“A systematic solution is needed for the mental health challenges of media workers.”

Interview with the Macedonian photojournalist, Ognen Teofilovski, on the burden of coping with traumatic experiences as a journalist.

Report: Goshe Nikolov

Michael Fousert on Unsplash

„I see my job through the prism of reporting for a greater good. I always follow the ‘Play your part’ agenda. I share photographs of such moments to raise awareness of the problems that are happening then and there — this is what leads me and my work“.

This is how Ognen Teofilovski, a Macedonian photo reporter, describes his work. He collaborates with several news agencies in North Macedonia and abroad and his 22 years of experience records several crises in which he has worked and where he witnessed many unpleasant events.

More about his work here.

To be a photographer and to be able to capture the moments from the scene, first, you need to be an emotional person, says Teofilovski when asked about how his work affects his well-being.

Ognen Teofilovski (REUTERS)

You have to perceive what you see to be able to express it in a photograph. But while you work, you focus only on that, because if you are carried away by emotion, you won’t be able to do your job“, says the photo reporter.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected journalists, as well as everyone on the planet. Especially when it comes to mental health. Stress is nothing new for journalists, but findings from various studies show that mental health problems during the COVID-crisis have accumulated and revealed a difficult and tedious condition.

Data from the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers in North Macedonia (SSNM) from December 2020 show that 62 percent of respondents said the crisis had severely damaged their mental health, and 48 percent said they needed psychological support.

Decreased finances and the increased workload during the pandemic have led to disruption of media professionals’ well-being.

Asked If and how he prepares for the unpleasant events he may encounter on a scene, Teofilovski says:

“I do not prepare. But I always feel restlessness. You feel it until the moment you start working. When you start doing your job, professionalism overwhelms you, it leads you to do your job”.

But the tax comes later. The moment you leave work and need to return to normal life, then the difficult moments come. What you see on the field leaves a deep emotional mark.

“The more emotional you are, the harder these moments affect you. You cannot help but feel them on yourself”

Teofilovsky shared some of the shocking moments he witnessed: “Ten years ago, a helicopter crashed while landing. I came to the village, went out with a camera, and I was greeted by a boy in his early twenties. Ha asked me if i knew what happened and why was I there. I told him what kind of helicopter crashed and where it happened. He asked me if there were any survivors. I said ‘No, there were 12 people, all of them died’. And then I saw his face turning pale, he took the phone out of his pocket, called someone and said ‘Mom, it’s over, dad is gone’. Even today my voice trembles when I remember this situation. You have such moments that you cannot erase from memory”, tells Ognen.

You must get rid of the psychological burden caused by such situations, or as Teofilovski says “to process out what you felt in a situation of moral dilemma and to be able to sleep at night”.

“You have to bring out what you saw, you have to talk to someone and to reaffirm your views- that what you did there is right and justified and your behavior was moral. If you don’t do that, if you keep it for yourself, it will make some troubles later”.

Teofilovski explains that after such events he talks to some of his colleagues, mostly to people with whom they were together at the scene. He claims that he has never received an offer for a conversation or psychological help from his employers in any Macedonian media.

“There is more friendly help from a colleague, but no organized or specialized help”.

And there were days when, due to the situations he witnessed, he couldn’t sleep for days.

Teofilovski believes that it is necessary to speak openly about the feelings and not to keep them to oneself.

But more importantly, he says, a systematic solution is needed for the mental health challenges of media workers.

“We don’t talk about that. No one has ever asked the question of emotional pain. There should be a system for help. But going to a psychologist after things happen is not a solution. It’s too late then. Those people who have decided to do this job (photojournalists) need to go through training and conversations in order to be ready, to know what to expect. Such programs will prepare you for what awaits you at the scene and can help to make it clear to you that you can ask for help later, even to ask for days off from work to overcome things”, says Teofilovski.

Psychologists and experts working in the field of the psychological consequences of stressful and traumatic experiences in media workers believe that in the absence of institutionalized psychological support for journalists, newsrooms are the ones that should have the role of first aid. According to them, these are the places where the stereotype of journalistic fearlessness should be broken first.



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