Lynsey Addario

US photojournalist Lynsey Addario be­lieves her job is worth the risks she takes but, as she tells Keith Wil­son, even she can’t un­der­stand how she has sur­vived the wars she has cov­ered…

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The Pulitzer Prizewin­ning photojournalist shares her images and sto­ries from the world’s most dan­ger­ous places

For once, Lynsey Addario is not speak­ing from a coun­try torn apart by war. But she’s by no means idle, as she’s cur­rently work­ing on three long-term photo sto­ries for

Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, Time and the New York Times, the news­pa­per for which she has un­der­taken her most un­for­giv­ing as­sign­ments. In cov­er­ing this cen­tury’s dead­li­est con­flicts, Lynsey has taken enor­mous per­sonal risks, but it is on the front­line where she feels most ful­filled, and best able to re­spond to her in­ner be­lief that, through her cam­era, she can bring a per­spec­tive to a story that isn’t be­ing told…

You have de­scribed be­ing a con­flict pho­tog­ra­pher as ‘a call­ing’. When did you first feel this call­ing and what were the cir­cum­stances?

It wasn’t sort of this in­stan­ta­neous re­al­iza­tion and also I never set out to be a war pho­tog­ra­pher. For me, it just started with cu­rios­ity. For ex­am­ple, I was liv­ing in In­dia and I started pho­tograph­ing wid­ows in In­dia and I be­came aware of how women didn’t have the same rights as men, and that was some­thing that was new to me as an Amer­i­can woman – I was able to go to school and choose the boys I dated, and to choose my hus­band. So it was in­ter­est­ing to me to sud­denly, for the first time, see these so­ci­eties in which women were es­sen­tially re­garded as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens.

Then I started work­ing in Afghanistan be­cause I had a room­mate who said, ‘You know, you should go pho­to­graph women liv­ing un­der the Tal­iban, be­cause you care about women’s is­sues and there are ob­vi­ously women liv­ing un­der the Tal­iban.’ So, I never thought twice about it, Ijust went. I was gen­uinely cu­ri­ous: are these women re­ally as mis­er­able as the me­dia says they are, or is it just a mat­ter of pro­ject­ing our own views on them? Ididn’t know, I was 26 years old, so I went.

Septem­ber 11 changed things for you too…

Then Septem­ber 11 hap­pened and I had al­ready been to Afghanistan about three times, so I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll just go back’, and then the war in Iraq was about to hap­pen, so I thought, ‘Well, I should be there be­cause it’s our coun­try and is our gov­ern­ment ly­ing to us about the weapons of mass de­struc­tion?’ So then I started cov­er­ing the war in Iraq, and then a col­league at the NewYorkTimes asked me if I wanted to go to Dar­fur with her, in 2004, and so I thought, ‘Why not?’ We’d heard there was a geno­cide go­ing on and the gov­ern­ment was killing its own peo­ple, so it was a grad­ual thing. It wasn’t like Iwoke up as a 15-year-old girl in Nor­walk, Con­necti­cut, and said I want to be a war pho­tog­ra­pher. That was never ever the case.

So, then it be­came a call­ing be­cause once you bear wit­ness to these in­cred­i­ble things it’s not like you can just walk away. Imean for me, there was no turn­ing back be­cause I re­al­ized I had this very im­por­tant role of pro­vid­ing a voice and of doc­u­ment­ing the re­al­ity on the ground.

Was there a men­tor in your early days of pho­to­jour­nal­ism who you could look up to or who was able to help you out on your path?

There were cer­tainly pho­tog­ra­phers that I looked up to. There was an old book­store in SoHo, in New York City, when I moved back in the mid-1990s; it was called A Pho­tog­ra­pher’s Place and I used to go in there and just look at books all the time. I looked at Jim Nachtwey’s work, Koudelka, a lot of the clas­sics. I just loved the way they pho­tographed, and the com­po­si­tion and the drama of their pho­tos, and the in­ti­macy. Then I started free­lanc­ing for the Associated Press in New York City, and there I had my first real men­tor. His name was Be­beto Matthews. He was Ja­maican Amer­i­can and he took me un­der his wing; in fact the en­tire bureau of the AP in New York City re­ally took me in and taught me a lot. Be­beto worked as an ed­i­tor on Satur­days and he would send me deep into Har­lem and the Bronx and he re­ally sort of pushed me out of my com­fort zone, and then would sit with me and look at the pho­tos and go through the frames, one by one. I was shoot­ing film and he re­ally taught me how to see and how to look for light, how to get closer – all the clas­sic el­e­ments of good pho­tog­ra­phy.

