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Lynsey Addario—Shooting on the Front Lines

Lynsey Addario

Chang W. Lee/ The New York Times/ Redux

In her new (and incredible) memoir, It’s What I Do, photojournalist Lynsey Addario writes about sitting down to dinner in Istanbul after returning home from a particularly devastating and terrifying assignment. She had been in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, embedded with the 173rd Airborne, and they had been ambushed by the Taliban while on a patrol mission—one of the soldiers in the group, Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, was killed in action. Like on many nights with new friends, conversation turned to questions like: “Is your job dangerous?” She writes: “Everyone wanted to reduce my entire career down to the one or two moments when I might have lost my life.”

In short, her job is very dangerous. Lynsey has been kidnapped twice: She was one of four New York Times journalists kidnapped in Libya, and was also taken in Iraq. But those accounts, while riveting reading, are not actually the tentpoles of her memoir. What it’s really about is a woman who has done some of the most incredible reporting and storytelling from the frontlines of many of the most significant events in the past 15 years—the War on Terror, the genocide in Darfur, the droughts of Somalia. As the name of her memoir suggests, Lynsey’s job is her calling, and the book is an incredible account of a woman who is deftly trying to balance her drive and ambition, a compulsion to tell stories that need to be told, her family back home, and the occasional gut-check that lets her know that she’s right on the line of going irrevocably too far. It’s also a love letter between Lynsey and her husband, Paul, a former foreign correspondent who understands exactly why Lynsey feels compelled to do the work that she does.

Lynsey is also a mother, and while the arrival of her three-year-old son Lukas comes near the end of the book, those pages are arguably the memoir’s most poignant: When she returns to the field, she notes a marked upswell in empathy, writing: “With every scene I wondered how Lukas would fare in the same situation; I wondered how it would feel to be like these mothers, who suddenly couldn’t guarantee security or access to daily meals for their children.” And perhaps nothing is as poignant as this. “I had lived my life in defiance of fear, but now that I had this tiny being to care for, I thought about mortality differently: I worried constantly that something might happen to him, something I had never felt for myself. When I thought about his future, I hoped he would lead a life as full of opportunity and happiness and experiences as mine had been. My dreams for my child were the same ones that I knew compelled so many women around the world to fight for their families against the most unimaginable odds.”

Did we mention that Lynsey was part of a New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “Talibanistan,” or that she’s a MacArthur Fellow? Get the book. It’s amazing.

Q

You spend much of your life documenting extreme pain and loss: Female victims of rape in the Congo, children hit by shrapnel in Afghanistan, the uncovering of mass graves in Iraq. Most of us have the luxury of turning the other way. How did you reconcile what you have to look at every day with bringing a child into this world? Do you worry about the world that Lukas will inherit?

A

There are several questions within this question. First of all, I don’t have to look at these things every day—I choose to. I choose to travel to these places of hardship, and choose to document war and strife because I firmly believe that if people in positions of power have more access to images and information from these places, they can use whatever resources they have at their disposal to make a difference with policy and/or funding, programs, intervention, etc. There are millions of people around the world who are born into miserable conditions, born into war zones, and into lives where they will never have the chance to escape violence and hardship. I think everyone has a responsibility to be cognizant of how others live. While I document extreme pain and loss, I also meet some of the most incredible, strong, resilient, positive women and men in these situations, and they inspire me. And to be honest, when I was contemplating having a child, I never once thought about the state of our world today as a reason not to. Since the beginning of civilization, there has been war. I just hope that Lukas can contribute something to better the world around him—to bring his own vision to the world as he is growing up.

Q

How do you leave it behind you when you come home—is there really a way to compartmentalize, to shake it off?

A

I think for most people who have chosen the sort of life and profession I have—for war correspondents and photographers—we have methods for weaving in and out between our work and home lives. I have been covering conflict and humanitarian situations for fifteen years now, and think it is very important for me personally to talk through the stories I cover once I get home as a means of processing them, of working through any trauma. I don’t necessarily want to “leave behind” or forget what I have seen, because my job is to be the messenger, and I feel I owe it to the people I cover to communicate their stories to the greater public as much as I possibly can, and to keep their stories relevant. By nature, I am a very positive, balanced person, and I rarely get depressed or down. And frankly, the fact that I have spent so many years photographing people whose lives are rife with obstacles puts my own life into perspective, and I feel incredibly fortunate every single day.

Q

You talk a lot in It’s What I Do about the ability of photojournalism to force policy makers and citizens to take action—it’s probably impossible to come up with one example, but what was the one scenario in which you felt most compelled to act, most compelled to tell the story?

