Like many of our members, photojournalist Sima Diab witnessed many tragedies that left their mark on her. Balancing work with parenting, and the unforgiving pace of life, have left little room for dealing with trauma. But now she takes her emotional health more seriously. With an imminent assignment to cover a new conflict, Sima agreed to some counselling as a preventative measure against more trauma.
The trauma I have, like most of us, is multi-layered and built up over many years of assignments in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
Covering stories of pain and loss, destruction and survival in this region may be a privileged experience. But it also comes with a personal cost that is often hidden and seldom acknowledged. So when The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network offered to fund a number of therapy sessions for me ahead of an assignment in a conflict zone, I agreed to give it a try as a preventative measure, a way to “check-in” before needing to check in.
My life is hectic. Balancing demands of freelance photojournalism with supporting and mentoring fellow photographers, building a network of photographers and building visual archives for Mada Masr, and raising two kids as a single parent, all leave me with little time for self reflection. So I welcomed the fact that these therapy sessions were online and flexible, with a therapist who understands the demands of my work and is specialised in trauma therapy. The fact that he understands the intricacies and demands of the job has made it possible for me to undertake the sessions and the accompanying work required, without too much time out from my daily commitments.
The trauma I have, like most of us, is multi-layered and built up over many years of assignments in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. They are also compounded by my daily life and work in Egypt where the base level stress is set quite high. It is simply not an option for me to move on or leave the area when things get difficult. Moreover, the ever-changing and fast-paced nature of my work forces me to persist in my duties, while internalising my traumas instead of breaking them down and dealing with them.
Burnout is a difficult beast in this profession, and one that gets the best of some of the most amazing journalists among us.
Of course there are times when I deal with these issues in small fragments, like when I share the occasional story with a friend. But having the opportunity to sit and pull apart my motivations and experiences with a trained therapist has been invaluable.
I am fairly pragmatic about these things, and am well aware that after a short period of therapy, some issues may not have been solved. But what the sessions have done, however, is give me more tools to be able to recognise patterns in my own behaviour and to respond with greater awareness and kindness.
Burnout is a difficult beast in this profession, and one that gets the best of some of the most amazing journalists among us. Jumping from one assignment to the next, while trying to maintain the same level of energy and focus, is extremely hard if one is also to live a semi-balanced life. One of the tools I’ve learned during the therapy sessions is splitting my day into three sections. The first section is a few hours of focused, uninterrupted work, which is then cut off and should not spill into the rest of my day. The second section is a few hours to run daily errands with a clear goal in mind (easier said than done in Cairo, but I try). The last section of the day has no specific goal or purpose, but I use it to seek pleasure and self care, see friends, and enjoy my kids.
The sessions have enabled me to dig deep into my personal history, and have been painful but rewarding.
Whether it’s cooking, sleeping or just watching a movie, I have been trying to approach everything I do with the same attention and mindfulness I dedicate for my work. Breaking up my day into sections, even when I don’t have an assignment, has been an invaluable tool in balancing my time.
The sessions have enabled me to dig deep into my personal history, and have been painful but rewarding. I examined things that motivate me, and discovered my tendency to be pulled in different directions. Anxiety has leveled out and addressing it with a variety of learned techniques has definitely helped me to find greater focus, energy and joy in my work.
Here’s a list of the key tools I use to manage stress and reduce anxiety:
After a difficult assignment, do lighter pieces
Dividing the day into thirds: as mentioned above, the first third is for work, and the second is for home errands or other non-work related assignments, and the third is to relax and do the things that I enjoy. The key is to keep these sections separate from each other.
Keeping a daily routine, even when on assignment: In my case, my daily routine is to have two cups of coffee every morning, and I’m careful to maintain that every day. If I have an early work meeting at 08:00 am, for example, I will slot two hours before that to have my two cups of coffee and gather my thoughts. If I go on an assignment away from home, I insist on maintaining this routine and creating a schedule of mine. Another routine of mine is to swim three times a week, and I try my best to maintain it. My routine consists of having a long walk from my home to the pool and I use that time to process my day and thoughts.
After a difficult assignment, do lighter pieces: It took me a while to accept this: that not every assignment has to be a difficult one and related to conflict. So now when I return home from a difficult assignment, I could work on lighthearted stories, or take on smaller projects with NGOs. The stories are still serious and important, but they are not as mentally and emotionally draining as conflict stories.
Grounding exercise: these are very simple exercises to help keep you in the present moment. It could be feeling the ground under your feet, or paying attention to certain sensations in your body, breathing deeply, feeling the sunlight on your skin, or listening carefully to all sounds around you. These little moments will help you feel that you are living inside your body rather than outside of it.
Photo: Sima, second on the right giving a talk about visual journalism and the challenges of covering your own community at the DART Center Reporting Institute Columbia "Covering Children & the Syrian Refugee Crisis" in Amman, Jordan January 2019. Source: DART Center Reporting for Journalism and Trauma