examples of powerful photos in part 2, a discussion of potential trauma effects on photojournalists (part 3) and on their audiences (part 4), some tips for photojournalists (part 5), and a list of references for further study (part 6).