Crixeo: Conflict Photography


How Do Conflict Photographers & Photojournalists Cope with Trauma?

A photographer does more than capture images. With their lens, they are to capture truth, tell a story and share a message with the world. However, the message audiences have received have often been the one chosen by the editors that decide to publish them. In some cases, specific photos may be deemed too graphic or violent to merit publication, but that decision rests solely in the hands of the gatekeepers each photographer must contend with. Of course, all publications have different standards as to what those boundaries are.

For instance, in 2012, the New York Post chose to publish an image of a 58-year-old man named Ki-Suck Han on their front page. The man had been pushed onto the subway tracks moments before an oncoming train struck and killed him. The photographer who captured this haunting image was a freelancer for the Post at the time, a man by the name of Umar Abbasi. Immediately, the public began to cry out: Why hadn’t he put down the camera to help the man on the tracks? Even mainstream organizations and prominent figures such as Anderson Cooper and Al Rokerquestioned Abbasi’s instincts. Why hadn’t he done something to save this man? Abbasi replied, “I couldn’t do anything. I responded as a photographer.”

Similarly, when Robert Carter was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his now-infamous photograph of a starving child in the Sudan being stalked by a vulture, there was public outcry: Why hadn’t he helped the girl? Carter had eventually chased the bird away, but he’d spent some 20 minutes photographing the situation in order to get the best shot possible. He didn’t know what happened to the child. Regardless, it was such a stunning photograph that it was published by the New York Times in March of 1993 and sparked a newfound interest in the famine occurring in that part of the world. Yet in their disgust toward the girl’s condition, it seemed that the public had turned on Carter himself, as if he could have done anything to stop or prevent such events from taking place. It seemed that the public was very much unaware of the role of a photojournalist, or even their mind-set.

Carter had been working as a conflict photographer and photojournalist for a decade and had been a member of the notorious Bang-Bang Club, which documented the horrors of the apartheid in their native South Africa. It was Carter himself who had been the first to photograph an execution style known as necklacing, in which a rubber tire is wrapped around a victim’s neck and arms, filled with gasoline, then set on fire. This appalling procedure can take around 20 minutes to kill a victim.

Throughout all of these experiences, Carter and his friends were often under heavy gunfire and dire circumstances to capture the truth of what was occurring in South Africa. According to American photojournalist James Nachtwey, who had worked with the Bang-Bang Club on several occasions, Carter and his friends “put themselves in the face of danger, were arrested numerous times, but never quit. They literally were willing to sacrifice themselves for what they believed in.”

But like many photojournalists, Carter never became numb to these events. Instead, he was very much haunted by the images he captured and the circumstances surrounding them. He turned to drugs and alcohol for relief, but his continued use of these “tools of the trade” came at the expense of his work, and after winning his Pulitzer, his life began to follow a drastic downward spiral.

Soon other journalists began to call his award a fluke. The St. Petersburg Times in Florida questioned his ethics. “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.” Others came to Carter’s defense. Nachtwey argued, “Every photographer who has been involved in these stories has been affected. You become changed forever. Nobody does this kind of work to make themselves feel good. It’s very hard to continue.”

It certainly was for Carter. On July 27, 1994, less than four months after he won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, he parked his red Nissan truck by a blue gum tree, very near where he used to play as a boy in Johannesburg. He ran a hose from the exhaust to the passenger side window and chose to die. His suicide note read, in part: “I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… depressed… without phone… money for rent… money for child support… money for debts… money!… I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, and of killer executions.…” He was 33 years old.

Later on, when asked about her father’s famous photograph, Carter’s daughter responded, “I see my dad as the suffering child, and the rest of the world is the vulture.”

Perhaps other photojournalists can relate to this assessment. After all, the lives of photojournalists, and especially conflict photographers, can be brutal. These professionals often begin their careers at a young age, and many are forced to work freelance and pay their own way to war-torn areas in the hopes of selling their photographs to major publications. Conditions can be dire, and many run the risk of being kidnapped, killed or tortured. And because of the nature of their work, these photojournalists must be up close and personal with the death and destruction they document. As the famous Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” But this intimacy and close involvement come with a price.

Many conflict photographers travel across war zones, following rebels, protesters and soldiers, armed with nothing more than a lens. As Tim Hetherington stated regarding the making of his documentary Restrepo, which follows a US platoon into the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, “You don’t have time to start examining your emotions when you are in the middle of this kind of situation. You kind of push them to a deeper place in your mind and examine them later.” Hetherington was killed while documenting the Libyan civil war in 2011, but his work remains with us.

Knowing the dangers, yet choosing a career in which promotions and success are built on misery and suffering, photojournalists often push their own needs aside for the sake of the work. The culture among conflict photographers reinforces this “suck it up and get back on the horse” mentality. Yet photojournalists and conflict photographers are not invincible.

In 2002, Dr. Anthony Feinstein of Stonybrook Hospital and the University of Toronto in Canada began to conduct a study regarding the impact of these events on journalists actively working in war zones for long periods of time. Unsurprisingly, he discovered “high levels of PTSD, depression and alcohol abuse.” In fact, even the sound of a shutter snapping or viewing a photo related to a particular incident can trigger a PTSD episode. Often, these events can make reacclimating to “normal” life — outside of urban wars or conflict zones — unbearable.

In addition, since many photojournalists work freelance, typically for relatively low wages, they often do not have adequate health insurance. As a result, they fear speaking up regarding their mental health, because if they can’t work, they can’t survive. And as more and more publications cut their budgets and foreign correspondent outposts, the stakes only get higher, especially as the poorly regulated media landscape continues to change.

And if audiences are horrified by the very harsh realities that these photographers document, who’s to ensure that these professionals are not only taken care of as human beings and journalists but that their work as artists is preserved and shared for the greater awareness of the public?

Perhaps people don’t want to see photographs of death or war. Perhaps it simply makes us all want to cry. But it is necessary to know both the light and the dark aspects of humanity to better understand the world and the consequences of our actions. And as major corporations continue to control the news cycle and the information Americans see, it makes you wonder, why don’t we take better care of those who risk everything to show us the truth? Why don’t we do more to help them?