September 16, 2009

After New York Daily News photographer David Handschuh saw the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapse, no one was surprised that he suffered from post-traumatic stress.

But it doesn’t take a catastrophe like the 2001 terrorist attacks to trigger a crisis, Handschuh said last weekend at a photojournalism conference in St. Petersburg, Fla. Even journalists covering breaking news like fires, shootings and traffic crashes can undergo emotional turmoil.

“You guys out there in the trenches have a really high potential to be exposed to a cumulative effect of seeing really bad things,” Handschuh said, addressing an annual conference of photographers called GeekFest.

The weekend gathering included speakers such as National Geographic photo legend Sam Abell, two 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners (Damon Winter of The New York Times and Patrick Farrell of The Miami Herald) and other professionals.

About 50 people met in an auditorium at Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times on Sunday to view some of Handschuh’s photographs and listen to how his experiences have inspired him to help others. He works with the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University in New York to advise journalists and photographers on the importance of caring for their emotional health.

“I’m a guy who ran around New York City for 20 years taking pictures of things blowing up and burning down,” Handschuh said. “Doing that day after day really affects us as people.”

Handschuh first worked with the Dart Center as an Ochberg Fellow in 1999 after he covered the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo. He said seeing reporters and photographers crying — and witnessing their sensitivity to the slain students’ families — was “a watershed moment.”

Rescue workers tend to be sympathetic to coworkers who say they need help after handling traumatic events. People expect them to be affected — after all, they’re in the middle of the crisis. The journalists who document such horrors are a step removed from the situation, but they can be just as affected. And they hesitate to reach out for fear of career reprisals, Handschuh said.

That’s why it’s imperative for even those on daily beats that expose them to such events to establish a personal “business plan” that includes decompression time and a support network, he said.

When photographers used film, colleagues could tell who had been at a rough scene just by gathering around the light table. Filing photos digitally from the field has eroded that camaraderie; so journalists must make efforts to build it, he said.

Ask someone, “Hey, how you doing?” Handschuh said. Give yourself permission to “turn off and disappear” for a day, with no television or newspapers. Take a walk or explore activities beyond your comfort zone.

“Scuba diving is great for me, because the BlackBerry and the phone don’t go underwater,” Handschuh said. Playing or listening to music also helps. “I’m a great believer in kazoos as a stress-reliever,” he said.

Forge those connections, whether through a professional organization or a loose network of friends. “We need to work as a community,” Handschuh said. “It took a 110-story building falling on my head for me to realize how short life is. Appreciate life. Appreciate every day. Appreciate the little things.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, Handschuh was driving to a graduate-level class he taught at New York University when he heard scanner traffic about a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Handschuh said he called the Daily News and was told to head to the site. He also called the university and left a quick message at home: “I’m going down there. Love you all.”

Following a rescue company he’d covered at other scenes, Handschuh reached the towers at 8:53 a.m., about 10 minutes before the second hijacked airliner struck the South Tower.

The scene was “surreal,” he said. “I was cognizant of what was going on, but I don’t think I was accepting of what I was seeing.”

He didn’t hear sirens but remembers smells. He didn’t register the sight of people plummeting to their deaths but still hears “the sound as they were hitting the pavement.”

He recalls the “Kodachrome-blue beautiful sky” overhead moments before the South Tower collapsed in front of him, tossing him about a block. His right leg was shattered. “I thought I was going to die face-down in the gutter,” he said. A group of firefighters from Engine 217 in Brooklyn hauled him to safety.

Handschuh said the injury gave him time away from work to navigate through the emotional aftermath. Before returning to the newsroom in March 2002, he told supervisors, “I never want to photograph dead or dying people again.” He now shoots food and features, calling the selection of photos he displayed at the conference “Out of the Fire and Into the Frying Pan.”

Although he shifted gears, Handschuh is still aware of the strains that crime and disaster coverage places on colleagues. He conducted an online survey of journalists who had covered the terrorist attacks and said more than 50 percent of the 200 respondents reported suffering from breathing problems. About 38 percent had been diagnosed with asthma.

More unsettling: About 62 percent had intrusive flashbacks or disturbing memories; roughly 48 percent reported a loss of interest in regular activities. About 18 percent said they had suicidal thoughts, and roughly the same share had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I can’t emphasize enough the need for us to take care of each other,” Handschuh said. “I tell people, ‘I have a bunch of little gremlins that live under my bed. Every once in a while, they need to be excised.'”

One way for him to do that is to meet each year with the engine company that rescued him. They’ve made him an honorary member. “We sit and talk about how good it is to be alive,” he said.

Kalfrin, a journalist in Tampa, has covered crime for about 11 years, most recently at The Tampa Tribune.

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