Lynsey Addario on Life as a Conflict Photographer
By Harrison Jacobs
“I will be famous someday if you just let me in,” Lynsey Addario once told a wary security guard in Argentina.
She was 22 years old and trying to get into La Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential mansion, where Madonna was filming a movie. An editor at the Buenos Aires Herald had told her that if she got the photo, he’d hire her to freelance—her first newspaper job. She talked her way onto the press riser, and a veteran photojournalist lent her his 500mm lens so that she could snap a few photos of the pop icon.
The younger Addario may not appear to have much in common with the battle-hardened, veteran photographer that exists today. Since 1995, she’s photographed Syrian refugees in Jordan, embedded with U.S. military in Afghanistan, followed rebel armies in Libya, and has been kidnapped twice. A quick search turns up her empathetic and often haunting series on The New York Times, National Geographic and TIME, as well as a wealth of interviews and first-hand accounts of her experiences.
Addario has never been reluctant to speak about the brutality she’s witnessed, the intersection of her professional and personal lives and her role as a leading female photojournalist in conflict zones.
Earlier this year, her memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, was published to critical acclaim. After a bidding war by major movie studios to bring her account to the silver screen, Warner Bros., Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence snagged the honor. Looking back, it may seem inevitable that Addario would become a driving force in her field, winning awards including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize, and becoming a Nikon Ambassador, but at La Casa Rosada, she was just another scared twenty-something.
Photography as a Hobby and Photography as a Profession
Throughout her youth, Addario had no idea that she would become a professional photographer.
“Photography was always a hobby for me,” Addario said in a phone interview with PDNedu. “I didn’t know any professional photographers or photojournalists. I didn’t understand that it was a job.”
She received her first camera, a Nikon FG, from her father at 13 and taught herself to shoot with a battered “How To” manual. Throughout her teenage years, she photographed nature and still lifes (she was too shy to photograph people, she claims), but never thought of photography as a profession.
During college, majoring in international relations at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Addario spent a year studying at the University of Bologna in Italy. Encouraged by the anonymity of a foreign country, Addario fell in love with street photography. She was ignited by Europe and the freedom to travel. The experience sparked her desire for a life abroad. At the time, she imagined herself as a diplomat or a translator.
After graduating, Addario moved to New York City and began to test the waters of professional photography, assisting a fashion photographer. She also worked at a SoHo shirt company, and at night, waitressed in Greenwich Village. When she had scrounged together a few thousand dollars, she followed her wanderlust to Buenos Aires, so she could earn money teaching English.
When she wasn’t teaching, she photographed the streets. She spent weeks at a recurring protest march against Argentina’s “Dirty War,” improving her photos every time. Her then-boyfriend urged her to freelance for the local English daily.
“I decided that I was going to beg the Buenos Aires Herald for a job. That’s what I did. I went back every day until they couldn’t turn me away. I was relentless,” Addario says.
For weeks, she did assignments that were never published. Then one day, she talked her way through the security of La Casa Rosada. Addario freelanced for the Herald for the rest of the year. Around the same time, Addario saw an exhibition by famed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Upon entering the exhibition, Addario says that she was “overcome by his images,” and calls it a pivotal moment in her life.
“[Photojournalism] was a way to tell a story,” writes Addario in her memoir. “It was the marriage of travel and foreign cultures and curiosity and photography.”
Getting a Foot in the Door
Addario returned to New York with a bundle of clips and a newfound vision. She scored a meeting with Joan Rosen, then Associated Press’ New York State photo director. As Addario tells it, Rosen still laughs about that meeting. Addario’s photos weren’t great, but Rosen put her on the freelancing circuit because Addario wouldn’t take no for answer.
Initially, Addario’s assignments were on spec, meaning she wasn’t paid unless they used her photos. But soon, she received assignments for everything from mayoral press conferences to New York Yankees’ ticker-tape parades.
At this point, Addario was learning about the sacrifices required to be a photojournalist. A personal life wasn’t easy. She never had money. She spent every waking hour waiting for the AP photo desk to call. She vacationed alone in Cuba, trying to find stories to photograph. On her 25th birthday, she convinced her father to give her a $15,000 loan to purchase photo equipment in lieu of the wedding sum her three sisters had received.
After three years freelancing for AP, Addario was offered her first big assignment. There had been a string of unsolved murders of transgender prostitutes in New York, and Addario was to photograph the women of the community.
Addario hung around the Meatpacking District every weekend without a camera until, eventually, one of the prostitutes invited her to her apartment in the Bronx. Addario brought chocolate-chip cookies and milk. Over the next five months, she gained access to private moments with the women that she’d never seen during a daily assignment.
“I learned that the more time you put into a story, the more people are comfortable with you and realize that you are just there to talk about their lives,” said Addario. “It set a precedent for all of my work.”
Heading Out into the Unknown
Addario still ached to spend quality time abroad, and in 2000, she pulled the trigger, contacting publications with correspondents in India to find freelance work.
“All I needed was one editor saying they would give me one assignment and, in my head, I’d be ready to stay,” Addario says. An editor at The Christian Science Monitor told her the news organization commissioned a lot of work from India. Addario took that as an offer. She hopped on a plane.