Were you work­ing in both colour and black and white then?

Yeah, I started mostly in black and white, and then, be­cause I started work­ing for the Associated Press, I changed to colour. Then, in 1997, I went to Cuba and it was such a rich, sat­u­rated colour­ful coun­try, I ba­si­cally started see­ing in colour and I never re­ally went back. I’ve shot only a few sto­ries in black and white since then. One was the Tal­iban story that was part of the NewYorkTimes Pulitzer pack­age, but I’ve mostly shot colour.

You’re a Nikon USA Am­bas­sador, so which was your first ever Nikon cam­era?

The Nikon FG. It re­ally dates me! That was my first cam­era and I used that for ages, and then – I think in the ’90s when I was work­ing for the Associated Press – I was us­ing the F100 a lot.

And what was your first Nikon dig­i­tal cam­era?

What­ever came out. I had a D2X for sure. Didn’t they have a D1X? I might have used that too. I trash my cam­eras. For me my cam­eras are like an ex­ten­sion of my eye. I love Nikons be­cause I can use them in my sleep. I’ve been us­ing Nikons since I was 12, but I’m not the kind of pho­tog­ra­pher

who cleans my cam­era every night and is very gen­tle with them. For me, they’re there to use and to help me get what I need, so I’m pretty rough with my cam­eras.

What cam­eras and lenses would I find if I were to rum­mage through your kit­bag right now?

I have the D810 and the D5. If I’m go­ing on some­thing like a Na­tional

Ge­o­graphic story, I carry prime lenses a lot. I also use zooms: I carry the 24-70mm f/2.8, I have a 28mm f/1.8, 24mm f/1.4, a 35mm f/1.4 and I have a 58mm f/1.4, which I didn’t know ex­isted and it’s a beau­ti­ful por­trait lens. Then I have the 70-200mm f/2.8, but I pre­fer not to use long lenses if Idon’t have to. I just like to be up close, to be right where ev­ery­thing is hap­pen­ing.

What is your desert is­land lens?

If it’s a news story I ob­vi­ously need the 24-70mm be­cause I need the zoom and it gives me flex­i­bil­ity, but if I can take my time, then it’s go­ing to be the 35mm f/1.4 and the 28mm f/1.8.

When did you first know that you wanted to be­come a pho­tog­ra­pher?

I started pho­tograph­ing when I was quite young. I was about 12 or 13 years old, but I never took pho­tog­ra­phy se­ri­ously. It wasn’t un­til I grad­u­ated from Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son – with a de­gree in In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions and Ital­ian – that I re­al­ized the only thing I wanted to do was to take photographs.

I de­cided I would move to Ar­gentina to learn Span­ish and to pho­to­graph. And when I got there all I re­ally wanted to do was to pho­to­graph, and I started be­com­ing aware of pic­tures in the news­pa­pers and how pic­tures could tell sto­ries – that was my first re­al­iza­tion that pho­to­jour­nal­ism re­ally en­cap­su­lated the mar­riage be­tween pho­tog­ra­phy and telling sto­ries.

At the launch of your book, It’s

What I Do, you said: “Peo­ple ask me why I do this? And it is what makes me most alive, it is what I believe in, it is my hap­pi­ness and it’s what I do.” How do you find hap­pi­ness in pho­tograph­ing a war?

I guess hap­pi­ness isn’t the right word. I think it would be how I am ful­filled, you know, I feel like I am liv­ing out what I should be do­ing. It is my call­ing, it is what I believe in and I feel like I am not be­ing my­self and I’m not an­swer­ing to why I’m here if I’m not do­ing that. So, it’s not hap­pi­ness, I just feel like I need

I’m do­ing what I should be do­ing when I’m in these places and pro­vid­ing and cre­at­ing a doc­u­ment of his­tory

to be there. I’m do­ing what I should be do­ing when I’m in these places and pro­vid­ing and cre­at­ing a doc­u­ment of his­tory, and pro­vid­ing peo­ple with the tes­ti­mony of their lives and what’s hap­pen­ing to them.

