Crack open Lynsey Addario’s new book, “Of Love & War,” and you’ll find on the first page a letter dated March 17, 2000, describing the moment Addario decided to go to the warzone in Afghanistan to cover the lives of soldiers on the frontline.
Just over a decade later, Addario was kidnapped in Libya on assignment with three of her colleagues.
Today, Addario is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and MacArthur Fellow who, in her 23-year career, has covered conflict, war and humanitarian crises in more than 70 countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Libya and Somalia.
Her career is punctuated with moments that alter her goals, her approach to subjects and her threshold for fear, all documented throughout the book in personal letters, emails and notes — some even scribbled on the backs of contact sheets.
Flipping through the pages, one can see the development of her work unfold. Themes are illustrated in chapter titles and become more and more nuanced as years pass — “Life Under the Taliban,” “Women in the Military,” “Women’s Issues,” “On the Move” (on refugees) and more.
Addario’s grit and determination are awe-inspiring, but her photographs, above all, show beauty and humanity. The way her subjects interact with the lens — their rawness, their trust, their vulnerability — is a testament to Addario’s mastery of her field.
ALL ARTS spoke with Addario via Skype to discuss her unique access as a woman, her future goals and why photojournalism is an important medium for storytelling.
ALL ARTS: How did you get into photojournalism?
LYNSEY ADDARIO: It wasn’t something planned. I started photographing when I was young, but I never really took it seriously. I never envisioned myself doing it as a job. I studied international relations and Italian, and I was always sort of interested in the more intellectual aspect of traveling and learning about the world.
It wasn’t until I moved to Argentina right after college, so in ’96, that I started really paying attention to photojournalism — like telling stories with pictures — and I basically went into the local English newspaper there and begged them for a job.
I have no idea where it came from, but suddenly I realized hey, I can take pictures and I care about international issues and politics and culture so maybe this is sort of the balance. Of course they shoo’d me out of the newsroom and said come back when you learn how to be a photojournalist.
And I basically just kept coming back until they got so sick of me and they gave me an ultimatum: They said, Madonna’s filming “Evita” at the Casa Rosada. If you can sneak on set to get a picture of her, we’ll give you a job. And I did. I sort of talked my way on set and had to borrow a lens from a photographer and got a picture and got a job.
From there I moved back to New York in the ’90s, and that’s really where I learned how to be a photojournalist. I had great mentors at the Associated Press in New York, and learned how to look at light, read light, be patient, get access to things. I moved abroad in 2000 to really work overseas, and haven’t moved back to the U.S. since, so I’ve been abroad for almost two decades.
AA: It sounds like it was important to you that your work reflected what was going on internationally. Is there a reason for that?
LA: Since I was young I’ve always been interested in other cultures and other places and traveling, and so for me it seemed like a good excuse to go and travel was to be a photographer where I can move around and have a reason for traveling.
But when I realized the importance of actually telling stories and all of the different things that you could do as a journalist, that’s when it really became like, OK, I definitely need to do this. I could go to places where people can’t go, gather information, interviews, the images and bring them home to a wider audience.
AA: What do you think is different about communicating these stories through photographs versus another medium?
LA: I think that photography is sort of immediate. If it’s a powerful photograph, people feel a really visceral connection to whatever it is, and then they start asking questions and can learn more. But I think it’s an initial way to arrest people’s attention, bring them in, get them to care about whatever the issue is that needs that coverage.
AA: At a recent “TimesTalks,” you mentioned how your being a woman granted you more access in some cases. Could you tell us about that?
LA: Ironically, everyone always assumes it’s a hindrance to be a woman in war and in most of the places I’ve worked. I found it exactly the opposite. I work mostly in the Middle East and Africa, and in a lot of these very traditional cultures, men and women are separated by gender. So as an international photographer who’s female, I have access to both the women and the men. So I go in and out of women’s homes, I can interview them, I can photograph them, but I can also meet with men. So I can do everything that my male colleagues can do, but I can also have access to women, especially in deeply conservative societies.
And then I think something else that’s pretty important is that people tend to underestimate women in a lot of these places, and I think that’s exactly when, for me, I’ve gotten the best access — when no one’s paying attention to me. It’s important to be able to get it under the radar and be able to witness things without people saying what’s that person doing here? No one really paid attention to me for many, many years of my career.
AA: Can you tell me about camaraderie with other photographers in the field?
LA: For any photographer, the greatest thing is having a partner in crime and a great colleague that you can work with and do stories with, because you develop that relationship, you have to have a similar sense of boundaries for fear and interest in subjects. So it tends to be sort of a symbiotic relationship; we help each other a lot.
