Recognizing and Managing Stress and Trauma as a Photographer

Recognizing and Managing Stress and Trauma as a Photographer

No matter how long you’ve been shooting, there’s always been a kind of base level of stress that hangs in the background for every photographer, just out of sight. It’s one of those things that’s always there, even if you don’t notice it.

For some photographers, it comes from the uncertainty of the job. Will I be able to make rent this month? Do I have to choose between food or gear? Are my clients ever going to clear that invoice?

For other photographers, that fear can be more immediate: Are those people going to hurt me?

Airmen conduct tactical combat casualty training at FS Gabreski )October 19, 2016)

Stress and fear can be a bit like being exposed to radiation. In short bursts, it may not have any immediate effects, but the long-term damage can be cumulative — devastating, even. A single bad encounter with police or protesters, a grieving family or an angry stranger in the middle of the night: all that might might not seem any more immediately damaging than a single X-ray at the doctor's office, but magnify and multiply that by a few years or a few decades and the damage can become permanent. Those moments stay with you, no matter how brief the actual event.

I’ve been a full-time photographer for the last 15 years, give or take. I started off as an Air Force photographer and eventually transitioned to the news. Over the last few years, I’ve been jumping back and forth between the two. And I’ve been lucky: I’ve had the chance to work with amazing people and be a part of the stories I’ve felt were important. I’ve also seen some stuff that keeps me up at night.

During the last year, I’ve felt like I’ve been swimming neck-deep in stress. It’s not just the scenes I’ve shot, but it’s also the mundane stuff that’s left an imprint: dealing with what should be minor things at work, trying to manage my finances and insurance and all the things that come with being a functional and effective shooter. Like I said, it adds up, and it was only after somebody pointed it out that I realized I wasn’t dealing properly with it. People were telling me I looked like I was walking around with my shoulders up around my ears. I started developing the driest of — and at times, wildly inappropriate — gallows humor. I was telling jokes that were genuinely making my friends worried. That thing about being kept up at night? That wasn’t clever hyperbole. There have been nights where I’ve spent hours staring at the ceiling trying to stomp down some pretty dark thoughts. But the thing that really gave me pause was when my wife told me I seemed constantly angry. All the time. That was the moment I knew I had to find a way to address these things. 

Kaitlin Newman, a Baltimore-based news photographer, described for me the moment she realized that her stress had reached a boiling point:

[It was] probably after the 2015 Freddie Gray protests. A very good friend of mine and I covered a lot of that together. When it was over, we had some serious PTSD. We would go out every single night. We went from dodging rubber bullets and tear gas for six weeks to covering baseball games and summer festivals. It was really unsettling and weird. So, we'd just get super drunk every night.

A Black Lives Matters Protest takes to the street in Manhattan (July 9, 2016)

“I find that the adrenaline rush of covering something chaotic and crazy stays with me long after the event is over,” Newman continued. “It bleeds over into normal assignments, mentally speaking. I don't think my work suffers, at least no editors have complained, but mentally, it's hard to transition from that to something that isn't as ‘serious’ or ‘newsworthy’. It makes caring about everything a struggle sometimes.”

But here’s the weird thing: something can be both awful and at the same time horrifyingly addictive. That hit of adrenaline you get when covering something dangerous or intense just floods your system. Sometimes, you might be making bad decisions — interacting with others unprofessionally or staying on scene longer than you should or beyond when it could be reasonably considered safe — but that rush keeps you there. And it keeps you coming back. 

For photojournalist Teru Kuwayama, it’s taken some time to understand the contrasts behind shooting in austere or dangerous conditions and shooting in places like Silicon Valley — and how the latter can sometimes be more stressful than the former.

"The last significant stretch in Afghanistan was five years ago, embedded with a Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, right before moving on [to work with] Facebook and Instagram,” according to Kuwayama. Before that, he spent 13 years moving back and forth from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Kashmir, and Iraq.

Sailors aboard the USS Arlington sail to Manhattan for Fleet Week (New York, 2018)

There’s a part of it that I was used to, on some level. I’d had a couple of decades bouncing back and forth over there even before Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s this cognitive dissonance between flipping back and forth between refugee camps and shopping malls, between firefights and the opulence of urban American life. There was also a pretty extreme contrast. I was with MARSOC and SF teams in deserts and mountains in Afghanistan, and then a few weeks later, I’m in Silicon Valley in the climate-controlled campus of a multi-billion dollar company.

For many news shooters, traversing between more dangerous stories and the mundane can take some getting used to. The banal can trigger stress-reactions in ways that the average person would struggle to comprehend. “Ironically, I think for people who have become acclimated to hard living, it’s the luxurious that can be stressful,” Kuwayama continued. “Survivor’s guilt is real. The gnawing question is ‘why do I deserve all this when others didn’t make it home,’ or when so much of the world doesn’t even get a glimmer of this ‘good life.’”

