At first glance, it seems absurd to feature Lynsey Addario on a site meant to highlight people who deserve more recognition.
She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. She’s won the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the “genius grant”). Her work has been published in Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, and the New York Times. She became part of the news herself in 2011 when she and three other journalists were kidnapped and held for six days by pro-Qaddafi forces in Libya. Her best-selling memoir, It’s What I Do, is being adapted by Steven Spielberg into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.
But she’s actually the perfect person to feature here, for two reasons…
- She’s a remarkably accomplished photographer whose work has made a real impact, yet she’s far from being a household name at this point. Despite her achievements and awards, not to mention two decades of work, had you heard of her? I hadn’t until fairly recently.
- Her work embodies this site’s goal of finding beauty and meaning in a too-often brutal world.
I first heard of Lynsey Addario completely by chance, when she was featured on the April 2015 “Sight Unseen” episode of the Radiolab podcast. She told a gripping story about her time embedded with a US medevac unit in Afghanistan in 2009. One night, a badly injured US marine, Lance Corporal Jonathan Taylor, was brought in for emergency treatment. The medical team tried desperately to save him for half an hour, but they were unsuccessful. Addario photographed the entire incident, from the moment the gravely wounded solider was loaded into a Black Hawk helicopter right in front of her, to the point where his body was covered with an American flag.
She described the ethical dilemmas that photographers grapple with in war zones, as well as the rules of her embed. While she felt that the full series of photographs told a powerful and vital story about the death of a soldier and the struggle to save his life, his family would have to approve the more sensitive photos before they could be published. When LCPL Taylor’s father finally reached out to her, they shared a heartbreaking phone call and she provided him the details he craved about his son’s death. She also got permission to send him all of the photos, at his request. In the end, the father wouldn’t sign off on the full set of images. He couldn’t bear the thought of his younger daughters seeing them. Ultimately, the photo essay was published but with restrictions – she could not use any photographs where his face or identifying marks were visible.
I was struck by Addario’s candor and how she described the conflicting elements at play in her work… her imperative to convey the truth as a photojournalist, her obligation to respect the family’s wishes, and the difficult questions around whose rights should govern the images captured in war. It turns out that this incident was a powerful metaphor for her career. She has spent her entire professional life reconciling different perspectives and cultures.
She is often called a “war photographer,” and it’s easy to see why. She has covered conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Darfur, Lebanon, Congo, and Libya. But she dismisses that label. Instead, she sees herself as a photojournalist who covers humanitarian crises and social injustices, with a special focus on women, children, and civilians. It just happens that many of these issues go hand-in-hand with war. Her assignments have taken her all over the world, covering refugee struggles, civil wars, terrorism, breast cancer, maternal mortality, victims and children of rape, heroin addiction, and rural healthcare.
Her photographs are beautiful, sometimes uplifting, often haunting. An Iraqi family driven from their home by ISIS. Sudanese refugees receiving food aid. A Congolese woman with her two children born of wartime rape. In Afghanistan, there’s the 7-year-old boy injured by a US bomb, and there’s the US troops carrying one of their dead after an ambush in the Korengal Valley.
These images are searing and unforgettable. To capture them, Addario has endured gunfire, bombs, brutal conditions, sexual assault, a car crash, and two kidnappings. Not to mention years of failed long-distance relationships. She’s driven and utterly tenacious, though she’s very upfront and self-effacing about her moments of fear and failures of nerve.
Throughout her life and career, Lynsey Addario has had to navigate a stream of ambiguities and culture clashes. Being a woman has helped her gain access to other women in areas where her male counterparts could never have dreamed of going. It has also earned her deeply skeptical looks from soldiers with whom she’s embedded, until they see how tough and resilient she is. It’s astounding that an American woman has been so successful in covering the Muslim world for so many years. It’s a testament not only to her resourcefulness and cultural sensitivity, but also to her openness and ability to connect with people on a genuine, human level.
There’s a touching moment in It’s What I Do that illustrates this beautifully. It’s May 2000 and she’s in Pakistan, trying to gain entry into Afghanistan to photograph women living under Taliban rule. She’s been visiting the Afghan embassy daily, waiting on her visa. A colleague has advised her to be extremely cautious and demure, to keep her head and body covered, not to laugh or joke, and never to look men in the eye. He’s also told her that the key to getting her visa application processed is to have tea every day with Mohammed, the young visa clerk. She’s been meeting with Mohammed for nine mornings, at first in silence, then with the beginnings of small talk and polite conversation. Mohammed becomes increasingly unguarded and curious, asking her about her family and her work. Then, he becomes bolder and asks questions about dating in America…
“Do men and women… is it true that men and women touch? And have children before they are married?”
“Yes,” I replied gently. “Men and women touch before they are married.”
“You are married, right?” he asked.
I smiled, finally comfortable enough to tell him the truth. I don’t know why I felt comfortable enough to tell him anything. Maybe because he felt comfortable enough to ask such racy questions? To admit that his mind went to a place forbidden to an unmarried man by the Taliban’s severe interpretation of the Koran? “No, Mohammed. I am not married. I lived with a man for a long time — like we were married.”
He interrupted me. “What happened? Why did you leave? Why are you not married?”
Mohammed was no longer a Talib to me. We were simply two people in our twenties, getting to know each other.
She got her visa five days later, and began the first of her many journeys into hostile and war-ravaged countries.
She has incredible stories to tell, and has told them wonderfully through her memoir and many interviews. Her Instagram and Twitter feeds are alive with stories and photos that express the hardships of refugees, women, and children all over the world. I recommend them highly, and have included several links below. She’s a tireless advocate for those who have been devastated by poverty, disease, and war… long after their plights have left the front page, if they were ever there at all.
Lynsey Addario is a mighty fine person.