This might seem like a sur­real ques­tion, but is there a type of con­flict or story an­gle that you are more at­tracted to and more likely to cover?

Yeah. Ini­tially, I was in­ter­ested in the war zones that Amer­ica was in­volved in be­cause I was go­ing there as an Amer­i­can to show what the young men and women of my gen­er­a­tion were do­ing, and what was hap­pen­ing on the ground, what was hap­pen­ing with civil­ians. I felt it was im­por­tant to doc­u­ment where Amer­ica was, and then that evolved into my cov­er­age of Dar­fur and Congo, South Su­dan, Libya and Le­banon. Those were places I was in­ter­ested in be­cause of the fact there were many, many civil­ians dy­ing. Now, that hap­pens in a lot of wars, but there were cer­tain places that I was more in­ter­ested in than oth­ers – for ex­am­ple, places where there were in­jus­tices against women. Those were sto­ries that al­ways in­ter­ested me and they al­ways have. I grew up with three sis­ters and a very fe­male em­pow­er­ment fam­ily, and it just means I’ve al­ways wanted to cover women’s is­sues, in the con­text of con­flict.

A jour­nal­ist you worked with called El­iz­a­beth Ru­bin said of you: “She doesn’t get scared be­cause she be­lieves in fate.” Is that true?

I do to some de­gree. I do get scared, but I do believe in fate. I mean it’s not like when you’re get­ting shot at I just stand there and let the bul­lets kind of bounce off me; I run for cover and I do ev­ery­thing I can to min­i­mize risk. But I also do believe that things hap­pen, and that there is only some de­gree to which you can min­i­mize that.

Things hap­pen no mat­ter where you are. I just believe that if some­thing hap­pens to me pre­ma­turely, if it’s not in my 80s or 90s, I’d rather be do­ing what I believe Ineed to be do­ing and that is this work.

Yet be­ing a pho­tog­ra­pher makes you a tar­get too?

It does, and in­creas­ingly so. Ob­vi­ously, the en­vi­ron­ment for journalists now is prob­a­bly the worst it’s ever been with kid­nap­pings and in­ten­tional tar­get­ing of journalists. We see that a lot in

Syria, we see it in Iraq. We saw what hap­pened to us in Libya [see box, far right], that gov­ern­ments and in­sur­gents and mil­i­ta­rized groups are at­tack­ing journalists be­cause they don’t want a bad im­age of what they’re do­ing to get out to the rest of the world, whether it’s doc­u­ment­ing war crimes, or show­ing that they’re killing civil­ians, or that they’re at­tack­ing women and chil­dren. The journalists are the mes­sen­gers of that bad news.

And, of course, we are the eas­i­est of tar­gets be­cause we’re out there com­pletely un­armed.

It’s hap­pened to you too: you’ve been as­saulted, bru­tal­ized, and threat­ened with death. How do you re­cover from those sit­u­a­tions and then de­cide to go back out and face it all again?

Um, you know it’s a ques­tion I get asked a lot: how do I re­cover from that sit­u­a­tion? It’s hard to an­swer. I think some of it just has to do with my ge­netic make-up, and the fact that I’m a re­silient per­son. I have a very strong and sup­port­ive fam­ily, and I had a very tight up­bring­ing, where I com­mu­ni­cated very openly. I process my trauma very openly, and I think that helps. I think it’s proven that this helps peo­ple deal with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, and with trauma, so I’ve been very care­ful to deal with is­sues and feel­ings as I feel them, and to talk about any­thing I’ve been through.

But I also believe in this work and Ibe­lieve it’s re­ally im­por­tant. I re­mem­ber the first time I was kid­napped in Iraq: it was only a day, but ob­vi­ously it was a ter­ri­fy­ing day be­cause you have ten guns to your head and you’re not sure if you’re go­ing to live or die, and you’re com­pletely at the mercy of your kid­nap­pers. Af­ter that ex­pe­ri­ence the

NewYorkTimes asked me if I wanted to fly out of Iraq and they would get me out of the coun­try right away, and I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘No!’ be­cause if this is how I’m go­ing to lead my life and if this is what I’m go­ing to do for a liv­ing, I don’t want my tech­nique to deal with trauma to be to es­cape. I need to con­sciously deal with what I’ve been through and think about it and process it in-coun­try, while I’m still in Iraq. So I stayed, and that re­ally be­came the blue­print for how I’ve dealt with things in my life sub­se­quent to that.