For many, many years I worked with Elizabeth Rubin. In the beginning, she was really a mentor to me. She taught me so much about how to cover war, initially in Iraq during the Iraq war, but then we ended up working together all over — Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Darfur.
We did many, many stories together and I think it’s great having someone that you can work very closely with, because this job is very lonely. And it’s also very tough. It’s tough emotionally and physically and I think it’s important to have someone that you can laugh with and someone to take the pressure off. There were a lot of times when things got really stressful, you know, one of us would flip out and one of us would maintain balance. The dynamic shifted all the time but the important thing is that one of us could check out when necessary, and the other one could pick up the slack, and I think that’s really great to have.
I don’t cover the breaking news stories anymore, and that’s really where you see groups of photographers, like where I was working with Tyler Hicks for example, in Libya, or when we covered things together in Iraq.
AA: How do you assess risk in the field?
LA: Every story is so different. As I get older, and as I’ve survived more and I’ve lost more friends, I tend to be a bit more cautious. I realize that everything seems fine until it’s not. So you have to always be looking at all the things that go can wrong. Part of that assessment is sometimes I talk to security advisers and I get their advice. Very luckily The New York Times has a great team of advisers who I can bounce stuff off of. Their go-to reaction is not “don’t go” — they’re very thoughtful and they understand the places we’re working in and so that’s quite useful. I think working with colleagues I appreciate and respect and who have a fair amount of experience in the field is huge for me.
At this stage of my life, I’m very skeptical and I have a hard time accepting assignments with a writer who’s never been to a dangerous place and he suddenly wants to go in and cover a very dangerous story, because, you know, I was that person and I understand that one feels invincible in those early days because you don’t realize all the many things that can go wrong.
So it has to do with my partner in the field and it has to do with getting advice. It has to do with having an amazing team of drivers and translators. Having a great team on the ground who are also very tapped into the security situation of what’s going on.
AA: Can you tell me about when you were kidnapped in Libya and how your approach changed after that?
LA: Sure. The kidnapping for me — the fact is that I was working alongside Tyler Hicks, Anthony Shadid and Stephen Farrell. We were in two cars covering the frontline and so I had been working in Libya pretty much every single day for about two weeks. I was exhausted and we had been covering very, very heavy combat. So with every day that I covered combat, I would go back to wherever it was we were sleeping on that given night and think holy shit I can’t believe I survived today, and then go back the next day.
So it was just this rhythm of like, OK, I’ve escaped death every single day. And finally, on March 15, 2011, I kind of knew it was my time to leave. I was tired and I had felt like it was time. And so I was planning on going back to Benghazi at that time.
Tyler and I were working in one car and Anthony and Steve were working in another, and that’s something you do to minimize risk. If one car breaks down, you’ve got a back-up. It turned out that Anthony and Steve’s driver, his brother was shot at the frontline, and so he literally just dumped their stuff on the side of the road and left.
So the four of us were in one car. Four journalists in one car is tough because we all have very different ideas of how much risk we want to take, how far forward we want to go, how tired we were or what our intuition was for that day. And for whatever reason that day I was terrified. I just knew something was going to happen to the point that the day before or two days before, I had given a hard drive with all my work to Bryan Denton [a fellow photojournalist on location] saying if we go missing, please make sure my photos survive. I just had this crazy premonition.
So the four of us ended up in one car, we went to the frontline, we were covering the fighting, the fighting was getting very close to us, it was clear Gaddafi’s troops were going to take over the city. They were dropping leaflets from the sky saying if you’re civilians, get out. Civilians were fleeing en masse and that was something we hadn’t really seen. And so we went to the hospital to cover civilian casualties and then went back to the frontline, and at this point our driver was getting calls saying Gaddafi’s troops were in the city.
We knew it was time to leave because the biggest fear for us was really getting caught by Gaddafi’s troops — outside of getting hit by a bullet or a tank round — because we knew that Gaddafi had been saying all journalists are spies, that if you see them, you should kill them, that we had all entered the country illegally, because anyone covering the popular uprising couldn’t get in the country legally.
So basically we did not listen to our driver right away. By the time we made a group decision to leave the frontline and go toward Benghazi, we ran directly into one of Gaddafi’s checkpoints. And it was terrifying.
The rebels started opening fire on the checkpoint and we were caught in a wall of bullets. It was each man for himself. The men were ripped out of the car right away, and I was in the car and there were bullets everywhere and the car is not armored, so I had to jump out to find a place to hide. Of course, as soon as I jumped out of the car, there was a soldier on me.
