It was during a memorial for the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting that Nic Coury had his first breakdown while on assignment. He photographed mourners who cried like he did that day; candles and flags in rainbow colors; grief, shock and pain.
As a Monterey, California-based photojournalist since 2007, he was no stranger to such scenes. He often wrestled with how to process the emotions brought up by witnessing stress and tragedy. He notes that his education in journalism covered ethics and the rights of the press but never covered how to take care of yourself while continually being bombarded with difficult subject matter.
“We don’t talk about this stuff, and it gets really heavy,” he said. He found himself suffering from depression, anxiety and over-drinking.
For Coury, who identifies as queer, the 2016 memorial was a catalyst for making deep personal changes, including expressing his identity in an unapologetic way.
“This was my people, and this was my community. I’m not just a journalist at that point,” Coury said. “Who we are defines our work and how we do our work.”
He decided to address his mental health and pursue a more compassionate practice of journalism.
Learning from experience, Coury encourages photojournalists to pursue healthy ways to cope with stress and to check in with one another after covering difficult stories.
When he struggles, Coury now reaches toward positive activities, spending time with his pet chickens, going to yoga, climbing or calling upon friends for support when needed.
In a recent Facebook post, he wrote: “Any Monterey friends around tonight, or tomorrow, and have the bandwidth to hold space for me? I’m not doing very well emotionally tonight after covering that shooting today and I’m alone at home for a week or so. I feel very sad and I’m stressed out.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive, with multiple offers of support. That day he had coffee with friends, and later drinks with some others. They didn’t talk about the shooting, but the emotional impact was remarkable.
“You feel seen and represented, a feeling like you can breathe easier. There’s a hopefulness there, a change of perspective,” he said. That compared to a mounting heaviness he felt when processing such events alone.
The sense of compassion that Coury experiences in his personal life transfers to his work.
“We need to be affected by (what we are covering),” he says. “We need to have empathy.”
Coury says he will sincerely ask people how they are first before asking them to give him their story.
In addition to covering local journalism, Coury is now using his work for LGBTQ+ advocacy. He founded the Alliance Photo Group, promoting the work of LGBTQ+ identifying photographers. They currently have an Instagram page showcasing their work and are building a database of LGBTQ+ photographers that will be available for employers to draw from.
It’s been three years since the tragedy of Pulse, and many lives have changed. What started as a breaking point for Coury became a reason to strengthen his role in the community.
By taking better care of himself and calling on help when needed, he has found the ability to combine his personal and professional lives in a harmonious way that benefits both. ■
Caption: Wearing his mom-made chicken apron, Nic Coury holds one of his seven hens, Peanut Butter, a Buff Orpington (for those into chickens). Photo courtesy of Nic Coury
Autumn Payne is a photojournalist and videographer at The Sacramento Bee; she can be reached via her website at autumnpayne.com. She would like to hear your stories about work/life balance.