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Addressing Trauma in the Documentary Practice

By Jenni Morello

Cinematographer Jenni Morello (left) and director Ana Veselic filming the 2018 seriers 'Her America: 50 Women, 50 States.' Photo: Jessica Chermayeff. Courtesy of Jenni Morello

Author's Note: I decided to keep the identifying details of these projects anonymous because the goal of this essay is to spark dialogue among the documentary community and not place blame on individual productions.  

I remember the first shoot of my career. I was in Somaliland, working as an assistant cameraperson on a story about maternal health. A woman we met was in the process of dying from pre-eclampsia and malnutrition. She was seven or eight months pregnant and had walked over 50 kilometers to a health clinic for help. No one knew how long the baby had been dead inside of her. We hadn't expected to come face to face with the severity of maternal mortality. I think back to that moment, watching her on a table in a hospital, holding a light panel in the corner of the room while the D.P. and I bore witness to some of the last moments of her life. Not her husband, who was in the waiting area, or her other children, who were home in her house, but us: a documentary crew. It was there and then that I first learned how to compartmentalize my feelings in the moment—a skill I have had to hone so I am able to work on the material that means the most to me. 

Six months later, we found ourselves in a room in Cambodia for three straight days, listening to women who had survived being child prostitutes, trafficked, abused... At the hotel in the evening, I’d set the treadmill to a six-minute mile and just run at that pace for as long as I could. I’ve become so good at this kind of sorting and storing away of emotions, that it’s led to problems in romantic relationships and tension in friendships. I tell myself often, “You can’t cry. You are working.” 

Secondary Trauma

During that shoot, I made rules for myself so that I could function. Rule One. Don’t get emotional on a shoot. Rule Two. You can process all this when you get home. I never broke Rule One (I’m a master compartmentalizer). Rule Two usually resulted in what became familiar scenes after shoots: me sobbing hysterically on the New York City subway after reading an ad that reminded me of a shoot, or me crying in the cereal aisle at Key Foods because there were too many damn granola choices. The great thing about New York is you can have a full-blown breakdown in public and no one bats an eye. 

Why did I feel it was necessary to create these arbitrary rules for myself? That shoot in Cambodia, compounded with the previous intense six months of work leading up to that point, had me laying on a cold floor in the bathroom sobbing. I had broken Rule Two. And still had another ten days to work before I’d be home in New York. But how can we truly take care of ourselves while processing traumatic and difficult subject matter without simply pushing the feelings aside?

The story of this project ends with activist/journalist Gloria Steinman, who was one of our final interview subjects. She was shocked to learn that none of us were in therapy. She, in a very “I’ve been doing this work for a long time, so you all listen to me” way, made it clear that we had listened to and witnessed extreme trauma. Secondary trauma is real and it affects journalists and documentary filmmakers. She normalized my feelings and it felt like someone finally gave me a clinical term for what I was experiencing. Though I sought out people to talk to, I often felt like I was struggling silently. 

I had a roommate then who worked for the International Rescue Committee as a clinical sex counselor, and I started opening up to her. Even she was shocked to hear about the kinds of things I witnessed while working. She never had direct contact with survivors. She told me I was experiencing secondary trauma and needed to get help. Important fact: I did not. I felt that somehow the only way I could express solidarity with people who have survived so much suffering was by suffering myself.

Over the next 10 years of doing this work internationally and domestically, I learned to minimize anything that didn’t fall into the most extreme category of hardship. I saw a therapist several years later, but in that time I inflicted all kinds of pain and grief on friends and family with my misdirected emotions. We’re always evolving and processing, but when you think of the impact of trauma, cultural trauma and intergenerational trauma on our personal lives, we sometimes miss important opportunities to heal. Fast-forward to learning some breathing and meditation techniques, a few more intense projects, a self-imposed, two-year sabbatical on sex trafficking films, which turned into a five-year sabbatical...and I was feeling better. 

Trauma Stewardship

During this time, a therapist friend gave me a great book to read: Trauma Stewardship, by Laura Van Demoot Lipsky, and though the name was off-putting, something clicked. I’d been quietly battling chronic fatigue and an undiagnosed disease for years. Looking back now, I realize that the onset of my chronic illness and chronic fatigue came a few years after these early exposures to these stories and were clearly symptoms of secondary trauma. It was my body screaming for me to get help. 

And then in 2016 I was suddenly slammed with back-to-back projects that booked us with a week’s-out notice. I had learned that a key to managing trauma on difficult films was knowing I could schedule other things around it to allow for some recovery time. But, when projects couldn’t book me out in advance, it created another type of stress. I was working all the time, getting booked on short notice, without a real way to plan for breaks, or any recovery—a key recipe for burnout. 

