helps other photojournalists cope
after traumatic assignments. TEXT BY ALICE B. MILLER • IMAGES BY DAVID HANDSCHUH
As a Daily News staff photographer for 17 years, David Handschuh has witnessed New York's heroes and villains, highs and lows, joys and sorrows. How does one ever prepare for witnessing a catastrophe the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks? Or cope with the side effects of on-the-job traumas?
Handschuh's recovery from his 9/11 injuries is a testimony to
the healing power of family and friends. Now more than ever, he is
determined that other photojournalists have a viable support system
to help them deal with the effects of traumatic assignments. His
supportive role of photojournalists is a personal mission, not a
timely gesture. In 1999, as vice president of the National Press
Photographers Association, he conducted the first survey of visual
journalists, essentially asking 10,000 photographers: "What's going
on when you go out the door every day and what happens when you get
"By June 2001, three months before the World Trade Center, we had started the NPPA Critical Incident Response Team (www.nppa.org/wtc/help.html), the first training program to teach the community of photojournalists to look after themselves," he explains. "We had no idea this group would be needed with such intensity and so soon.
"The idea challenged many people in the business. There's still that school of thought that says, 'Suck it up and deal with it—come on, kid, you're not affected by it.' Police officers, fire fighters, paramedics get assistance with dealing with the things they see. Photojournalists are first responders and this has an affect on them.
"The biggest hurdle is for visual journalists to realize they are affected by what they shoot, and they're not alone in these feelings. Within the community of visual journalists are people who will be virtual shoulders to lean on. If we don't do it, no one will do it for us."
With business heading toward a freelance economy, the problem grows more urgent. Greater numbers of photojournalists are shooting without a supportive office or peers in the newsroom to talk to, lean on, after a tough assignment. This vulnerability is one of the most compelling reasons for peer counseling.
As Handschuh fought his way back in the months following the attack, he undertook two constructive projects: studying the effects of trauma on photographers who bear witness to tragedy and a mentoring program for inner city kids in Tampa.
NEW YORK'S HIS BEAT
Before becoming a Daily News staff photographer some 17 years ago, Handschuh worked at the New York Post following years of freelancing for just about everybody in the city—national newspapers, wire services, and news magazines.
"I listened to police and fire radios, and self-initiated assignments. New York is my town. I've always lived here. I never cease to be amazed at the new things I find to photograph every single day."
Technology has changed things dramatically at the News. "The question used to be what kind of B&W film are you shooting today," he recalls. "Seven years ago, the paper gave me a digital camera, the NC2000E, and a laptop and said, 'Here, make it work for us.' I didn't know a laptop from a bus stop, but I did it. Since then, no film has been killed in the production of my images," he quips.
"Today, a photographer has to be part creative spirit that hits the shutter at the right time; part propeller-head tech who understands computers, bits, and bytes; and part lawyer, who knows how to negotiate and license their rights to their images."
As a News photojournalist, Handschuh never knows what his day will bring. "I can be with the President of the United States in the morning and covering something in the Bronx in the afternoon. Working a shift that starts at 6:00 a.m. means being around between 6:00 and 7:00, capturing cityscapes and landscapes as the city starts to wake up."
His most memorable assignments are a mixed bag:
Walking the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge on a Sunday morning . . . being on stage at Radio City Music Hall . . . being on the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium when the Yanks won the World Series . . . photographing Al Pacino for two hours in his midtown apartment . . . photographing a convicted murderer in an Oklahoma maximum security prison . . . being in a Pennsylvania jail cell with detainees from the Golden Venture—the Chinese boat with smuggled men aboard that went aground in the Rockaways—just prior to their release.