A

There definitely isn’t one situation—I am perpetually overcome by the need to tell different stories at different times in my life and career. The war in Iraq was an example where I felt it was a fundamental responsibility for me as a journalist to be there, documenting the invasion and the aftermath because we were sending U.S. troops into a sovereign country for dubious reasons, and the American public had a right to see the toll of war on our troops. More than a decade later, thousands of American men and women have given their lives for the war in Iraq, tens of thousands have been maimed and injured, and a countless number of veterans are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as they try to reinsert themselves into society at home. I wanted to be there to understand the war first-hand, and to show those images to readers in America.

“There are millions of people around the world who are born into miserable conditions, born into war zones, and into lives where they will never have the chance to escape violence and hardship. I think everyone has a responsibility to be cognizant of how others live.”

Regarding some of the women’s stories I do, like maternal mortality: I believe developed nations can step in and help developing countries decrease the number of women who die in childbirth. Maternal mortality is preventable. In 2010, I witnessed and documented the death of Mamma Sessay, a young woman from Sierra Leone who hemorrhaged after giving birth in a government hospital in the provinces outside of the capital. I published both the still images and a video of Mamma Sessay’s death, and although it was graphic and difficult to watch, those images have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid, which has been used towards preventing maternal deaths worldwide.

Left: Lebanese walk through the destruction in Beirut’s southern suburbs on the first day of the ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon, August 14, 2006. Top Right: Sudanese women sit and await food and non-food items being distributed by international humanitarian organizations in the village of Selea, which was recently bombed along with two other villages north of Geneina by the Sudanese government and simultaneously attacked by armed men on camels, horseback, and donkeys, otherwise known as Janjaweed, in West Darfur, Sudan, February 28, 2008; Bottom Right: An Iraqi woman walks through a plume of smoke rising from a massive fire at a liquid gas factory as she searches for her husband in the vicinity of the fire in Basra, Iraq, May 26, 2003.

Q

There are particularly heart-rending accounts in the book about Life and The New York Times Magazine refusing to run some images out of concern that they were too “real” for the American public. How often do you encounter that type of censorship?

A

I don’t actually encounter censorship that much, because I am lucky to freelance for incredibly solid publications like The New York Times. Censorship comes at different levels, and it is important to distinguish where it is coming from in order to address it: On the very basic level, I self-censor a bit: If I am shooting a bombing, for example, and I feel the blood and gore is gratuitous, and won’t add additional information for the reader, I won’t shoot those pictures. Or sometimes I will shoot, but won’t file those images. There is government, or military censorship when it comes to photographing troops in combat: When I used to do a lot of embeds with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, journalists had to sign a document prohibiting us from publishing any images of a soldier Killed in Action without explicit permission from that soldier’s next of kin. I was once embedded with the air medics, and we picked up a 21-year-old Marine in southern Afghanistan who had just stepped on an explosive device, and he died while I was photographing the medics at a remote field hospital trying to save his life. I spoke with his father when I returned to the US, and recounted to him what I had witnessed, and asked his permission to publish the images. His father did not consent, so those photographs of his son have never been published. Of course, as a mother, I understand that the Marine’s parents didn’t want pictures of their deceased son out there, but as a journalist, I firmly believe that if we as a nation are at war, we need to see the toll of that war—and the very graphic, heart-breaking toll of war. If we sanitize that, no one will ever stand up against war. I am pretty sure photographers covering Vietnam didn’t need permission to publish certain photographs from the frontline, and that is one of the reasons images from Vietnam had a great impact on the public’s opinion of the war: They were graphic and brutal images. In more than a decade of covering Afghanistan and Iraq, I have only photographed and published less than a handful of images of troops Killed in Action. That speaks volumes to me.

“I am pretty sure photographers covering Vietnam didn’t need permission to publish certain photographs from the frontline, and that is one of the reasons images from Vietnam had a great impact on the public’s opinion of the war: They were graphic and brutal images. In more than a decade of covering Afghanistan and Iraq, I have only photographed and published less than a handful of images of troops Killed in Action. That speaks volumes to me.”

Another form of censorship is with the publication, itself. All publications place limits on what they will publish—whether we are referring to blood, or ironically, nipples. I recently shot a big story on breast cancer for a publication, and there was a big discussion as to whether they would be able to publish a nipple. It never dawned on me that while photographing a story as heartbreaking as breast cancer, I would have to worry about whether a nipple was visible. And it was an astonishingly sad realization to me that mass images of guns, violence, and dead bodies (provided they are not American soldiers) are generally more palatable than a nipple in the US, but this is sadly the reality we live in. I don’t think this would ever be an issue in Europe, for example.