In New Delhi, Addario stayed with other journalists in dingy apartments and worked her way into an expatriate community. Her flat mate, the bureau chief of Dow Jones, recommended that she photograph women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan, since there were few, if any, female photojournalists there. Addario jumped right in.
“I didn’t get scared until right before I was about to go,” she recalls. “I had this realization of, ‘What am I doing? All these things could go wrong and there’s no embassy.’ No one knew what Afghanistan was before 9/11.”
Addario made three trips to Afghanistan under the Taliban. She learned how to take photographs in a place where photography is illegal and how to navigate a dangerous and strict culture. Though her photos were insightful, she had trouble selling them. No one was interested in the South Asian country before 9/11. She moved on to Mexico City with another journalist.
As her career progressed, life back home moved on. Her sister’s husband died of lung cancer; her mother was in a car accident that left her unconscious for three days. Closer still, her boyfriends came and went.
“This job doesn’t lend itself to a personal life,” Addario says. “It’s hard, but that’s the reality.”
History in the Making
Addario was in Mexico City on September 11, 2001. As newscasters talked about Afghanistan, the Taliban and terrorist training camps, Addario got on a plane to New York and flew east a week after that.
Through Yemen’s news agency, Saba, she was able to land freelance gigs from The New York Times, chasing stories that only someone with deep knowledge of the country could get.
“The period after 9/11 gave young photographers who hustled…an unparalleled opportunity to make a name for themselves. Those weeks in September launched an entire generation of journalists who would come of age during the War on Terror,” writes Addario.
As someone who had spent considerable time in a Muslim world that was now being vilified by Western journalists, Addario aimed to depict the region honestly.
“It’s easy to be dismissive of a culture that’s built on a different foundation than your own. I try to take those misconceptions and turn them upside down by showing the diversity of women’s lives in the Muslim world,” Addario says.
In her first photo essay for The New York Times Magazine, “Jihad’s Women,” she accessed female-only schools to interview and photograph devout Pakistani women, many of whom sympathized with the Taliban and felt the 9/11 attacks were justified. In the series, she humanized the women, rather than dismissing them as radicalized. It’s an approach she’s stuck to ever since.
To the Front Line and Back Again
As Addario tells it, she never intended to become a war photographer; she just went where the story was. But the story became the war.
After covering the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, she spent six years on the wars. In 2007, she embedded with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. According to her, those two months in the Korengal Valley were the closest she’s ever been to war.
During the weeks she and her journalist partner spent with the troops, Addario hiked tedious six-hour patrols up vertical terrain. At the end of the day, she caught the quiet moments—a soldier learning Russian, another reading recycled magazines and books. She made friends; she saw those friends take bullets and shrapnel. Some didn’t survive.
Addario has dozens of harrowing stories from the front lines, and has covered multiple conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Syria since, but her heart returns to the crises forgotten in the heat of war. In 2013, Addario traveled to Uganda to document women suffering from breast cancer. In Africa, where so many resources go toward the HIV epidemic, almost none go toward helping women with a very treatable cancer. Many simply view it as a death sentence.
“The stories that are not on the front line mean so much to me. Those stories don’t get enough attention,” says Addario.
To that end, she is constantly pitching editors on these “quieter stories,” among them maternal mortality in Sierra Leone, women who attempt suicide by self-immolation in Afghanistan and young brides in Syrian refugee camps. Addario says that the key to placing these stories is choosing the right publication and finding a link to major international news.
The Changing Battlefield
Addario has also experienced first-hand the greatest danger for photojournalists today. She was kidnapped in 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq, and again in March 2011, in Libya, along with three other New York Times journalists. For six days, she was bound, assaulted and transported. After her second kidnapping, Addario needed to modify the way she approached and photographed conflict.
“The front line isn’t black and white anymore,” Addario says. “Journalists are now a target in a way they never were before. It’s something I have come to live with over the last 15 years.”
But Addario is not one to shy away from the stories she wants to tell, and she persisted in traveling, even after she became pregnant with her son with her husband, Paul de Bendern. Against her doctor’s orders, she traveled to Gaza, Kenya, Senegal and Somalia, hiding her pregnancy from her editors at The New York Times (Addario later penned an essay for them about being pregnant in the field). This type of courage has marked Addario’s career. She never listened to what people told her she couldn’t do, whether as a woman, a foreigner or a photographer.
For those looking to break into photojournalism, Addario tells young photographers that it means a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
“It’s a struggle for everyone,” says Addario. “The advice I have is to be very focused, figure out the stories that you want to tell, be persistent and show editors your work. No one is going to come to you.”
Her pep talk can come off as harsh. Recently, a young photographer asked her how to get into the business. She told him to start traveling, shooting and contacting editors for assignments. When he told her that he didn’t want to travel much because of his girlfriend, Addario told him to break up with her.
“He thought I was insane,” says Addario. “I told him you have to decide what your priorities are. If you are not willing to make that sacrifice, there are 10,000 young photographers who will.”
Addario made that sacrifice multiple times, leaving behind her life back home for a life of adventure and danger. Recently, she’s found more balance. She’s married to another journalist, has a three-year-old son in London and makes sure that none of her assignments last longer than a couple of weeks. It’s a slice of hard-earned stability.
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