Her new memoir is being made into a film by Steven Spielberg, starring Jennifer Lawrence. But who is the war reporter behind the blockbuster? Lynsey Addario tells Brennavan Sritharan about being kidnapped, the risk of rape, and becoming a mother.
Photojournalist Lynsey Addario has been kidnapped and beaten. She has also borne witness to the defining global conflicts of our time. Having received the MacArthur Genius Grant for her previous work, her new memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, explores the role of the conflict reporter in the contemporary world.
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” The famous quote by Robert Capa has been a decree for photojournalists, but Addario prefers to get close in a more compassionate sense.
For her first comprehensive photo essay, a series on a community of New York transsexual prostitutes for the Associated Press, Addario spent six months gaining their trust before pressing the shutter.
“I was thrilled with the idea of trying to penetrate this seemingly impenetrable sector of society, so it took a long time,” she says when we meet in Soho, London. “Most of the photojournalists I meet out in the field are sensitive, patient and empathetic. I think those are all characteristics you need, because ultimately it’s all about the people you’re covering.
“I sort of fall in love with the people I photograph. I get very close to them. But when it comes to my work, I am meticulous about the reporting. No matter what my personal feelings are, I always try to be true to the story. I try to make sure I give the reader the most comprehensive view possible.”
Working in a male-dominated industry brings its own incumbent challenges, but photographing some of the most violent areas in the world comes with a much more existential danger.
“Obviously, as a woman, I feel like the greatest risk is sexual assault,” she says. “I’ve spent so much of my career documenting women who have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. So for someone who primarily covers conflict zones, that’s in the back of my mind – no matter where I am. But I don’t want editors to not give me assignments because I run that risk, so I always have a local man with me who knows where we’re going and what we’re doing.”
Despite the dangers, being a woman has afforded Addario admittance to areas no male photojournalist would ever be permitted to enter.
“I certainly recognise I have unique access,” she says. “I have a deep interest in women’s issues, so they go hand in hand — the women I’m photographing are usually so marginalised, they’re often desperate to have a voice. That has helped me tell stories that aren’t necessarily told by my male colleagues,” nor could they be.
“I do feel a responsibility,” she says. “There are so few photojournalists who are trying to break down those misconceptions about women in the Muslim world. I feel I’ve built up a pretty extensive knowledge about how women live and feel in the Muslim world over the past 15 years, and it’s important to continue doing that work because we in the West have a hell of a lot to learn about Muslims and Muslim women.
“Everyone is talking about Isis and the young men and women who join them, but no one’s talking about why it’s happening. We should be educating ourselves and doing our homework, and that’s why the role of journalists is extremely important right now.”
Addario’s experiences being kidnapped twice – in Iraq and Libya – haven’t stopped her from continuing to visit conflict zones. Refraining from the frontline is her sole concession since the birth of her child, preferring to concentrate on civilians.
“I never set out to be a war photographer; in fact, I’m the first one to be hiding behind a tree when the bullets come, not standing there shooting. That’s not to say I didn’t go on a few embeds knowing I was going to get in a gun battle, but for the most part I was never interested in being a combat photographer.
“I think my interest has always been in civilians and the repercussions of war. I sort of got pulled into combat almost by proxy because I was interested in all these other stories. When America had troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, it was only natural to cover the troops as well, because that’s another side of the story. It sometimes led me to parts of Afghanistan that were inaccessible without their protection.”
While Addario resists the idea of photojournalists as adrenaline junkies, the bombast of war can be intoxicating for some. “There’s a part of me that feels like, ‘God, am I a failure, am I not being true to myself?’ It is hard, because there are some stories I want to cover. But maybe now I’m not as courageous as before I had been kidnapped, and before I had lost so many friends, so I’m constantly struggling with that. But who’s to say that covering combat is more important than covering civilians? When I think about it, I feel like I’m actually being more true to myself by covering the unknown stories.”
While embedded with American troops during the Vietnam War, Don McCullin spoke of a sense of complicity in the atrocities he witnessed. Addario is less ambivalent. “I never feel complicit,” she explains, “because when I’m with the troops in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq, and they’re doing something that makes me feel uncomfortable, I think the best thing I can do is take pictures of that scene, because I am then creating a document for the entire world to see what’s happening.
“The last thing I want to do is open my mouth because I’ll get kicked out. I hold so much more power by being there and documenting it. I think the greatest tool we have as photojournalists is our cameras. It’s hard to get that access, so if you get it, use it.”
Conflict photography aims to imprint on the collective memory, documenting events that could be suppressed, muddled or simply forgotten. Addario experienced this first-hand when she returned from being held captive in Libya in 2011.
“In Libya we were held for almost a week: it was the 15th to the 21st, seven days, and in that time we were tied up, beaten, threatened with execution and I was groped repeatedly. When we were released, the second we crossed into Tunisia we borrowed a laptop from the security guys. We each sat there and wrote down every single thing we remembered about captivity — a transcript of our memory.
“We sometimes choose to remember certain things and forget others. You start to look at them in a certain way; maybe you say something wrong and you start to believe that thing. Because you survive, you almost think to yourself that maybe it wasn’t so bad, because you have no physical evidence. I didn’t have any broken bones, I didn’t have scars, and psychological trauma is strange because you don’t have physical evidence.
“Bryan Denton [a fellow photojournalist] went back to the site of our capture to help our driver’s family either look for the driver in prison or his body, and they found my shoe on the side of the road. He took a picture of it, sent it to me and suddenly it triggered so much. That was my shoe, and it was on the side of the road in Libya, in the exact spot where we were taken. It was evidence.”
The intangible role photojournalism can play in society is one thing, but it also has the power to produce real action. Being drawn to reporting on women and humanitarian crises led to a series of photographs dealing with maternal mortality that affected positive change.
“I had just gotten the MacArthur fellowship and I wanted to focus on maternal health, so I went with the UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] to these remote areas in Sierra Leone where there were high numbers of women dying during childbirth. On the first day we went to the Magburaka Government Hospital, we found Mama Sessay [the subject of her photo series], and she ended up dying during childbirth in front of me, on camera.
“Merck saw those pictures in Time magazine and right away used them for fundraising. They actually told me the pictures have helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight maternal mortality. That was one of the most gratifying experiences of my career because I never get that sort of feedback. I do these stories and throw my heart and soul into them, but I never hear about the direct impact they have.
“The number of women dying in childbirth in Sierra Leone was extraordinarily high, and now it’s almost halved. That is in large part due to the NGOs working on those issues, but also the attention to those issues given by journalists. It’s great to highlight those issues that maybe aren’t so sexy but where you can actually make a difference.”
With Warner Bros winning the film rights to her memoir, Addario’s story will be portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Steven Spielberg. But Addario worries her adherence to rigorously documenting real lives runs counter to Hollywood’s tendency to sensationalise.
“That’s why I went to great lengths to figure out who I would option the book with. I feel pretty confident about the team I’ve ended up going with. There’s no guarantee it will be exactly the truth, but the goal for the movie is to tell people what it is that we do as journalists, what our lives are really like, and what the lives of the people we cover are really like. I think there’s a great disparity between what people perceive and what the reality is, and if we can reach a much larger public with a Hollywood film, then let’s try it.”
With the book and upcoming film, Addario is now in the spotlight. But she doesn’t plan on slowing down. “It’s hard for me when people ask ‘why do you do this work, why would you risk your life?’ I don’t really have an intellectual answer, because anyone who does this work understands that it’s beyond them, it’s like a calling that overtakes you. The only thing I’ve come up with is, ‘it’s what I do and it’s who I am.’”
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