Acclaimed war photographer describes how shock of Iraq assignment caused alopecia

alopecia areata and shockHighly respected and award-winning photographer Graeme Robertson has travelled the world and photographed people from all walks of life, but it was an assignment in Iraq that proved to be the most stressful of his career so far. As he told Irish online paper, TheJournal.ie, the experience led to him developing alopecia areata.

“I’m quite a sensitive guy; I can close myself off to a lot of things and concentrate on my job, and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, from [photographing] people dying or an AIDS campaign, or running for your life getting shot at, but I did struggle to a point that I got alopecia and lost most of my hair.”

What is alopecia areata?

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that presents as sudden loss of hair, typically in small, round patches. It’s thought that the body’s immune system targets the hair follicles, forcing them to move rapidly into the resting phase of hair growth.

It is not known why only certain areas are affected and why the affected hair follicles can recover and start producing hair as normal or why it can sometimes progress to total hair loss of the scalp or the entire body. The exact cause of alopecia areata is also not known but there are a number of factors that have been identified as potential triggers.

The possible causes of alopecia areata

  1. Long-term stress
  2. Shock or an isolated episode of extreme stress as experienced by photographer Graeme Robertson during his time in Iraq
  3. Viral or bacterial infections
  4. Physical trauma or injury

The role that extreme stress or a shock can play in the development of alopecia areata is not proven and some researchers have cast doubt on its significance. Anecdotal evidence abounds of sufferers experiencing alopecia after a ‘stressor’ in the form of a death of a family member or car accident, for example, but some argue that genetic predisposition plays a more important role and the stressful event works as a trigger.

As Graeme concluded, the experience “changed me a lot, it changed me to a point that I am a better person for it” and he is now working with the charity Sightsavers to produce a series of photographs of people living with disabilities.

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