Have your ex­pe­ri­ences made you su­per­sti­tious at all?

I’ve al­ways been su­per­sti­tious. I’m Ital­ian-Amer­i­can, I think it’s nat­u­ral to be su­per­sti­tious! but I’ve be­come… you know, I’m con­fused as to why I’m still here. I should be dead I don’t know how many times over, prob­a­bly four or five times. I’ve been in gun bat­tles, I’ve been cap­tured, I’ve been thrown out of a car on a high­way in Pak­istan, my driver has died... I’ve been through a tremen­dous amount and it’s con­fus­ing to me as to why I’m still here. I don’t know if that’s su­per­sti­tious, but it makes me think of things on a pro­found level.

I’ve re­cently been no­ti­fied that there’s a war­rant for my ar­rest in Syria, so even if I went in, any check­point I got stopped at I would be handed over to the gov­ern­ment. I’m at a point where I’m 43, I’m black­listed from a num­ber of coun­tries, and I can’t re­ally risk get­ting kid­napped for a third time be­cause, not only does it put my fam­ily through a tremen­dous amount, but it makes me look like a very ir­re­spon­si­ble, reck­less per­son and it’s a lot for the com­pany I’m work­ing for to go through.

It never ceases to amaze me what peo­ple are ca­pa­ble of sur­viv­ing, and how they con­tinue to have hope given ev­ery­thing they’ve been through

Back to a more prac­ti­cal part of your job, how do you stay on top of your im­age work­flow in a war zone?

A lot of the work I’m do­ing these days is for mag­a­zines, so I down­load every sin­gle night, as soon as I get through the door, even if I haven’t slept. The first thing I do is down­load and back ev­ery­thing up on a sec­ond hard drive be­cause hard drives fail all the time. But with dig­i­tal, it’s also eas­ier be­cause we don’t deal with film. When I used to go to Afghanistan and Pak­istan in 2000 and early 2001, I had to bring a scan­ner and find a lab and get it pro­cessed and scanned and find a line to trans­mit, so dig­i­tal makes it ex­po­nen­tially eas­ier, but I do find that I shoot a hell of a lot more than I ever did with film be­cause I can! I have the cards and I shoot a lot more, so I’m less ju­di­cious about how much I shoot.

Writ­ing your book gave you time to re­flect. What is the big­gest les­son you have learnt as a pho­tog­ra­pher?

I guess the big­gest les­son is the re­silience of peo­ple. It never ceases to amaze me what peo­ple are ca­pa­ble of sur­viv­ing, and how they con­tinue to have hope given ev­ery­thing that they have been through. On the other hand it’s equally shock­ing what wars peo­ple are ca­pa­ble of.

I just can’t believe how in­cred­i­ble peo­ple are and I see that ev­ery­where, and I hope that never goes away. Ev­ery­one asks me, ‘Why aren’t Imore jaded? Why aren’t I more neg­a­tive?’ and I think it’s be­cause the peo­ple I cover are still in­cred­i­ble. If they still have hope, how can I not?

Pre­vi­ous page Libya 2011 Op­po­si­tion troops burn tires as cover dur­ing heavy fight­ing near Ras Lanuf as rebel troops pull back Nikon D3s, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6, ISO100 Afghan women, 2009 Preg­nant Noor Nisa’s waters have bro­ken. She and her mother wait by the road for trans­port to hos­pi­tal, four hours away Nikon D700, 17-35mm f/2.8, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6, ISO100

A Su­danese Lib­er­a­tion Army sol­dier walks in the re­mains of Han­gala vil­lage, which had been razed by Jan­jaweed mili­tia Dar­fur, 2004 Nikon D100, 17-55mm f/2.8, 1/200 sec, f/4.5

Turkey, 2013 Iman Zen­glo with her five chil­dren in a tent she and her hus­band set up in a squat­ters’ camp on the Turk­ishSyr­ian bor­der Nikon D800, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/250 sec, f/5, ISO50

US sol­diers in­jured dur­ing the fight for Fal­lu­jah are loaded into a bus Balad, Ir aq, 2004

Afghanist an, 2007 Sol­diers with the 173rd bat­tle com­pany, on a bat­tal­ion-wide mis­sion in the Koren­gal val­ley Nikon D2Xs, 17-55mm f/2.8, 1/200 sec, f/8, ISO100

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