Sunday, December 26, 2004
Greg Marinovich, a freelance photographer, felt a deep sense of impotence as he witnessed a gruesome period of South Africa’s history in the early 1990s, when his daily routine involved taking pictures of people being shot or hacked to death. When he won a Pulitzer in 1991, he found it difficult to celebrate. The winning photos, taken for the AP, were of a mob savagely murdering a man. Marinovich had been unable to save the victim as he was dragged from a train in Soweto by five men who then beat and stoned him and stabbed him in the head before dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire. “I felt shock, repulsion, fear, excitement, dread — always the dread,” he says. “Now, having said that, there is the issue of enjoying, and being excited at, getting good photographs. So all these weird and disturbing thoughts, combined with the fact that we were earning money, added to the guilt — terrific guilt.”
During the same period, one of Marinovich’s best friends, Ken Oosterbroek, also a photographer, was shot dead in a crossfire just yards away from him in Tokoza township. Marinovich took a bullet in the chest in that incident and nearly died. He recovered, went back to work, and later buried two more colleagues who had committed suicide. Marinovich escaped the numbing trap of drugs and alcohol that ensnared many of the journalists he worked with, but he endured terrible spells of depression and, as he puts it, “destroyed some relationships.”
Science suggests that a terrifying experience alters the chemistry in the brain. The amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain that researchers believe is tied to memory, releases cascades of stress hormones such as adrenaline. Such hormones change the way the mind processes information during times of stress, lodging images like snapshots in the memory. This can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder, when vivid recollections return well after the event, evoking the initial horror. Classic signs include panic attacks, the avoidance of people or reminders of the incident, and flashbacks or nightmares.
These physical reactions compound psychological burdens such as guilt. Extreme stress can spawn other symptoms of distress, from insomnia to depression. Many mental health experts believe journalists should debrief as early as possible after the traumatic experience, so that disturbing thoughts don’t fester. This could be with colleagues at the hotel bar, or a couple of sessions with a therapist. The important thing is to process it. “It’s like carrying around a bowling ball if you don’t deal with it,” says Frank Smyth, the Washington, D.C., representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.