It’s What I Do: Lynsey Addario on the Front Lines

Lynsey Addario

1.

Early in her career, before the shock of 9/11 galvanized a generation of emerging photojournalists to throw themselves into the cauldron of international conflicts, Lynsey Addario was living with her boyfriend, Miguel, in a $500-a-month apartment in Buenos Aires. On Thursdays, she photographed the protestors of the Desaparecidos, mothers of victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” in the Plaza de Mayo. Addario could little know that years later, much of her greatest work would be documenting the trials and struggles of other women in many of the world’s hotspots, women who were collateral damage of their sons’, husbands’ and fathers’ warring madness.

Addario got a job as photographer at the local English-language newspaper, the Buenos Aires Herald. She describes it in her recently published memoir, It’s What I Do:

Every few weeks I traveled around Latin America to photograph. I went from seaside villages in Uruguay to Pablo Neruda’s houses along the Chilean coast to Machu Picchu in Peru. I photographed volcanoes, mountains, lakes, plush green fields, towns propped on hillsides, craft fairs, fish markets. I took long bus journeys around hairpin turns marked by crosses where others had fallen and died, and searched for beautiful light at dawn and dusk. My quest was simple: to travel and photograph everything I could with what little I had.

That quest quickly became obsessive, and it has led her into war zones where she has been kidnapped twice, questioned under duress and groped with the threat of rape hovering around her. Like Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, she was embedded with soldiers in a remote outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. She has seen decaying corpses of dozens of slaughtered soldiers in Sudan, men whose death was denied by their own government until Addario’s photos appeared on the front page of The New York Times. She has survived it all, and on Dec. 28, 2011, at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, “after eleven-plus hours of miserable labor,” she gave birth to her and husband Paul’s first child, Lukas Simon de Bendern.

Addario's son
Addario's son, Lukas.

Oh, she also is a recipient of a MacArthur Grant and in 2009 won a Pulitzer Prize.

Addario is friends with fellow photojournalist João de Silva, who lost both legs after stepping on a land mine while on patrol with U.S. soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan. She worked alongside Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who were both victims of an RPG attack in Misrata, Libya, in April 2011. Addario and three New York Times journalists, including photographer Tyler Hicks, had been kidnapped in Ajdabiya by men fighting with Gaddafi’s army. They were released only a month before Hetherington and Hondros were killed. One of the most moving threads in It’s What I Do is Addario’s detailed recollection of the community of war photographers who drift in and out of each other’s lives while sharing dangerous missions. What is unique in her narrative, however, is how articulate and insightful she is in reaching beyond the mere factual record. She relates what motivates these colleagues, men and women who abandon all the amenities of normal life, who make themselves vulnerable targets in the line of fire in volatile and explosive environments. Too many of them are wounded; too many die.

Addario at work in Darfur
Addario at work in Darfur.

Addario credits Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado with inspiring her to jumpstart her own career, recalling that she saw an exhibition of his “enormous images of impoverished workers around the world who toiled under harrowing conditions.” She continues:

Until I saw Salgado’s exhibition, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a street photographer or a news photographer, or whether I could make it as a photographer at all. But when I entered the exhibition space, I was so overwhelmed by his images — the passion, the details, the texture — that I decided to devote myself to photojournalism and documentary photography.

It is easy to make the argument that Salgado has been the most inspirational of all the “engaged” photographers of the past several decades, and to do this without diminishing the work of influential artists like James Nachtwey. Salgado’s stunning humanity, even apart from the deep sensitivity of his work captured in the Academy Award-nominated feature documentary The Salt of the Earth, is singular. (I recently wrote a trilogy of posts about Salgado; here is the first one.)

Salgado’s intimate conversation with John Berger in The Spectre of Hope is a clear-eyed testament to why he is such a towering figure.

2.

It’s What I Do is unique among the many books I have read about photojournalists on assignment and under fire. Addario writes in a taut “you are there” style with a moment-to-moment immediacy that is as alive as her photos. The book is printed on a slick grade of paper that allows her photos (with good color and resolution) to be printed alongside the text; the reader is able to follow her narrative without having to flip back and forth to photo blocks bound together. Though there are plenty of page-turner stories, even beyond the Libya kidnapping that made international news for days, it is the more introspective, even meditative moments of Addario simply being with people that stand out.

I have often been curious why so many gifted women photojournalists are inspired to serve as witnesses in godforsaken places. Logic would seem to suggest that women would be most vulnerable to the depravations of men in conflict. Addario does, in fact, discuss the sexual harassment she has sometimes experienced. But her gender has also given her access to the private, even secluded world of women, access that is denied to men. She photographs and listens to the stories of women who are victims of war, societal prejudice and religious isolation, women whose lives might otherwise never be documented or shared with the world.