Q

You talk about making a promise to yourself as a teen—to do something every day that you didn’t want to do. And that you thought it would make you a better person. What are those things now, considering how clearly you love what you do everyday?

A

The main thing I force myself to do every day is work out. I go to the gym or go for a run six days a week, whether I have time or not, or whether or not I am in the mood, because I always feel better once I finish a workout. I have more energy, and I believe it keeps my mind sharp and my spirits up.

Q

Is Lukas aware yet of what you do? How do you talk about it with him?

A

Not really. He just turned three, so it is still a vague concept for him. I explain to him that I am a photojournalist, he watches me pack my cameras before each trip, and I show him on the map and on a globe where I am going, but he is too young to understand at this point.

An Afghan woman, Noor Nisa, stands in labor on the side of the mountain in Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, November 2009.

Q

In It’s What I Do talk about the moment when you went back to work—post Lukas—and the upswell of empathy that colored your whole view of the world. It’s a pretty profound transformation and shift in perspective to become a mother—how has that changed your work? Does it change the jobs you take? Is it ever just too much to bear? How do you separate yourself from thinking about every victim as someone’s child, of putting either yourself or Lukas in the position?

A

While I am still working actively in war zones, I make a conscious effort to avoid the front line. Obviously, with ISIS and terrorism in general these days, the front line is quite nebulous, so danger is harder to navigate. But lets say I am not running directly into a gun battle now—as I used to before I had Lukas. Since I had Lukas, it is exponentially harder for me to watch children dying. Unfortunately, it is a scene I photograph often with my work—whether children dying from malnutrition in South Sudan, or in an attack in Afghanistan. When I photograph a child suffering or dying now, the scene immediately triggers a series of scenarios in my head that leave me reeling: I imagine how I could ever bear the loss of losing Lukas, or what would I do if he were suffering from a grave illness, and there were no doctors available to treat him. And I have to consciously keep my camera to my eye, and continue photographing so as to create a barrier between me, my heart, and my subject, because as personal as this is, and as difficult as it is to witness now as a mother, it is all the more important for me to be there to bear witness, and to try to help with my coverage.

Q

What is your hope for the world?

A

Oh, dear. That is a bit too general. I think it would be completely unrealistic to hope for a world without war, so I would hope for a world in which there are fewer injustices against women, where young girls and boys have a right to education equally, and where women have freedom to choose their own paths in life.

Q

What is your hope for Lukas?

A

That he is passionate about something—anything—and that he follows this passion and is true to himself throughout his life.

Q

You talk about your gut a lot—and how you trust it to keep you from harm (and how you knew, in your gut, that you needed to move out before you were kidnapped in Libya). What are the other ways in which you listen to it/lean on it?

A

I listen to my instincts with people in general: I have a good sense of people, who to trust, who I gravitate to, and I listen to that. It is important for me to surround myself with positive, passionate people who believe in who they are and what they do.

Q

Do you see a time when you won’t be able to do this? Or won’t want to?

A

I don’t know. I think it is important in this profession to be in tune with myself all the time—it is so easy to run oneself into the ground with this work, and to enter very dark places, and to stay there unwittingly. I try to stay in touch with my emotions and the personal toll of this work by talking about things, but when I feel like I need to step back from certain places, or war, or hardship, I listen to that. I can always focus on shooting different types of stories, or concentrate on writing a book! (Joke.)

Q

You also mention that once flush newspaper and magazine budgets are dwindling—are you worried about the future of journalism and the future of reporting from the front lines?

A

This is a reality, whether we choose to recognize it or not! My solution has been to try to incorporate different types of assignments and clients—not entirely editorial, but some corporate, some speaking engagements, etc. My heart is always in the same place, so I generally do this to ensure I make enough money to get through the year, and then focus on editorial photojournalism.

Q

Looking back on your life and career so far, is there anything you would have done differently?

A

No—I don’t believe in regret. I believe only in learning from my mistakes, my past experiences, and trying to grow and become a better person with everything I do in the future.

Left: Khalid, 7-years-old, sits outside of the medical tent of a U.S. military base after elders from a village claimed he was injured by shrapnel from a bomb dropped by the Americans near his home. American forces admit to dropping a bomb in the area, and say the boy was most likely injured in the attack, but cannot confirm 100%. October 2007. Top Right: From “Talibanistan.” Bottom Right: A Sudanese Liberation Army soldier walks through the remains of Hangala village, which was burned by Janjaweed near Farawiya, in Darfur, August 27, 2004.

All photos and credits reprinted with permission from Lynsey Addario/Getty Reportage and It’s What I Do.

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