When we minimize the stories we hear, we downplay anything that doesn’t fall into the most extreme category of hardship. We minimize it because it’s a way of processing trauma. So many times I’d check out at family events or around friends because their difficulties felt insignificant compared to what I’d recently filmed. A friend’s divorce or a job loss felt so small when I thought of the family that was so poor and malnourished that they had probably died by the time I touched down back home, or the woman whose family sold her off to a pimp at the age of seven. All of these symptoms are indicative of someone who has experienced secondary trauma. 

We all intend for our work to make the world better, and hopefully we shine a light on stories that need to see light. But through that work we are exposed to the hardships, pain, trauma and suffering of other living beings on this planet. I know my experience isn’t isolated. But, it wasn’t until I saw Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson years ago that I realized to what degree this affects us. How are we not talking about this more? Journalists and photographers have been addressing this in their field for years because they work in high-conflict areas and they have training and resources available to them. 

Through this process, I’ve discovered that if I don’t take note and attend to the secondary effects of trauma during a shoot it might take months before I actually feel them. How do you have a dating life when you work all the time and are an emotional mess? How do you share these experiences you have in your day-to-day life? How do you explain to a person you deeply care for what you have seen on the other side of your lens? You are holding the weight of so many images and experiences in your brain. We are visual learners. Images are ingrained forever on our retina. I would play these scenes over and over again. I knew I was good at compartmentalizing and I would enter a sympathetic survival response. It requires us to become empathy sponges—eventually the sponge becomes full. 

Interacting with Suffering

I’m writing this to shine light on how we interact with suffering. What do we need to ask ourselves as producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, sound recordists and other crew members? Are we at risk ourselves? And when we try to work through our trauma, do we take the right actions? What are our ethical obligations to each other and our subjects? 

You can try to prepare to bear witness on film shoots. But because of the nature of documentaries, you don’t always know what will unfold. As an AC, I didn’t have the agency to know how certain subject matter would affect me. So often crew members like ACs, sound recordists, PAs aren’t informed of what we’ll be filming. They don’t get a trigger warning. I have the agency now as a DP to say yes to a project based on the subject matter and even still we find ourselves in situations that might be triggering. We need to, as the documentary community, take responsibility for becoming “ trauma stewards.” We shouldn’t be processing this stuff alone. 

There are ways to heal. Meditation and breathwork have been huge for me. Somatic work has been transformative. Stop. Ask: Why am I doing what I’m doing? By making a deliberate choice to practice to heal from trauma, I feel like I’m finally aware of what’s been inside me and in so many other friends and colleagues. Sometimes we don't realize we’ve had traumatic events in our lives until it’s triggered by something else. If you are not aware of what your body needs, you cannot take care of it. 

Healing and Processing

So what is realistic in our line of work? Not therapy and discussion at the end of every shoot day; we're all too exhausted and hungry and we just want to get as much sleep as possible. But I do think there could be something incredibly beneficial to checking in on each other after a film is wrapped. A group therapy session of sorts. Especially for those of us that work behind the camera or don’t have the agency to stick up for ourselves. We all go into this work with a certain purpose or intention, but we don’t always extend that to our crew members. Journalists have mechanisms in place because they know the toll it takes on them. We need to acknowledge that we have to provide our crew with the same dignity with which we provide our subjects. 

What’s surreal about writing this during the coronavirus outbreak is that, in our line of work, most of us already understand how precious and violent life is. Though we document other people’s lives, and hopefully create empathy and understanding, we don’t have the luxury to work remotely from home, and we ourselves risk losing a great deal: Money. Purpose. Security. Health. We are all mourning and grieving the loss of life, of course, but also of our past life, our own isolation and quarantine existence. I think of how many of us haven’t been aware of the toll this work has had on our lives, and now in these moments of isolation there could be traumatic experiences arising without a proper support system. We need to build it.

It has me asking, What is it all for? To win awards? Are the stories worth it? We have to think of the collective impact—the impact the story has on us all, on the person behind the camera, the person listening on their headphones, the person directing, the person producing. The impact on the person in front of the camera. We need to understand that to continue telling these stories well, we have to truly reckon with what we’ve seen. We need to understand that often the acts and experiences we witness are so often extreme and horrific. And they should never be treated as anything but. And that sometimes for us as crew—hired workers—we carry those experiences with us for years or throughout our lives. 

Jenni Morello is a documentary cinematographer who has received critical acclaim for her work on films such as One of Us and Made in Boise. She’s  currently directing her first feature, The Age of Loneliness.