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At the Shooting War symposium at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto in June, 2019, some of the world's premier photographers gathered to discuss their experiences in a panel moderated by David Walmsley, left, and Anthony Feinstein. Panelists were, from back left, Carol Guzy, Carole Naggar, Corrine Dufka, David Guttenfelder and Goran Tomasevic; and from front left, Charles Porter, Santiago Lyon, Tim Page, Joao Silva, Laurence Geai and Ron Haviv.Glenn Lowson/the globe and mail

After a decade of covering wars and conflicts around the world, photographer Santiago Lyon was completely burned out. He was convinced that he only had two paths in front of him.

“One was death, because I had lost a lot of colleagues and close friends over the years to violent deaths,” Lyon says. “And the other option that I saw was insanity, because I could feel that the cumulative psychological effects of everything that I had seen over that decade were weighing very heavily on me.”

Lyon is one of nine renowned photojournalists who recount their most memorable stories in the new Globe and Mail-produced documentary Shooting War, premiering at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival this May. Directed by Patrick Dell, a member of The Globe’s visual journalism team, Shooting War explores how war photographers like Lyon balance the journalistic importance of their work with their own personal and psychological well-being.

Shooting War: a documentary from The Globe and Mail

Lyon, who went on to lead Associated Press’s photography team and now heads Adobe’s Content Authenticity Initiative to combat mis and disinformation, speaks about his experience in this excerpt from Monday’s podcast episode of The Decibel.

Can I ask, how did you know that you were cut out to be a photojournalist and in particular, one who covers conflict?

I started my journalism career straight out of high school in the mid 1980s in Madrid, translating Spanish news stories from Central America into English for the Spanish news agency EFE. The stories were, to my mind, almost incredible stories of guerrilla warfare, insurgency, massacres, rape, pillage. It was so unbelievable to my young mind that I needed to validate it with my own eyes.

When an older colleague of mine heard that, he said to me, ‘Kid, if you want to see that stuff, you should become a photographer because they have to see everything first person.’ As a result, I bought a second-hand camera from an Associated Press photographer in Madrid, and spent a couple of years teaching myself the skills and labour-intensive process required at that time: developing film, making prints, send pictures down telephone lines – almost like an initial apprenticeship. And then finally in the late 1980s, I found myself in Central America just as I had intended.

The war in Ukraine has captured a lot of the world’s attention. Are you looking at the photos that are that are coming out of Ukraine?

Yeah, I am. I look at the images and I ask myself, like a lot of people, have we learned nothing? Why are innocent people being killed by the military in 2022? What’s going on?

Having covered the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in Croatia and in Bosnia, and lastly, in Kosovo, the aesthetics of the scenes from Ukraine are very similar in the sense of the communist era architecture, the kind of clothes that people in Eastern Europe often wear, and then the scenes of grief and horror – understanding that the situation in Ukraine is on a far larger scale militarily than the situation in Bosnia.

I think the war in Ukraine is probably the most photographed and documented conflict to date because of increased volume of imagery and the Internet. That allows people to see the consequences of the war on civilian lives in real time.

When I was doing this back then, pre-Internet, it was a paper based communication system, so the fastest that you would see pictures aside from television would be in the next day’s newspaper.

Let’s talk about the experiences of working in these conflict zones. Did you feel that you could talk about the difficult things that you saw and experienced in the field?

At the time when I was doing war photography, which was the decade between 1989 and 1999 – no. It was a very macho culture. There was a very limited understanding of the psychological effects of what we were seeing and the damage that it was doing to us.

I sensed quite early on in my career, having been through some harrowing experiences, that something was amiss, but I didn’t really know what it was. And when I was diagnosed fairly early on as I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, my fear was that if I disclosed that to my employers, that I would somehow be prevented from returning to the field.

The person who changed that was Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who organized the weekend that brought us all together in Canada a couple of years ago now, and which led to the documentary.

His work in this field has been remarkable. He undertook the first clinical study of the effects of long-term exposure to war among journalists, which I was a part of in the late 1990s, and the results of that study opened a lot of people’s eyes and caused a lot of media organizations to look at the issue of mental health through an entirely different lens.

Dr. Anthony Feinstein says in Shooting War:

“Soldiers, veterans, they might have one tour of duty. Maybe two. Or quite unusually three. And then they don’t do it again. But [photojournalists are] a group of individuals that have done it for decades.”

To hear him say that, talking about that repeated exposure, what does that mean to you?

It’s true. People who do that line of work tend to keep doing it for as long as they can stand it.

At some point, I pulled the handbrake and said, ‘okay, we’re done here,’ thinking that by doing that my problems were over and I could just put that behind me. What I didn’t anticipate at all, and which hit me like a ton of bricks, was a massive identity crisis that I had after that.

And added to that, the sort of the cumulative effects of the trauma came roaring back. I spent a couple of very, very difficult years processing my experiences. But it was excruciatingly difficult, much more difficult, I would say, than anything that I went through in the field covering conflict.

In 2003, I was lucky enough to get what’s called a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, which is a mid-career fellowship for journalists contemplating their next steps. I took advantage of that time to do a lot of mental laundry, and was being treated by one of the leading psychiatrists specialized in trauma.

One of the problems that often arise, if you’re exposed to those types of horrifying situations for a long time, is that the memories become very intrusive and they present themselves when you really don’t want them to. A lot of the work is about how to file the memories in the correct place in your library of memories. Not to forget them, because those experiences are quite literally unforgettable – but to put them in the right place, so they don’t come leaping off the shelf into your mind unexpectedly.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Note: An earlier version of this transcript incorrectly referred to myths and disinformation, when mis- and disinformation was correct. This version has been updated.

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