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Anxiety as a Photographer, or: How I Dropped the Ball on Shooting the Democratic Debate

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I am a photojournalist with a severe anxiety disorder and last week it got the better of me while trying to work. Here’s what happened.

The PBS NewsHour Democratic Debate took place on Thursday, February 11th, 2016, between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the Helen Bader Concert Hall in the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts on the main campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

I learned of the debate thanks to Facebook, where a “nearby event” let me know of a planned protest a few weeks ago.

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I immediately started scouring the internet for who I could contact in order to photograph the debate. I had already missed the Republican debate and only covered the protests outside and wasn’t about to miss out on the fun again.

Luckily I got in touch with the right people and eventually I received a confirmation email that I could photograph the event.

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I was ready. This isn’t my first time around the block covering an election cycle. In fact, it’s one of the highlights I really, really look forward to being able to cover.

The day before the event I was allowed to go in and pick up my credential and see the Spin/File room.

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I picked up my credential, made a little small talk and headed home for the night.

The next morning, morning I left the house far earlier than I needed to, but I wanted to make sure I would be on time. Select members of the media were going to be allowed into the hall for a photo spray during the event and this morning we were going to get our marching orders.

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I went to the Spin Room where we were to meet and ran into a few photojournalist friends which helped calm my nerves, but I wasn’t too bad at that point. Talking to others can either amplify or help with my anxiety. There’s really no way to know which way it’ll go until I’m in the moment.

Our group was led over to the hall where the debate would actually take place and it was all ready to go looking nice and pretty.

Instructions were given as to when we could and couldn’t photograph, how long we’d have to get in and how long to get out. All said, there was roughly a 45-second window for well over 20 photographers to bunch into one position and be done.

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I had quite a few hours to kill so I drove back home to prepare for the event.

Now there’s one thing I’ve never been great at, and that’s adding IPTC data to images I take because quite frankly it can be a bit intimidating. Go ahead, take a look. I spent some time last night learning about it and needed to perfect my template during my down time.

An editor at my new agency bent over backwards for me. She helped review what IPTC data I needed to include in my images along with setting me up in the system on short notice.

Luckily the agency also had a second photographer at the event, but I was ready to go. With a bit of time to kill I was on my phone and a popup for the event showed up.

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Later on I received an email with guidelines on what settings might work best due to the fact that we would only have 45seconds to work. This was a godsend as it would make life easier by not having to waste time fiddling with settings.

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I eventually packed up and started my way into Milwaukee.

Before stepping out the door, I knew that I was going to be anxious so I took one of my “emergency pills” which is basically a non-addictive version of Xanax that was prescribed to me. This medication supplements another anxiety medication I take on a daily basis. My emergency pill usually kicks in between 45 minutes to an hour after I take it, so that worked perfect with my timeline.

Usually the drive from Waukesha to Milwaukee takes about 25 minutes or so, but with rush hour traffic, that turns into an hour or more. I took my usual side streets to avoid the congestion on I94 and made it to UW-Milwaukee with time to spare.

I found a parking spot relatively close to the campus and focused on the mental tricks I’ve learned with my shrink over the past 2 years because I was pretty anxious. My emergency pill wasn’t helping at all, so I sat in the car thinking maybe I just needed a little more time. It didn’t work so I made my way in.

Walking past a group of several hundred protestors outside the debate hall, my heart began to race. I’ve never been a fan of big crowds and the added anxiety didn’t help. I made my way up the stairs to find even more protesters trying to force themselves into the press filing room accompanied by a ton of yelling.

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Maneuvering my way forward, I found a side entrance and got into the Spin/Filing room and it was completely different. Humming with a journalist from just about every major media organization, the room was an organized, yet overwhelming zoo to my senses.

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At this point I was a bit shaky as the sensory overload was in full effect. Not able to find an open spot at a table, I found myself setting up shop on the floor in the back of the room.

Once I had my gear ready, I went over to where other photographers allowed into the photo spray were meeting and talked with a good friend of mine for a few minutes. He let me know that neither candidate planned on going into the Spin Room/Press File after the debate. This lessened my eagerness to stay.

