Over nearly two decades working with journalists, Dr. Anthony Feinstein has collected a bulging file of photographs – many show charged moments of conflict in war, while some are of people caught in moments of regular life on the periphery of war. They are striking images, often beautiful even as they are terrible – but it wasn’t only the play of light or the composition that drew Feinstein to them, or prompted him to cut them out of the newspaper or a magazine and file them away. They were images that made Feinstein, 61, think about the people who were behind the cameras: What was in their mind as they took the pictures? And what happened to them afterwards?
Feinstein, a neuropsychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, is one of the world’s few experts on the impact on journalists of reporting on violence. He has done extensive research on post-traumatic stress disorder and the less-well-understood idea of “moral injury," in journalists. He has published widely in the academic world on the effects of prolonged exposure to human suffering, on the people whose job it is to record it.
But a few years ago he found himself wanting something more personal – a conversation directly with the photographers who made the images in his file, a reason to ask them specifically about those pictures, what was happening as they captured them and what happened next. Those conversation became the book Shooting War – a collection of 18 images paired with essays that are part conversations with the photographers (or, in the case of those who did not survive, their families and close friends) and part rumination by Feinstein on what drives this work. It was published in November.
“I’ve been doing frontline journalism research for 18 years now. Over the course of that period, I’ve met some really wonderful journalists and I find photographers particularly interesting," he said in a recent interview. "I’m aware of their need to get really close to some really dangerous events. As a behavioural scientist, that interests me. I have admiration for the remarkable photographs, but curiosity about how this work affects them, because I’m aware that when you get really close to nasty events, there can be really nasty consequences.”
The photograph Feinstein chose by Australian photographer Ashley Gilbertson is deceptively benign at first glance – a sun-filled room, a bed with the covers turned town. It’s from a project called Bedrooms of the Fallen, pictures of the rooms left behind by 40 Western soldiers killed fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Gilbertson was drawn to chronicle those absences after a horrific experience in Fallujah in 2004, when he and a squad of U.S. marines were attacked in the narrow stairwell of a mosque’s minaret. The soldier in the lead was killed, another injured. Mr. Gilberston developed PTSD and blamed himself for the marine’s death. He felt they were all caught in the situation because he was in search of a picture. He later tracked down the marine’s family, to apologize to them, and became focused on the absences in the lives of the families of the war dead – the genesis of this project. “It’s not an active photograph, but it gives clues as to what’s troubling Ashley Gilbertson,” Feinstein said.
There’s another set of photographs in the book that appears, at first glance, relatively innocuous – three frames shot at an angle that show a couple of soldiers, one holding a metal detector, framed against a dirt wall and a muddy sky. They are images South African photographer Joao Silva made in 2010. It’s the story of those images that makes them powerful. Here is how it’s described in Shooting War:
Silva had stepped on a landmine. He did not lose consciousness. He can remember calling for help, and soldiers dragging him away from the kill zone. “I could see that my legs were shredded … one foot was dangling. … I knew the [limbs] were gone. … I’ve seen this enough times.” But, despite his grave injuries, Silva’s attention was elsewhere. The next shots on his camera illustrate the level of his commitment to bear witness. “As they put me down,” he remembers, “I tried to make the three frames. I was lying on the ground taking these pictures, and I felt this pain.” Finally, Silva set aside his camera.
Feinstein is fascinated that Silva kept shooting, even though gravely injured – and also that he came through the blast, the subsequent dozens of surgeries, the years of rehabilitation and dislocation, unscathed by PTSD – that, in fact, he resumed work as a photojournalist as soon as he could. “After the horrendous nature of the injuries – because we know that if you sustain physical injury along with emotional it increases risk of PTSD – you would think if anyone in this book was going to develop PTSD it would be Joao.” He didn’t – and in fact his generous, laid-back view of the world was so unchanged that a flotilla of medical students on psychology rotation came to see him at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where he was treated.
What made one of these two photographers vulnerable and not the other? Some of it’s biology, Feinstein muses, and some of it is adaptive coping. Having a good marriage and children helps, he says – and then there must be other ingredients, the focus of his ongoing research. And, he noted, even someone who suffers as terribly with PTSD as Gilbertson typically recovers, a testament to the resilience in this cohort that intrigues him. The photographers he has studied have made careers of covering violence, exposed to far more of it, he observed, than a soldier who does one or two tours of duty in a war zone.
The image that seems most to intrigue Feinstein was taken in the Balkans by the French photographer Alexandra Boulat; it shows a couple of young girls smiling, one with flowers in her hands. “It’s quite pleasant until you have a second look," Feinstein said, about why he values the photograph. "And you see that there are things burning in the background behind a smiling woman – in one touch she captures the complexities of a civil-war situation.”
These pictures led him to the question of whether photographers, even more than print, radio or television reporters, may be particularly susceptible to PTSD or to moral injury, which is damage to a person’s moral conscience by an act that contravenes their values. (Feinstein is working on medical research that attempts to answer the question with data, even as he grapples with it as an idea.)
Photographers must get closer to the violence, for longer, than other kinds of journalists, in order to get the picture, which may put them more at risk for this sense that they have transgressed their own values. “There’s a sense that for years they’ve been voyeurs, built careers on other people’s suffering, sustained work through other people’s difficulties.”
His conversations with the photographers from his file left Feinstein with a surprising realization – about the enormously high cost, in physical terms, but also emotional ones, of this work. “I’ve [studied journalists] for the past two decades but I didn’t fully appreciate what it entails,” he said. “All 18 photographers in this book have had stellar careers, spent a long time doing this kind of work and not one has escaped unscathed. There’s a deep compulsion to do this.
"There’s great meaning for them to do this work. And to be honest, I find that very moving.”