War Photojournalism: The Price of Survival
Death is the ultimate price that war photojournalists pay. But even those who survive tragedies will pay dearly for years to come. It is time for the industry to address this unwanted, often hidden, human cost.
By Dana Abu Lail
“I'm really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. […] I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners...”
It sounds like a soldier’s memoir, but it’s not. It’s the suicide note left behind by Kevin Carter, one of the world’s most feted photojournalists. Two months after he received a Pulitzer for the iconic picture epitomizing Sudan’s devastating famine that featured a little girl fallen to ground as a vulture was lurking around, Carter killed himself in his native Johannesburg. He died asphyxiated in his red Nissan pickup truck from fumes coming from the exhaust pipe of his own car. He was 33.
Carter’s life has been richly documented. His story was the topic of a 2010 feature film, The Bang-Bang Club, named after a group of four conflict-focused photographers who covered South Africa’s townships between 1990 and 1994. Of the four journalists, only Greg Marinovich has eventually settled to a peaceful life of teaching in the U.S. Joao Silva lost both his legs after stepping on a land mine in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Ken Oosterbroek, a reporter with The Star in Johannesburg, was shot dead by peacekeepers in a nearby town, just nine days before the 1994 elections in South Africa, the country’s first all-race electoral contest.
But while the most tragic parts of photojournalists’ lives are thoroughly documented, not much attention is paid to the inner struggles they go through after surviving terrifying events. A raft of studies written since 2005 suggest that approximately a quarter of the journalists with extensive conflict and war reporting experience suffer symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious mental health condition that is usually triggered by a nightmarish event. People with PTSD grapple with severe anxiety and are unable to control their thoughts about the event.
Between 80% and 100% of journalists have been exposed to a work-related traumatic event, according to data collected by Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a resource center hosted by Columbia University in New York. Some 32% of 50 South African journalists canvassed by a 2005 study had PTSD. Another study, published in 2016 by Susan Drevo, a scholar, found a 19% rate of PTSD among 394, mostly American, journalists.
Hiding It Under the Carpet?
War journalists usually overcome traumatic situations without suffering from PTSD. But when PTSD symptoms persist for more than a month, the danger is serious. Feelings of helplessness, guilt and derealization (altered perception of the self), hyperarousal, sleeping disturbances and nightmares, flashbacks and even physical pain can all appear.
Some of the journalists become impatient with their “normal” social or family life. Other are confronted with memory loss, according to Barbora Šindelářová and Štěpán Vymětal, two Czech psychologists who wrote extensively about tragedies and journalists.
“I really battled hard to avoid that kind of situation, and solely focus on making sure I was able to do my job without becoming some sort of a puddle of jelly pudding falling apart as soon as it hit the ground,”
Mark Milstein, a Budapest-based photojournalist who covered conflict and war in the 1990s, told CMDS in an interview.
However, very few journalists want to accept that the PTSD threat is real and even fewer are willing to share their vulnerability to psychological distress, which makes it hard to collect solid data on the psychological health of war journalists. Admitting to have PTSD symptoms could seriously jeopardize a war journalist’s career. Moreover, journalists would hardly admit to their boss that they lost their nerve. “Newsrooms were very macho places,” Chris Cramer, a war correspondent, told Reuters.
Marie Colvin, an American journalist killed in Syria in 2012, suppressed her PTSD through medical treatment, but also alcohol, as A Private War, a 2018 film about Colvin’s life, showed.
Use of drugs and excessive alcohol consumption are higher among war journalists than journalists who never covered war. A 2002 study from The American Journal of Psychiatry found that war journalists drank on average twice more than their peers who didn’t cover war.
But while Colvin waged her own battle with the illness, many war journalists can’t fight the amount of violence they witnessed, which destructively seeps into their lives, often pushing them to commit suicide.
Various NGOs and resource centers such as the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have been trying in recent years to fill this gap by providing training to journalists to teach them about the psychological risks related to their profession.
However, news media are not investing much in the psychological well-being of their journalists partly because of economic reasons, particularly in the past decade when media markets have experienced a steep decline in resources all over the world.
Thus, it is solely up to journalists to tackle these issues by seeking professional help, experts say. It is key for journalists to understand that it is not PTSD, but the lack of treatment that will ruin their career.
The military, which has gone through a paradigm shift, offers numerous examples. A study measuring the quality of PTSD care by the U.S. Military Health System (MHS) released in 2018 by Rand Health Quarterly brings evidence of major improvements in treating PTSD in the army. But that followed methodical and comprehensive planning.
It is probably time for media industry to learn from this approach, and act.
The Center for Media, Data and Society is organizing a workshop on Journalism and Trauma, which will help journalists understand core issues of trauma and will provide a safe framework for self-reflection on this topic. In addition, the training will offer practical ways of approaching and interviewing the victims and the survivors. To learn more about the training, please, click here.
Dana Abu Lail is a Master’s candidate in Public Administration at the School of Public Policy at Central European University. She is specializing in media & communication and development. Prior to attending CEU, Dana worked as program coordinator at Heinrich Böll Stiftung Palestine & Jordan office.