For B.A. Van Sise, a New York-based news and fine arts photographer, the biggest source of his stress didn’t come from picking up a camera, but rather when he put it down. “My biggest stressors have always been this: no matter who you are, you have to live a life with notsafety net in an industry everyone agrees is dying,” Van Sise said. “You do it because you need to do it, not because it’s going to be lucrative. There’s always the chance of being a total failure at all times. Not knowing where the money is coming from, not making rent, when your knees go bad or when you can’t do a job that demands you be physically present. I was drinking too much and staying out too late and blowing my stress through these elaborate pleasures.”

After a while, Van Sise decided he should start working a “real job” and hung the camera up. “I spent most of my twenties in a descending spiral of exaggerated decadence. But the biggest and most destructive decision I made to try and fix things was when I took a real job. I left shooting for a few years and became an executive and made s raft of money until one day my boss pulled me aside and told me: 'you’re great at your job, but you need to be doing anything else.' I took a 98% pay cut and was a thousand times happier. The worst reaction to stressors is quitting and taking the easier route, but the easier route is almost never the better one.”

The addiction is always there, and recognizing it can be a task in and of itself. “A lot of us, for whatever reason, are people who gravitate towards stress. We seek out situations that most rational people avoid. We don’t always acclimate well to ‘normal,’ and the comfortable conditions that most rational people prefer can actually be stressful to us. So ,if you recognize this pattern, where you seek out stress, identify constructive stressors… maybe that helps avoid bar fights and office squabbles,” Kuwayama said. 

I spoke to a number of different shooters while preparing this article, hoping some unique and constructive solutions for dealing with the stresses of this job would emerge. Unfortunately, many people find themselves coping in unhealthy ways; drinking heavily was a popular and all-too-common response. For myself, I’ve found that it was helpful to talk to people who have been where I’ve been.

There’s a condition fighter pilots sometimes hit called “red-out,” when negative g-forces are driving all the blood from the lower parts of the body to the head; at this point, their field of view starts to turn red. There have been times when the anger and anxiety built up to the point that I honestly felt like I was seeing red. Having a friend who’s dealt with many of the same things I was helped bring me back down to a healthier altitude.

Van Sise put it more simply: “It’s incredibly important to have people in your life who are supportive of your lifestyle, who understands it isn’t normal and who have the patience to deal with that. I’ve wrecked three relationships in my life. Having someone who can be patient with you is the most important thing. We all know successful shooters who are 50 and lonely. It can be family, lives, colleagues, or coworkers, but it’s important to form friendships that aren’t competitive.”

Exercise has also helped keep me grounded. Before my most recent assignment, I was an indifferent runner at best. But over the last three years, I’ve found that regularly running with my wife has helped me bleed off some of the pressure that keeps building up. During this time, I’ve gone from struggling with a mile and a half to completing the Army ten-miler. Most importantly, I’ve found that moments of self-examination and reflection have kept me centered. There are times when I’ve had to reconsider whether I’m pushing things too hard or if I’m overextending myself. Knowing when to step away is just as important as knowing when to pull the trigger. Still, even with exercise or yoga, it's important having people to talk to or knowing when to pull back, the need for many photographers to always be “on” is always there, and may never go away. As much as stress and anxiety may be lurking in the background for these shooters, there’s still the need to get out there and make some frames.

“We’re still animals,” according to Kuwayama. “We’re built for fight or flight, and some of us are still cut closer to the bone. We crave the simplicity and clarity of life or death. Office politics don’t come naturally. Photographers have always been like this. We’re the 'outside dogs' of the farmhouse. Not totally domesticated.”  

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3 Comments

Tim Gallo's picture

"I spoke to a number of different shooters while preparing this article, hoping some unique and constructive solutions for dealing with the stresses of this job would emerge. Unfortunately, many people find themselves coping in unhealthy ways; drinking heavily was a popular and all-too-common response. For myself, I’ve found that it was helpful to talk to people who have been where I’ve been."

I think another healthy solution to this as a photographer may be the path that Salgado took... going back to nature(I saw documentary that showed that he even revived a whole forest) .Photographing it, borrowing some energy from nature to deal with stresses.

I did some study on things that help with dealing stress and depression. Recharges your batteries to deal with yourself, so to speak. Here is my list... some of it include what you described in your article.

1. Going back to nature. Activity that connects with nature.
2. Talking with people who are genuinely wishing you happiness and can be patient with you. Talking with people who have the same problems.
3. Doing charity and any other selfless work.
4. Meditation.
5. Exercises that help you overcome your inner voice of weakness. It may be anything... running, swimming and e.t.c. Btw, I found that water (swiming in pools, sea and e.t.c.) in general helps to deal with stress a lot.
6. Yoga.
7. Working with kids.

and than ofcourse simply studying your problem. problems that we deal with are often not new and there are people who overcome them, studied them, have stories...

Great article! And great subject for discussion...

Will Murray's picture

It is not surprising to me that people are not interested in such intrinsically important subject matter. People are stupid.

Anyway, great article.

Tim Gallo's picture

People are ignorant in general. And it seems artists duty is educate is so much more important than in previous ages... I dont know why, but it seems to me the amass of information somehow equals to lack of interest in anything this days...