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…
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