Long Read | Covid’s stealthy factor: moral injury

The physical safety and mental wellbeing of photographers working on the front line have traditionally fallen by the wayside. But what about less noticeable harm?

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for photographers, with risks akin to shooting in a war zone as the deadly virus wreaked havoc across the world. The past year or so has reminded me of the 1980s, when South African newspaper photographers went through a steep learning curve while the struggle for freedom intensified and the apartheid regime’s brutality escalated in townships across the country. Not many had experience with a type of photography that could potentially be deadly, and they had to learn on the job through a combination of caution and courage. 

As South Africa hurtled towards the 1990s, the country became one of the big stories internationally. This attracted acclaimed and experienced photographers, who all contributed either directly or indirectly to their South African counterparts’ knowledge of working on the front lines. 

Violence is never easy to cover, with the job requiring photographers to get as close to the action as possible. Not all photographers are made for such assignments, but there appears to be a popular belief – prevalent back then too – that all press photographers and photojournalists are news and adrenaline junkies who adhere to the Robert Capa mantra of “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.   

21 April 2020: Members of the Red Ants threaten a resident during an eviction in the Lakeview shack settlement near Lawley, south of Johannesburg. Evictions continued despite stay-at-home orders during the lockdown. (Photograph by James Oatway)

That is all good and well if you have the capacity to deal with that type of work. But three decades ago, many approached the job with youthful exuberance and overconfidence in their own mental and physical wellbeing, though there were a few experienced photojournalists to keep the young ones in check. It is not always the hair-raising incidents or close calls that do the damage; rather, it is caused by the relentless, low-hum stress of exposure to dangers and being witness to horrific events in an endless loop.

Photographers in and around Johannesburg at the time initially thought they’d feel the rush of the action in books such as DelCorso’s Gallery by Philip Caputo, or they were spurred on by the portrayal of photographers on the big screen in films such as Oliver Stone’s Salvador. The reality, however, was harsh and relentless, with injury and death to follow. For those who survived, there was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to deal with. 

27 August 2020: Photojournalist Yeshiel Panchia helps a young resident of Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, who was hit by a rubber bullet during a protest against the police killing of local teenager Nateniel Julies. (Photograph by Nigel Sibanda)

Beyond their photo editors and colleagues, there was little support for photographers in the 1980s and early 1990s and little or no debriefing. Their on-the-ground safety and mental wellbeing were rarely considered. If anything, the approach was reactive rather than proactive, and to be fair, it probably never crossed the mind of many photographers that things should be different. 

Dangerous assignments were seen to be part of the job and the news desk simply expected them to be carried out. It was what photographers signed up for, after all. Peter Sullivan, when he was editor of The Star, made a serious attempt to address this, initiating safety measures and assistance for photographers and others in need. He brought a psychologist in-house and insisted on updating and adding to safety equipment such as bulletproof vests. 

Unfortunately, instead of setting a trend among media houses, it appears mostly to have been a once-off. Today, some still complain that such initiatives are not as serious as they should be and that management are simply ticking boxes. Also, improving safety has often been stymied by a lack of budget being allocated to it.

22 July 2020: Delphine Dear comforts two children as the viewing port of her son Danny’s coffin is closed in Lawley, Johannesburg. Strict lockdown regulations had to be observed during the funeral. (Photograph by Yeshiel Panchia)

Infected by fear

When another steep learning curve arrived last year, it affected photographers worldwide. As Associated Press photographer Themba Hadebe explains: “The main concern was getting infected [by Covid-19], [I] die and my son becomes an orphan. At some point I had to sit him down and explain that should I get infected, chances are that the last time he sees me will be when I’m being taken to the hospital. 

“That was the most difficult talk with him, but I thought it was necessary, especially during level five [of the lockdown] restrictions. So, that would explain the mental state one was in. Also, a real possibility of losing a job due to the pandemic [worried me].”

30 April 2020: Photographer Alet Pretorius working in the field. ‘I wanted to cover the pandemic but was also unsure how much risk I should take,’ she says. (Photograph supplied)

For freelancers, the loss of income was especially distressing. “My biggest fear, in the beginning, was financial,” says freelance photographer Alet Pretorius. “I lost most of my commercial work and was unsure how I was going to survive financially. The uncertainty of everything was also difficult to cope with. I am a naturally optimistic person and deal with change well, but there were so many unknowns that it was difficult to stay positive. 

“Seeing people lose their jobs, taking pay cuts in the industry, has been hard. I wanted to cover the pandemic but was also unsure how much risk I should take. Normally when you cover a potentially dangerous story, you assess how much risk you are personally willing to take, but now your decision could affect your family and your community as well.”

25 November 2020: A young woman looking for employment on the side of the road. The pandemic exacerbated South Africa’s already high unemployment rate. (Photograph by Alet Pretorius)

Being this close to the Covid-19 carnage also affected how photographers viewed the virus. “I’ve seen the dead from it,” says freelance photographer Yeshiel Panchia. “I’ve seen coffin makers struggle to keep up production to meet demand. I take it seriously and try to remind myself of these experiences when fatigue sets in.” 

