Self-Study Unit 3: Photography & Trauma

Although photojournalists photograph a wide range of subject matter, sooner or later they will have to photograph something that they and their readers find deeply disturbing. It could be a serious car crash, a school shooting, a violent domestic dispute, a murder victim, a suicide, a hostage crisis, a police standoff, a terrorist attack or any number of other situations. For photojournalists working overseas, military conflict and war carnage, famine, disease and other subjects often end up on the assignment rolls.

Whatever the traumatic event happens to be, a photojournalist will likely have to spend considerable time and energy trying to get just the right shots to help tell the story of what happened. He or she may need to repeatedly shoot shocked or grieving victims and family members, emergency personnel in the line of duty, horror-stricken by-standers — and others — from various angles and perspectives. In a major catastrophe, such as a plane crash or a terrorist act, they may spend long hours, day after day, photographing physical and emotional pain.

Photojournalists also put their lives on the line in the pursuit of newsgathering. On September 15, 2001, the body of William Biggart, a freelance news photographer, was discovered in the rubble of the World Trade Center along with several bodies of firefighters. He had taken his camera to the scene of the World Trade Center attacks as soon as he heard about what happened.

Former Dart Center Fellow David Handschuh, a photographer for the New York Daily News, was seriously injured and traumatized on September 11 when he went to photograph the World Trade Center before its collapse. Former president of the National Press Photographers Association, Handschuh narrowly escaped death when he was thrown from his spot beneath the World Trade Center and covered in debris. Rescue workers came to his aid right in the nick of time. Before his brush with death, however, he took a horrifying photograph of the explosion above him. Click here to see the photograph. Click here to read his story.

These are only two stories about two photojournalists covering the same story. One survived, one did not. The Committee to Protect Journalists can tell dozens of other stories about journalists and photojournalists who gave their lives in the line of duty.

Research has shown that journalists and photojournalists who cover traumatic events can experience stress effects at the emotional, cognitive, physical and interpersonal levels. In an exploratory study of journalists at six different newspapers in Washington State and Michigan, Simpson and Boggs found that “the longer a person had worked as a reporter or a photographer, the more likely he or she was to report symptoms of trauma effects. We also found that journalists who covered auto crashes at the scene were more likely to be aware of intrusive images and memories.” (See Simpson and Boggs, 1999, for the full study. Full citation is available in the “Additional Resources” part of this lesson plan.)

It is normal for anyone, including photojournalists, to experience a range of responses to the trauma that they witness. At the emotional level, they may experience shock, terror, irritability, blame, anger, guilt, grief or sadness, emotional numbing, helplessness, loss of pleasure derived from familiar activities, difficulty feeling happy, difficulty feeling loved.

At the cognitive level, they may experience impaired concentration, impaired decision-making ability, memory impairment, disbelief, confusion, nightmares, decreased self-esteem, decreased self-efficacy, self-blame, intrusive thoughts, memories, dissociation (e.g., tunnel vision, dreamlike or "spacey" feeling).

At the physical level, they may experience fatigue, exhaustion, insomnia, cardiovascular strain, startle response, hyperarousal, increased physical pain, reduced immune response, headaches, gastrointestinal upset, decreased appetite, decreased libido, vulnerability to illness.

And at the interpersonal level, they may experience increased relational conflict, social withdrawal, reduced relational intimacy, alienation, impaired work performance, impaired school performance, decreased satisfaction, distrust, externalization of blame, externalization of vulnerability, feeling abandoned, rejected, overprotectiveness.

(For a comprehensive treatment of journalism and trauma in general, please refer to Module 1 of the Dart Center’s online curriculum. A detailed discussion of stress effects is available in Part 2 of Module 1.)

Photojournalists bear witness to some of life’s most painful scenes. It is their job to help tell the story of what happened and, in the process, let the rest of the world see a part of what they saw.

In the documentary called, “Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” mentioned in the introduction of this module, one photographer’s story speaks volumes. Thomas Kelly, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, talks about the photograph that won him the prestigious award. A man in Kelly’s hometown of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, had taken his pregnant wife and two young daughters hostage in their home. When the first policeman arrived on the scene, an elderly woman lay badly bleeding on the front lawn from lacerations. There were rumors that a man was still inside the house brandishing either a knife or a gun.