There was a cement building up to the right that we all knew if we got behind that, we could be protected from bullets. So we did. But then immediately we were grabbed and told to lie face down in the dirt. They took our passports. They realized we were Americans. They put each one of us on the ground and were going to execute us. Each one had a gun put to our head. And they were about to kill us, and then the commander came over and said, you can’t kill them, they’re American. So instead they tied us up and blindfolded us and put us in vehicles on the frontline, and watched us and laughed as we hoped that we didn’t get shot or murdered. Essentially for the next three days we were shuttled around the frontline of Libya. Thrown in the back of tanks, on the back of pickup trucks, beaten repeatedly, threatened with execution. For me, as the only woman, I was groped by basically every Libyan soldier on the frontline. I was not raped but I was touched a lot.
We were put in prison in Sirte, which is Gaddafi’s stronghold, and eventually flown to Tripoli, where we had a feeling if we made it there, we would survive. It would be harder for them to kill us once they flew into Tripoli because we’d be on the radar. But we didn’t know if we’d end up with the Interior Ministry, which was notorious for torture, or if we would be kept with the Foreign Ministry.
In the end, they put us in sort of a VIP prison for the next three days and we had no information about whether we would be released. We just didn’t know what was gonna happen. And then eventually we were released.
So that was it. It was almost a week, it was pretty terrifying. But we made it. And our driver did not. And that’s something that sadly we will have to own up to and live with, you know, because it was really harmful that we didn’t listen to him in the beginning.
AA: What’s the difference between covering breaking news versus the work you’re doing now?
LA: I think a few things have happened. I’ve been doing this now for 23 years. So for the first 10 years of my professional life, I had no attachments. All I wanted to do was photograph. So I basically had no life. I just got on the plane for whatever news story broke — I got there. It was pretty much always for The New York Times, and after a while that rhythm really takes a toll and I felt like I wasn’t going deep enough into stories.
At that time I was also working for The New York Times Magazine, but when I started working for National Geographic in 2007, it was really the first time that I worked on stories that allowed me the freedom to spend two months in one place and to really get in deep in a way that I had never been afforded that luxury and that ability.
So the coupling of doing this for a long time, working for more magazines, and then eventually having survived a lot, you know, the kidnapping, car accident, whatever — I thought maybe it’s better to not slow down professionally, but rather than move all over the map all the time, start to look at places more in depth because I felt like the stories were stronger. My work actually became more nuanced and became more profound. So I’ve been doing longer stories now and they’re often pegged to the news, but I’m not the first person there; now I’m sort of the third wave [laughs]. So, you know, it’s a different result.
AA: Is it harder for you personally or emotionally to spend more time with an assignment?
LA: I think this work, no matter what, is difficult personally, because the nature of this work is that you see people in their most vulnerable moments. And I open myself up to that a lot, and I think the reason why I care so much is because I open myself up. I try and put myself in people’s shoes: What would it feel like to have to flee for my life? What would it feel like if my son was dying of hunger? So it doesn’t matter of it’s a breaking news story or something I’m doing over a period of time. I think I always get that sense that it’s heartbreaking, and life is not fair, and the people who are often the most vulnerable are often the ones who suffer the most, and it doesn’t make sense to me. That’s one of the reasons why I keep doing this work, because I try to balance out that power.
AA: What do you want to do more of?
LA: Maybe working in America. I’ve spent my whole career basically covering countries around the world, but I think it’s an important time right now to be looking at my own country. I think there are a lot of important issues taking place. I think it’s important for me to do some work there right now.
AA: What kind of things would you like to cover in America?
LA: Well, I actually have started covering some things in America. I’ve been working with Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, who are writing a book about poverty in America, which includes race, the criminal justice system, the failure of healthcare, so I’ve been photographing that. Some photographing on the Mexican border for The New York Times. So I’ve started doing some work in America now, but I find it fascinating and also kind of heartbreaking.
AA: What does success look like to you in your career?
LA: God, that’s like the worst question for me. I’m just tortured over it 24-hours a day. I literally don’t stop beating myself up. Success is staying alive, and doing this job, continuing to do this work. I think it’s important to do these tough stories, but also try and stick around and to also not get burned out.
There are so many photographers I’ve seen come and go throughout my career because they come, they’re this flavor of the month, they shoot a lot, and then they get burnt out and they disappear. And longevity is also really important because it takes a very important skill set to be able to do these stories with dignity, with integrity, and to treat people with respect. I think that we need photographers with experience. I love seeing people like Tyler Hicks, Jim Nachtwey, Carolyn Cole — people who have been around for a long time — because I really think we need to keep telling these stories.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
Top Image: Chuol escaped into a vast swamp in South Sudan when fighters swept into his village, September 2015. Credit: Lynsey Addario