Anxiously I counted 18 of us who had lined up. Due to the walkthrough this morning, I knew there were a few other photographers not standing with us yet. I gave my friend a BS excuse for going back by my temporary floor desk and rushed away quickly.

I started to rationalize my flight response in relation to my rising anxiety. We were going to be allowed 45 seconds to photograph, which isn’t a lot of time to begin with, so how the hell was I going to get anything with well over 20 others vying for the same photo?

Now there was also a subconscious intimidation factor going on in my head as well. I was by far not only the youngest and least experienced out of the bunch, but the other photographers standing next to me just moments ago were the real deal.

These are the guys and gals who travel the country and even the globe covering all of the major stories you see in the news.

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I decided I just couldn’t do it.

Sitting on the floor, taking my gear off and packing it away, I openly broke down a cried. This is the one thing I really look forward to doing and I just couldn’t control my anxiety.

After gathering my stuff I made my way out of the room as quickly and quietly as possible. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, I just needed to get out. Due to how busy the room was, nobody noticed my exit.

I walked towards the main stairway leading to my way out. Once at the top I found a good chunk of protestors who had previously been outside, were now inside the building.

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After snaking my way through the crowd I finally made my way outside. You’d think this would help alleviate my anxiety but no. I still needed to make it back to the Prius and start driving before I could think about calming down.

I took a final photo of the mostly empty, police patrolled street in front of the debate hall where my colleagues would shortly be photographing both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. It made me sad for a moment, but that quickly turned into fear as my anxiety peaked again after seeing the crowd control railing.

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I made my way back to the Prius and basically threw my stuff in and sped off as fast as I could. Meandering through the arteries of the the city, I decided not to take the freeway and instead chose a familiar route home on the side streets that I really didn’t need to think about.

By the time I made it back to Waukesha, where I live, it was nearing the beginning of the debate. I had calmed down a bit, yet now regret replaced my anxiety. I stopped at Walmart for food and tried to not think about the fact that I had left, but that just wasn’t going to happen. Of course I was going to watch the clock.

After picking up a few items, 8:10PM showed up on my phone, which meant that my fellow photojournalists had already photographed the candidates and were rushing back to the file room. The first images of the debate would be out for all the world to see before I even checked out 5 mins later.

Once arriving safely back at home, I made light of the fact that I was upset because that’s just what I do. I had also decided I wanted to write up this blog post. I settled into Facebook and of course, the debate is the first thing to show up in my feed.

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Like millions of other Americans, I clicked the link and began to watch the live stream through YouTube. Anxiety is a b**ch and I dropped the ball on the debate.

I can be proud that I made it to the event and was ready to go. That in and of itself is an accomplishment for a guy who can’t make himself go outside some days.

Regret lies with the fact that I left before the fun began.

At the end of the day I know that I can’t take it back, have a redo, explain my way out of it or whatever; I dropped the ball. Luckily the agency I was planning on sending my photos to had another photographer covering the event. For that I am incredibly grateful.

Going forward I will continue working with my shrink to find a better balance for my life, no longer being ruled by anxiety. This will be accomplished by using both medication and mental techniques to calm down in the moment.

Mental health is a topic most people shy away from as if it’s something to be ashamed of.

I call bulls**t.

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) put out a recent report stating that nearly 1 out of 5 American adults will experience a mental illness in a given year. Check out their PDF infographic here.

A little over 2 years ago, I went to see my shrink for the very first time feeling scared and not knowing what to do. Sure I had close friends to talk to, but I really did need professional help.

I lost a close friend of mine to suicide a little over a year ago. Thankfully I have never even considered that to be an option, but an estimated 60% of adults don’t seek help with a mental illness.

Swallow your pride and just go if you think you may need help.

More likely than not, I’ll never be a famous photographer. But what I can do is talk about my struggles with anxiety and be honest about the BS in both my life and industry. A chemical imbalance in my brain is the real culprit in this story. Anxiety won the battle, but I will win the war.

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This time I got to hang up my first credential of the year on a bulletin board because hey, at least I was there.


About the author: Abe Van Dyke is a photojournalist based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He shoots as VDC Photo. You can find more of his work and connect with him on his website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.

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