Kelly was taking photographs for the Pottstown Mercury newspaper. At one point, a five-year-old girl, suffering serious knife wounds on her face, comes out of the house. Despite her injuries, she manages to tell the first person she comes into contact with not to hurt her father.

“What I saw gives me chills till this day,” Kelly recalls. “For over a year, I couldn’t talk about this. It was too horrible.”

In fact, as he is looking through photos of the event that had occurred some two decades earlier, Kelly says he has only taken out those photos two or three times since that traumatic day. Although he continued to live in Pottstown after the tragedy, in which the man ended up letting his other daughter go but killing his pregnant wife, Kelly had not visited the crime scene until asked to do so by the documentary filmmaker.

“For days and months and even now,” Kelly says, “I still feel the moment that I was down there at that scene. I’ve thought about it at night. It’s affected me a great deal. It’s something that won’t go away. It’ll affect me forever.”

He says he has mixed feelings about winning the Pulitzer Prize for the photo he took of the suspect as he was running toward Kelly in the front yard, a photo which Kelly says he did not consciously remember taking at first. He appreciated the recognition of his work by the Pulitzer selection committee, but he would have preferred the subject matter to be something else.

Kelly’s honesty in sharing his feelings and experiences over the years is helpful to those who try to understand how covering traumatic events may affect a photojournalist. While their particular stories may differ, many photojournalists who have been in the business for a while can share similar feelings and experiences about the traumatic events they’ve had to photograph. But you don’t even have to be in the business very long before witnessing trauma. Even photojournalist interns, in college or fresh out of college, have reported being sent on assignments to photograph serious car crashes and other disturbing scenes with nary a warning or word of advice from their editor.

When someone is exposed to a traumatic stressor, he or she may experience symptoms common to sufferers of a stress disorder: recurring intrusive recollections; avoidance and numbing symptoms; increased arousal; significant distress or impairment of function. Depending on the persistence and intensity of these symptoms, a mental disorder — such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — may be indicated.

Not everyone who is exposed to a traumatic stressor will develop PTSD. Some people may be more susceptible to PTSD than others for a wide variety of reasons. It is certainly nothing to be ashamed about and does not indicate a weakness in character or ability.

Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the study of PTSD, has written that “those with PTSD preserve the impact of cruelty for the rest of us. I tell patients that there is nothing abnormal about those who suffer. It is a normal reaction to abnormal events” (1996, 22).

Dr. Matthew Friedman, director of the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD) believes that many journalists have a high risk of developing PTSD. In the NCP Clinical Quarterly (1996) he writes: “Frequent exposure to war, rape, murder, violent crime, natural disasters, and the like, place [journalists] in a category along with the military, police, and emergency medical personnel who have high rates of exposure to traumatic events.”

For most photojournalists, more commonly occurring news events like car accidents, fires and murders often produce trauma responses. A recent study of 800 photojournalists conducted by clinical psychologist and Dart Center executive committee member Dr. Elana Newman, Dart Center execitove director Prof. Roger Simpson and the National Press Photographers Association found that “such assignments are commonplace.” Newman told participants at a National Press Photographers Association annual meeting, “Witnessing death and injury takes its toll, a toll that increases with exposure.” She said that despite photojournalists exposure to traumatic events, they appear to be a resilient group. She said, however, that a minority of respondents responding to the survey may be suffering from PTSD, and a larger minority may be suffering from other trauma related disorders such as depression and substance abuse.

(See Photojournalists Most Affected by War, a Dart Center news headline, for a summary of the study’s findings.)

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma recognizes that photographing trauma comes with the territory of being a photojournalist. Its goal is to help photojournalists better understand traumatic stress and recognize its symptoms in case they or those they know may need help. News organizations should also consider ways of educating their journalists and photojournalists about the “science of trauma.” Exploring the Dart Center web site is a good way of getting started. Other news organizations have sponsored in-house training sessions, provided release time for their journalists to attend seminars on traumatic stress, and distributed literature on the subject to their new and existing employees.