Addario in Pakistan, 2001
Addario in Pakistan, 2001.

Addario’s window into deeper aspects of women’s lives has freed her from the deadline cycle of most day-to-day journalism, of having to get the single shot that encapsulates the latest breaking story for the “above the fold” lead, or for the cover of Der Spiegel, The Economist or Time. The photo-essay, a venerable tradition going back to W. Gene Smith’s battles with Life in the 1930s and 1940s, has always been the most sought-after assignment for a photojournalist. Addario has been wondrously insightful in the depth and emotional intensity of her photo-essays.

In a video for Time, Addario talks about how she photographs women in countries where they are marginalized, and about her decision to continue working even during her pregnancy.

In March 2014, the National Geographic Society hosted a lecture and slideshow by Addario. She explains the danger of photographing women in Afghanistan, as well as the peril to herself. In a deeply affecting section, she illustrates with photos and video the efforts to combat maternal mortality in Sierra Leone; she focuses on one woman, Zaiyaba, who died in childbirth because of the scarcity of doctors, and discusses how her story prompted Doctors Without Borders to revamp and improve maternity care in the country’s clinics. As Addario cuts between her stills and video, live sound continues. It gives an eerie immediacy to hear human sounds of trauma over the frozen images.

6. sierra leone baby
Photo by Lynsey Addario

In late 2009 and into 2010, Addario was back in Afghanistan, this time embedded with female U.S. Marines of the 173rd Airborne, part of a “female engagement team” that is working among Afghan women in health and education programs. Then Addario is in Libya, in the midst of the revolution, traveling with rebels as Libyan soldiers attack them. It is here that she is kidnapped. Next, she is in Syria and Lebanon, documenting the migration of civil-war refugees. As she talks to the National Geographic audience about each of these assignments, Addario never once self-mythologizes, nor does she rise to the level of personal heroics. She is merely another photographer on assignment.

Although much of Addario’s mature work has focused on long-term photo-essays, there is always the risk that rapidly changing events, as well as domestic political issues, can render an assignment problematic. In her book, Addario discusses one such essay for Life that was to run in November 2004. The assignment was to feature images of wounded American soldiers being med-evaced to triage centers. The Bush administration had already made it difficult for photojournalists to document U.S. casualties, especially ones involving body bags or flag-draped coffins. Several weeks after Bush’s second inaugural address, Addario received an email from her photo editor, saying that Life “would not publish the essay of injured soldiers coming out of Fallujah, because the images were just too ‘real’ for the American public.”

She recalls that nearly five months after she shot the story, “They finally did run in The New York Times Magazine, but something in me had changed after those months in Iraq. I was now a photojournalist willing to die for stories that had the potential to educate people.”

It is here, at the end of Part 2 of her memoir, that Addario eloquently and angrily states the dilemma confronted by every conflict photographer; she articulates with unrestrained passion why the drive to place their lives in harm’s way is so urgent and necessary:

I wanted people to think, to open their minds, to give them a full picture of what was happening in Iraq so they could decide whether they supported our presence there. When I risked my life to ultimately be censored by someone sitting in a cushy office in New York, who was deciding on behalf of regular Americans what was too harsh for their eyes, depriving them of their right to see where their own children were fighting, I was furious. Every time I photographed a story like the injured soldiers coming out of Fallujah, I ended up in tears and emotionally fragile. Every time I returned home, I felt more strongly about the need to continue going back.

When I read this, I, too, became angry — angry with the cultural critics (like Ingrid Sischy and the late Susan Sontag) and politicians who regard these “engaged” photographers as exploiters of human misery or, even worse, as purveyors of trauma porn (something of which Salgado has been accused).

In Darfur, Addario
Photo by Lynsey Addario

In Chapter 9 of her memoir, Addario describes what may have been her most deadly assignment, her autumn 2007 embed with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan (along with photojournalist Elizabeth Rubin, who, it turned out, was pregnant). Their first stop was Camp Blessing in the Pech River Valley, where they watched Taliban fighters under aerial attack being incinerated on video screens in the Tactical Operations Center. The two women go out on night patrol wearing night-vision goggles. They are caught in firefights.

Addario in Afghanistan.
Addario in Afghanistan, 2007.

Near the end of their two-month embed, they are joined by two other photographers, Hetherington and Balazas Gardi. (Hetherington was to make his Oscar-nominated film, Restrepo, with Junger after Addario and Rubin left.) In October, the women become part of a mission labeled Operation Rock Avalanche, whose goal was to “root out senior Taliban fighters.” From Oct. 19-23, 2007, Addario documents the operation, including a firefight during which they are exposed on a steep hillside with little cover.