For freelance photographer James Oatway, the increasing poverty and destitution have been particularly striking. “Poverty has never been this bad. The vulnerable of society have never been more vulnerable. The number of homeless people and drug addicts living on the street has increased dramatically. But a lot of people seem to be kinder and more generous too.”

22 May 2020: Using a long stick with a cardboard box attached to it to observe physical distancing regulations, Thuli Makweba begs for money at a traffic light in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg. (Photograph by Alon Skuy)

But for Kim Ludbrook, a photographer with the European Pressphoto Agency, there has also been a positive side to covering the virus. “This story, above all, has shown me the power of visual language, most notably the images I have shot illustrating lockdown with empty streets devoid of humans. 

“My images, and by extension those of other photojournalists, helped the public in their houses in lockdown see the city they live in through my lens and viewfinder. Also of huge impact has been my work on the food shortages, Covid-19 funerals and the shadow pandemic effect on society as a whole.” 

21 April 2020: Mike, a recovering nyaope addict, poses for a portrait on the 12th floor of a derelict building in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, which became a makeshift rehab centre during the Covid-19 lockdown. (Photograph by Yeshiel Panchia)

Wounds on the soul

Based on their work with military veterans, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay and his colleagues coined the term “moral injury” in the 1990s to describe a condition that had been identified in the previous decade. Whereas PTSD is a recognised mental illness, moral injury is not. It is a reaction and is also described as a wound on your soul. 

Moral injury in journalism was brought to the forefront by the Johannesburg-born Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Canada, who defined it thus: “Moral injury refers to the damage done to one’s moral conscience or one’s moral compass by perpetrating or witnessing or failing to prevent acts that transgress your own moral set of beliefs.” 

30 December 2020: Gravedigger Thembinkosi Peter with two colleagues at work in a cemetery in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape. Not wearing personal protective gear puts these men at a high risk of contracting the coronavirus. (Photograph by Bonile Bam)

Feinstein’s interest in the subject of trauma in journalism was piqued in 1999 when he counselled a journalist who had returned from covering the famine in East Africa. During a discussion hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University’s Resilience Media Project in September last year, Feinstein explained: “She had seen a lot of trauma, huge numbers of people dying. And she’d become progressively distressed by what she’d witnessed. But rather than speak to someone about her emotional distress, she kept it to herself.” 

It was revealed that her fear of sharing this with her superiors at work was based on the assumption that they would pull her off assignments and not allow her back in the field, or that she might even lose her job. 

“I think the closer you get yourself to trauma, essentially, the more you put yourself at risk,” Feinstein said during the online discussion. And freelance photojournalist James Oatway agrees: “As photographers, we are at risk of developing serious psychological problems as a result of what we experience. A psychologist told me once that as a witness I was just as much a part of the violent incident as the victim and the perpetrator. 

“But I think that the image of the psychologically tortured photographer is becoming a cliché… much like the scarves – or shemaghs – that we wear. There are those who are traumatised and the concept of moral injury is real. But we chose this profession and we knew that we may be exposed to difficult things.”

14 June 2020: From left, son Curtley, widower Colette and daughter Adreulishe Leslie pray at the graveside of Andrew Leslie, who was the first person to die from Covid-19 in Middelburg in the Eastern Cape. (Photograph by Kim Ludbrook/ EPA)

Different layers and choices

South Africa’s violent history and racial oppression means that PTSD in the country’s photographers is layered. Debbie Yazbek, former photographic editor at The Star and now a freelance photographer, says: “In the mid-’80s, I was one of a small handful of female shooters working in the newspaper world. Sexism rarely featured in the early years, at least not that I was aware of. We were a diverse group that got on with what needed to be done. 

“In the 2000s, there was a passive aggression that simmered in the workplace. When word got out that I was to receive the Press Photographer of the Year award, a male colleague took it upon himself to draw up a petition to have the results changed, citing that there were more deserving candidates. The judges didn’t entertain his fragile male ego.” 

It is a build-up of incidents like these that can contribute towards moral injury and, in Yazbek’s case, give it a name and recognition of the unease that has always been around.

24 October 2020: Esihle Xelo from Upper Ngqwara, Mqanduli, sits in the street outside the post office in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, waiting to collect the special Covid-19 social grant. (Photograph by Bonile Bam)

For Ruth Seopedi Motau, who was the first Black female photographer to be employed by a South African newspaper when she was made photo editor of the Sowetan, self-preservation was key. “Fortunately, when I joined the media in the early 1990s, I had a choice of covering the news or the arts. On one of my assignments, I remember the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party were fighting and there was some killing in White City in Soweto. It was a story that I was curious to cover … only to find that, even today, I can still remember the dead bodies lying around of children massacred in their house. There were also a few dead bodies that were lying in the field after the massacre. 

“From there on, I decided that I don’t want to photograph war or violence in the townships. It was a personal choice that I became happy and decided to document daily social life in rural areas and around the city. I never suffered moral injury as I decided not to cover conflict or anything that would have a negative effect after[wards].”

