Processing the Pictures:
A Letter to Those
Covering the Carnage

by Rebecca Coates Nee

We gasp as we repeatedly watch your video. We cry at your pictures. We see the destruction, the suffering, the raising of the flag.

We respond with numbness to the images you bring us. We don’t want to absorb the horrific nature of what you’re showing us. So we turn it off, flip the page. But you can’t.

The firefighters grieve for their fallen comrades. The financial traders mourn the loss of their coworkers. The pilots shudder at the horror their colleagues succumbed to in the cockpit.

Now it is time for the journalists – the keepers of objectivity and composure with nerves as strong as the beams that hold down the rubble – to recognize our grief, to understand that we are human too. The problem is journalists seem to be the only professionals who regularly witnesses tragedy yet are never afforded the same compassion and counseling available to others dealing with disaster. Instead of empathy, the media are often lumped in with the enemy.

I remember covering my first body many years ago when I was a one-man-band at a small station in Northern California. “Keep looking through the viewfinder,” a photographer from a competing station advised me, “it will seem less real.”

For those of you who covered the aftermath of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, viewing the scene only through your lens is impossible. You may be able to erase the images on video but you will never delete them from your mind. For now, you probably just want the movie to stop re-running in your head.

I can’t make that happen, but as a former photojournalist, a survivor of violent crime and now a personal life coach, I have these suggestions on how to cope with what you have covered:

1. Admit your emotions to yourself and others. All the macho, awards and adrenaline in the world won’t get you through this one. When your schedule slows down and the shock wears off, be prepared to feel the sadness even more. Understand the importance of grieving. If you don’t, it will show up in other ways at other times.

2. Talk it out. Find an empathetic relative, friend or counselor who will just listen as you describe what you felt and saw.

3. Write it out. Writing can release the emotions and anxiety that you may be trying to hide. Don’t try to edit yourself, just let the pen go no matter how stupid you think it sounds – you’ll be surprised at what comes out. Write about feelings of anger, grief, guilt and confusion. All those emotions are normal.

4. Replace the mental images with positive ones. Get out your best beauty shots, your favorite feature packages. Take more video or pictures of things that bring you joy. Let your creativity loose.

5. Don’t make any major decisions for at least a month. What you’ve seen is traumatic and may cloud your judgment.

6. Still, don’t disregard the perspective this incident has brought to you. Many people are viewing their lives, families and careers differently. You may want to re-prioritize your life in a more fulfilling way – that may be one benefit of this tragedy.

7. Take breaks when you can and pace yourself. Don’t try to be a superhero at work. If you can get away, do it. You’ll be a much better journalist and person if you do.

8. Appreciate what you do have in your life; focus on what you have accomplished and what you are grateful for – even the little things.

9. Establish a daily routine that includes healthful habits you enjoy. For example: working out, listening to music you love, going for an early morning bike ride or walk, watching a sunset. Routines add structure back to our lives and eliminate some of the confusion.

10. Recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress or depression: difficulty sleeping, trouble with intimacy, withdrawal, anxiety, overwhelming sadness, inability to perform normal activities. Get professional help if these emotions continue for more than a week.

Here are some resources on line that may help:

Depression assessments and self tests:

Finally, understand that you are a more enlightened, compassionate photographer and human being because of what you have seen. You will no longer be able to live life just through your lens. And you and your craft will be better for it.

Rebecca Coates Nee is a personal life/career coach and author of “Leaving TV: A Guide to Life After News.” Contact her through her Web site,

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