Photojournalist Lynsey Addario Has Survived Two Kidnappings & Lives to Tell the Truths of Global Crises
Ask anyone close to Lynsey Addario, and they’ll matter-of-factly tell you, “She’s the most badass woman I know”. Once you’ve met with the American photojournalist and been witness to an intimate short film surrounding her work, you completely get it–Lynsey’s spirit is unmatched and vital for the awareness of global humanitarian issues. For the past 23 years, she’s thrown every ounce of fear aside to be at the front of the line to capture inescapable truths from dangerous parts of the world, in hopes to bring awareness and justice. She has photographed Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Taliban rule, covered the horrific dangers U.S. soldiers faced while posted at Korengal Valley, and focused on maternal mortality in the U.S. and Somaliland. Awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her work in Waziristan, and an Emmy Award for “Finding Home” in 2018, Lynsey’s career is an extremity of proud accomplishments and pure hell. In March of 2011, Lynsey and three other New York Times journalists were kidnapped in Libya and held for six days before their release. Two years before that, she was involved in a fatal car crash in Pakistan, killing her driver and breaking her collarbone.
Late last year, Lynsey released her first book of photography, Of Love & War, that includes over 200 photographs, essays, and journal entries. We sat down with Lynsey recently at an event dedicated to her, hosted by Women for Women and Good American CEO, Emma Grede. During the evening discussion, she expressed the hard truths of what she does and why she does it. Her role in this world may not be designed for the faint of heart, but it is imperative for our growth and understanding.
Of Love & War is your new book and it takes us through over two decades of your career and your experiences. As you were putting it together, what emotions came up for you? And now sharing it with the world, how does that feel?
I think a few things came up. I think, first of all, I’ve been doing this job for 23 years and the first thing that stood out is the fact that I’ve been covering many of the same issues for that span of time, so that’s tough. I mean, that’s a difficult thing to accept. As long as I’ve been doing this, woman have been raped as a weapon of war, there have been refugees and war increasingly so. There have been all of the issues that I’ve been covering over and over, and that’s difficult. I think that, [an] impetus for me doing this job is that I want to make a change, I want to bring awareness. I want to educate people, but I also hope that these issues will stop, or at least people will be held accountable for injustices. So it’s hard to see them over and over. The other thing I realized is the amount of places I’ve been and the difficult things I’ve seen because I rarely stop to look back on that.
Do you feel like it’s almost perfect timing that this is exactly when it was meant to come out because of the climate and what’s going on?
No, I mean the climate has been such for a long time. I think that of course now there’s a lot of talk about journalism and truth, but I think in terms of the issues that we face, these are issues that have been going on a long time. For me, it was a project and a body of work that I just didn’t feel ready to put out there until now, until I did in October.
What was it that sparked it?
I wrote the memoir first. I ended up writing a book first because, after I had been kidnapped in Libya, I really felt like I needed to sort of step back and think about everything I had been through. So, for me it was really important to write first, to process and to download things. Of course, I included some photographs because I’m a photographer, but then after I did that, I needed some time to sort of step back.
To almost picture in your mind?
Yeah. Also, I’m a bit tortured with my work, by my work. I’m never happy, I don’t ever feel like it’s good enough. I’m conflicted. So, I think in that sense, it took a while for me to feel ready for me to put something out there.
Your images are raw and captivating, each one has an element of beauty but heartbreak at the same time. When you look back at your archives, what are the positives you draw from them?
I think the positives are just the incredible people I’ve met along the way. I really have learned from the people that I’ve covered, whether it’s just that they’re so resilient, generous, and hospitable. They’re able to overcome incredible hardship. So, for me I look at these pictures and as devasting as they are, they’ve given me such strength and I hope that they give other people strength.
Is there anyone you’ve met that you’ve gotten to meet again?
There is a young boy named Choul that I met in South Sudan, and he was a young refugee boy. I met him when he was about 12, and he was from Leer in South Sudan. His village had been attacked by the government and his father was murdered in front of him. He fled and swam through the swamps for weeks, and finally got to this place Nyal and that’s where I met him and his grandmother. They were trying to make their way to Kenya, they had relatives, they were trying to seek safety, but he had left his mother and eight brothers and sisters in the village because it all happened under the chaos of war. I photographed him when he was sort of on the run, gave his grandmother my phone number, they kept calling me and he ended up getting to Kenya, going into school and then I went to Lair and found his mother. She was alive and she didn’t know he was alive. I was able to connect them, do a video, and bring it to him in Kenya. Now it’s a relationship with the family. They haven’t seen each other but he saw the video of his mom sending a message and they know they’re both safe right now.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GIRDLER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMIE GIRDLER
You risk your life to share the truth of so many other lives out there.
There has to be some amount of self-reflection that you do with every story you tell, what have you learned about yourself over the years?
I guess for me, one thing that’s really important is to be patient and to be non-judgmental and to really go in to every story with an open mind and open heart, and to just be a good listener. It’s ironic because those are not characteristics I have when I’m not working. I mean, I’m not judgmental, but I’m not that patient. I’m usually on my phone or doing a million things and the one place where I’m very, very focused and attentive is when I’m working and behind the camera. That’s really important because people who are opening up to me, and especially during these very tough moments, I have to feel like I’m present. That I’m there with them, and that I’m going on whatever journey they’re taking me on.
Did you just naturally start to learn that ability or have you been like that from the beginning?
I was raised in a really open, eccentric, cool, non-judgmental family. Really expressive and communicative, and I think those are all things you learn growing up, but then as I moved away from home and started traveling, there are things that develop naturally.