10 June 2020: A pupil from CityKidz Primary School in the inner city of Johannesburg participates in a special yoga session to promote mental wellness during the Covid-19 crisis. (Photograph by James Oatway)

Dwindling respect and resources

Ludbrook, reflecting on his recent experiences, says the pandemic should serve as a wake-up call for media companies to look after the people who are essentially their suppliers. “One of the main things I have learned through the past months is the need for the media sector as a whole to take more time to consider the risks that we as storytellers take in the field, and to make the processing of these stresses a higher priority. 

“I understand the need for companies to survive in what is a very hard economic climate, but if the humans that create the content for media houses are not taken care of, then who will take care of them?” he asks.

That Covid-19 has decimated the already shrinking numbers and financial muscle in newsrooms has made the situation worse. “I am disappointed in the media industry in general,” says Pretorius. “There are incredible journos in South Africa but the industry seems to focus on profit and even sometimes political agendas. 

“Most newsrooms are so small now that covering anything properly is virtually impossible. You see lots of mistakes in news stories. It feels like the industry is not taking its responsibility seriously. Journos work in incredibly difficult circumstances and are receiving little support – or loyalty – from their publications or the public.”

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Thinking back on my last position as a photographic editor, I realise there were times when I could have – and should have – done better in supporting those in my care. The desk had been reduced from three staff to just me. The workload was relentless, with little time to think of anything but what was in front of you, and the staggered deadlines for the day were difficult to manage. This situation was not unique but had become symptomatic of the well-documented difficulties the media faced, and still does. 

But it can be overcome. I should have and could have found the time to do more. Nothing big – just a chat here and there, a “how are you doing?”, an afternoon off after a harrowing job, an affirming phone call. There are many little things you can do, but by all accounts they seldom happen, still. Empathy and humanness, being aware of your staff as human beings and not just professionals, are still lacking. 

Making the offer for anyone to come and talk when they need to and even after-hour phone calls are not enough. You need to read the room and sometimes approach and not wait to be approached. It is difficult but not impossible. I have experienced receiving that kind of empathy and I understand its value. 

There is, however, an acknowledgement by those I have interviewed – on and off the record – that even with all the physical and mental support from organisations, there is a certain amount of risk for which they as individuals need to take responsibility. There is the drive to be in on the biggest story of their careers so far, or to satisfy the hunger for immediate consumption, and there are historical reasons. 

20 May 2020: Thousands of people queue to collect hampers of food, masks, soap and sanitiser from different charities at the Itireleng shack settlement, Pretoria. (Photograph by Alon Skuy)

Greater awareness

But there is also an increasingly conscious drive to come out whole on the other side and not be a tragic statistic. Those on the ground have a better awareness than the photographers and media houses of the 1980s and 1990s that we need to care more for our mental wellbeing. Feinstein cannot stress enough that education on psychological issues helps to recognise problems and difficulties, which makes people more likely to reach out for help. 

More than 50% of journalists taking part in a recent research study by the Reuters Institute of Journalism had been making use of therapy since the start of the pandemic. These journalists suffered less from anxiety, depression and PTSD-type symptoms than those not in therapy. According to Feinstein, one doesn’t have to suffer because moral injury is not an untreatable condition. 

Interestingly, through his own research, he discovered that journalists are likely to suffer more than photographers from moral injury. This is because they see situations unfiltered, whereas photographers have the “element of separation” of the camera. Thinking about light and composition, for example, they get distracted to a degree by taking photographs.

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Over the past year, photographers in South Africa as well as the rest of the world have had to find distractions and some distance from the pandemic for the sake of their own health and wellbeing. The methods and activities had varied greatly, from yoga, meditation and cycling to avoiding the news, playing video games and having a braai. Family and life partners are also important in helping to deal with the stress. Of course, there are negative responses as well: the self-medication through hard drinking and taking drugs, legal or illegal. 

For Bonile Bam, freelance photojournalist and writer, nature is the answer. “To revive my energy, I often travel to my ancestral home in Alice to reconnect with an undisturbed environment. Touching rocks and trees while taking a walk is one of my habits. Also, I enjoy looking at the landscapes [and] listening to the competing yet peaceful sounds that are created by livestock and birds.”

6 April 2020: Lwando Tyida says a prayer for help at a homeless shelter on day 10 of the lockdown following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s declaration of a national disaster as a result of Covid-19. (Photograph by Kim Ludbrook/ EPA)

There is no end in sight yet of the pandemic and therefore the coverage of it. It is a unique situation for all media – this ongoing story that cannot be ignored or played down, coupled with the loss of variety offered by covering sport, features, festivals, or daily life sans Covid-19. The fun and relief are on hold. 

We have a good understanding today of the mental and physical toll the 1980s and early 1990s in South Africa took on everyone who worked in a newsroom. We don’t, however, know what the fallout from the pandemic will be in 30 years’ time. Photographers and other media workers are not dealing with protest, violence, bullets and politically opposed groups. Now it is the unknown of a mutating virus that can get inside you and strangle you to death.

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