On Patrol in Korengal, Addario
Photo by Lynsey Addario

One morning, as the Americans hear the snap of AK-47 fire, Sgt. Kevin Rice is wounded in the stomach, and SPC Carl Vandenberge is shot in the arm. The two men are able to walk out.

10-wounded korengal 1
Photo by Lynsey Addario

Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle, on his sixth tour since Sept. 11, 2001, and nicknamed “Wildcat,” is not so lucky. He is carried out dead. Earlier in the chapter, Addario describes Rougle this way:

He had dark brown hair that grew into a bowl around his big brown eyes the longer he stayed at the remote Camp Vegas …. He was thoughtful and articulate and spoke with an ominous wistfulness …. He had once been part of a gang in South Jersey. When he shot someone and ended up in juvenile detention, he spent his time learning Russian and reading. When he got out, he joined the army. He had a girlfriend he wanted to marry. He always spoke about his mother.

Now he is just another dead soldier in a body bag.

11-Rougle in bodybag
Photo by Lynsey Addario

A short time later, Addario is on a flight with Ariana Afghan Airlines, the national carrier, headed back to Istanbul. A male flight attendant comes up to her. “Madam, you cannot sit here. This is an exit row.” Addario replies, “So?” “Women cannot sit by the exit door. If there is a flight emergency, a woman wouldn’t be capable of opening the exit door.” Addario yields and moves. Maybe the attendant should have tried to say that to Elizabeth Rubin, who was still embedded with American soldiers somewhere in the Korengal Valley.

In a brief Getty Images video, Addario discusses intimate photographs from the chaos of that ambush in the Korengal Valley. Even more death-haunted than this wasteland is her record of a slaughter of government troops by rebels in the Sudanese civil war, graphic images of dismembered bodies rotting in the desert sun.

Photo by Lynsey Addario
Photo by Lynsey Addario

In Chapter 12, “He Was a Brother I Miss Dearly,” Addario recounts the day when she was in the New York office of Aperture magazine, discussing a possible coffee-table book of her photographs. The red light on her Blackberry began flashing, and, atypically, she quickly opened the email. It was from Maj. Dan Kearney, who had been leader of Battle Company when Addario was embedded in the Korengal. The subject line read: “Tim Hetherington killed in Libya.” The body read:

Tim was killed in Libya. Please keep him in your prayers. I know the BATTLE family will come together to support. He was a brother I miss dearly.

Then another email came in: “Chris Hondros killed in Libya.”

That same month, I wrote about these two deaths and the wounding of Guy Martin in that firefight. I had met Tim barely two months earlier, when he and Junger attended a DGA reception honoring the Oscar nomination for Restrepo.

3.

It’s What I Do is not a text that will satisfy a testosterone-impacted, gung-ho action freak who devours accounts of war while waiting for delivery of the next first-person-shooter video game. Or, if American Sniper looms high on your must-see-again list, the deeply personal stories Addario shares might not warrant your attention. Most of her recollections are steeped in the tea of trauma, of deprivation, of loss, of injustice. They are windows into just how many of the world’s peoples experience overwhelming challenges to basic survival.

Photo by Lynsey Addario
Photo by Lynsey Addario

Most of us in the privileged and safe First World confront the harsh realities of hundreds of millions of our fellow humans only through the intermediary —even, dare I say, intercessions — of men and women who risk their lives every day to show us what we would prefer not to know.

Addario crossing into Darfur.
Addario crossing into Darfur.

Having once thought I had a calling into religious life, I can understand the Messianic fervor that must live in the hearts of photojournalists like Addario. I know, I know. There are critics who want to dismiss them as “peril junkies” intent on finding ever-greater danger highs until they find violent death. Yes, there are photographers who have written about this adrenaline rush; it stalks the pages of Silva and Marinovich’s The BangBang Club.

But there is no record of the conflict photojournalist’s life that is anything like It’s What I Do. The shape-shifting mix of eruptive danger, action and repose (even boredom), combined with intimate revelations of the plight of women trapped in the trauma of war, of her own efforts to forge a private life amid frantic work assignments, of her delayed family and motherhood — all of the conflicts and contradictions within one person, the life of the artist that lies beyond the images served up with our morning coffee — this, as she says, is what Lynsey Addario does.

It is no surprise that a bidding war broke out in Hollywood for the movie rights to It’s What I Do, with some of the most respected producers and directors competing. Nor is it surprising that Steven Spielberg, a filmmaker who has made some of our most respected movies, won. Whether a life and a book so full of such powerful stories can be captured within the narrow limits of a single feature film remains to be seen. Let’s hope it even comes close.

Addario in Libya shortly before her capture. (Photo: John Moore.)
Addario in Libya shortly before her capture. (Photo: John Moore)

NEXT: Vilmos Zsigmond and The Rose, newly remastered by Criterion

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