What you do involves submerging into situations we can’t even imagine or comprehend. Is it hard to separate those realities from when you are at home and you’re doing the day-to-day?
It used to be really hard, in the sense that I’d have a tough time. I’d come home from covering the war in Iraq and I’d go out with my friends in New York City, and no one cared about the war in Iraq. I couldn’t figure out that disconnect, how people’s lives could go on without paying attention to what was happening, and the injustices that were happening overseas. I used to struggle with that, and I’d be frustrated. Now I feel like what I’ve learned is that I can’t let that hold me back. I have to just focus on being. When I’m out there telling stories, focus on the stories. When I’m home, I have to be with my family and be very present and/or with my friends. Then hopefully things like doing talks, publishing the work, doing interviews… that would get the work out and ideally, it will make people pay attention. But, I don’t have to put things in their faces. I think that over time, ideally, my goal would be that.
How do you select which organizations you work with?
It depends, sometimes it’s through friends. I respect their judgment and their commitment to certain causes and because I respect them as people, I want to back whatever cause that they’re doing. So, in this sense, Emma brought me in, in London several years ago for Women for Women. And Girlgaze, it was Amanda de Cadenet who’s a very good friend and fellow photographer, so she came to me and we had a talk about it. In a broader perspective, it’s about supporting women, and about giving them a platform or helping women through organizations like Women for Women. I always want to give back or do whatever I can to help other women and often. Whether I’m exposed to certain organizations, or things through friends, or reading about them, or through stories that I cover and seeing how effective they are in the field.
You’ve been in the thick of so many historic moments and crises around the world that have divided people based on religion, politics, personal preference. In all of your documenting, have you ever been faced with something that changed your opinion on it?
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a specific case, but I think what I’ve realized is that as an American woman who was raised here, there’s often this very sort of America-centric perspective about the rest of the world. We’re taught that Iran is the enemy, or there are terrorists all over. What surprised me, and what always surprises me doing this work, is that when I get to a place, I find that people are the same as us. Most people around the world have the same sort of desires for a safe and secure family, an education, to make enough money to put food on the table, to have shelter, water, electricity. I think there’s so much pretense and there’s so much from the outside, but on the ground, things are pretty similar to the way I was raised. And I think, sure, the superficial aspect is a little different, but our desires and wants for our families and our lives are pretty similar.
You said before that you didn’t quite know what you were doing at the beginning of your career–you’re a self-taught photographer. What drove you early on, and do you feel like you ended up in a totally different direction?
No. I think that when I first started out, I wasn’t sure where I was going. It was so much about being curious and wanting to travel and learn about new cultures. But, I didn’t really understand where that would take me. I wanted to tell stories, but it wasn’t until my first story about the transgender prostitutes in New York in the ‘90s, also going to Afghanistan under the Taliban, that’s really where I understood… okay, I have a voice that can shine light on something that most people will never have the ability to see first-hand, so that’s really important information. Now it’s really like a calling. It’s important for people to be able to see the world through what I feel is a real great privilege. To be able to go to these places, walk into people’s homes and their lives, and to tell the stories they want to tell. I feel it’s really important to go and do those stories and to cover war and post-conflict and woman issues.
Do you feel almost a responsibility with that?
Yeah for sure.
How do you select the issues that you want to cover and the parts of the world that you want to go to? And once you decide that you’re going, what does that process even begin to look like?
I read a lot and I look at stories in the newspaper and on tv and then I have to identify with certain stories. It’s really sort of a long process of deciding… what I feel like is not being covered enough, where I can add a voice, where I might be able to get access because of my experience because of my gender and bring light to certain issues. So, it’s a process, there are a lot of different things that I consider.
Do you go alone?
It depends. If I’m working for National Geographic sometimes, I’ll go alone. Sometimes I’ll hire a local journalist. If it’s for the New York Times, generally I’m with a writer. So, it really depends on what the project is.
This is a little bit more light hearted… Your work requires you to be very comfortable, functional and also adapt to the line that you’re in at the moment. How do you even begin to pack for a trip?
I do a lot of research, not only about the story that I’m doing but also on what to wear. A lot of the places I go, they’re conservative religiously or the norms are different. I have to talk to people on the ground, like local journalist or my friends that have been there recently and ask what’s acceptable. So, then I have sort of an entire work closet at home with all different sorts of clothing depending on the region. I have the Gulf states–hijabs, abayas. I have certain head scarves that fit certain countries. I have African clothes that I wear in Africa. Non-Muslim countries, which are usually loose linens or cargo pants and light tops. I always like to look respectable. It’s important to try to look nice if I can, if not functional. It’s usually clothes with a lot of pockets, and light but also durable. And then I usually bring a few nice dresses just in case there’s an occasion, either on the way in or out.
Add a little balance to the trip. Who are some of your favorite journalists or photojournalists?
There are so many different people. I’d say, from the beginning it was Sebastião Salgado, even Ansel Adams who was a landscape photographer. I just think the way he saw light was really beautiful. Then of course I got into Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Sally Mann, Jim Nachtwey, a war photographer who’s sort of legendary. Josef Koudelka, and then some of my contemporaries, like my friend Tyler Hicks. There are other women-Carolyn Cole, Carol Guzy. These are all people that I’ve worked alongside that I really admire.
Is there anything you have upcoming?
I’m working on a big National Geographic story right now on women. It’s a women story but I’ve been in Syria, Israel, Columbia, I was in Paris Island. Now I’m going to South Sudan again in June.
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