lynsey addario's photography has changed the way we see the world

​Award-winning American photojournalist Lynsey Addario has survived being kidnapped twice and held at gunpoint three times to report on the human cost of war, and the unique experiences of women.

by Charlotte Gush
05 October 2016, 3:42pm

In March 2011, war photojournalist Lynsey Addario was covering the fighting in the rebel-controlled Ajdabiya region of Libya when she and three other New York Times journalists were kidnapped by pro-Gaddafi forces, tied-up, blindfolded, beaten, groped, and held for six terrifying days. In her memoir, Lynsey describes the chilling moment when one of their kidnappers strokes her hair and face "like a lover," slowly repeating a phrase over and over in Arabic. When she asks one of her fellow captives what the man is saying, he hesitates before translating: "He's telling you that you will die tonight." When this and other excerpts from her book It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War were published in the New York Times Magazine, they caught the attention of Hollywood, and a fierce bidding war for the film rights ensued. Bids reportedly linked to Natalie Portman, Margot Robbie, Reese Witherspoon, and George Clooney were eventually beaten by the formidable combination of director Steven Spielberg and actor Jennifer Lawrence, both Oscar winners. Addario's story is extraordinary, and it deserves to be told by an exceptional team. After starting out in Latin America, she worked as a freelancer in New York City, covering news and documenting a group of transgender prostitutes. She already had experience working in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened, and when America declared war she knew she had to return. By 2007, she was embedded with the US troops on the front line, and in 2009 her images of Taliban fighters were part of a Pulitzer Prize winning story. The same year, she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur 'Genius Grant.'

Lynsey is one of very few women working as photojournalists in conflict zones, and despite experiencing sexism from male colleagues whose — "initial instinct when they look at me is 'oh god, is she going to start crying when we get shot at?'," she says — and tedious double standards from those who question how a mother could do this job (no matter that many of the male photographers are dads), she says being a woman is actually a great advantage. A man could not have photographed the lives of women and girls living under the Taliban in Afghanistan, as she did in 1999, capturing them at home and in secret, illegal schools. This rare access has allowed Lynsey to shoot stories that have challenged our assumptions about the experience of women living in war zones, and advanced our understanding of gender-based violence.

Some of Lynsey's most striking and emotive works are her portraits of rape victims in eastern Congo. The women she interviewed described their experiences of kidnap, gang rape, torture, abandonment, prostitution, and HIV. "When we say rape is a weapon [of war], it's because it literally is," Lynsey explains. "It's a way to gain territory and break societies apart." Families are often forced to watch, she says, and without the cultural understanding that neither the women nor they are to blame, husbands feel humiliated and leave. "The family falls apart, they lose their house, then the village is taken over by rebels."

It's not that I'm fearless. It's just my determination and my belief in my work overrides my fear.

Lynsey stresses that it is "important for our comprehensive record of the wars of our time" that the experiences of women are documented, often necessarily by women. She had assumed more women would start to cover conflict over time, but they haven't — something she blames on the strain it places on your personal life. Her memoir is littered with stories of failed relationships, of men who couldn't understand her commitment to her career, and the need to drop everything and fly away for months on end. Lynsey also writes candidly about her initial reluctance to have a child, only deciding to give in to her husband Paul's wishes after surviving her kidnapping in Libya. "I was terrified that I wouldn't get work, and that editors would start to curate my assignments based on the fact that I was pregnant or about to be a mother," she explains, noting that it was a great relief when her New York Times editor said he would give her as much work as she wanted, for as long as she wanted. Paul also understood when, just six months after Libya, and five months pregnant, Lynsey decided she had to go to Mogadishu, the kidnapping capital of the world, to finish a story. "This job is not for everyone," she concedes.

"I hope that the movie will give some insight into the life of a person who covers war, and also into the issues we cover." With Jennifer Lawrence starring, she hopes more young women will become interested in photojournalism, or in how women live around the world — "The fact that most people around the world do not live privileged lives," she says.

Lynsey won't detail her conversations with Lawrence, but says they've hung out, and talked a lot. "She's an incredible actress, and she's funny, cool, down to earth," she says, adding that Spielberg asked a lot of questions about her relationships, and about embedding with the military. "He had clearly taken the time to read the book. That meant a lot," she says, but notes that she is pragmatic about her story getting the Hollywood treatment. "In order to condense an entire life into a narrative that fits into two hours, things need to be fictionalized. It's not a documentary," she reasons. "Hollywood and celebrity culture reaches a huge audience that journalism does not, so I do hope that the issues get out and that there is an awareness. I've dedicated my life to these issues, so that's what I hope gets taken away."

After decades of witnessing such horror, being kidnapped (twice), held at gunpoint (three times), robbed repeatedly, and surviving a serious car crash that killed her driver and left her with a metal shoulder plate, it is easy to wonder why, and how, she keeps doing it. "I often get that question, and I never really have an answer," she says. "It's not that I'm fearless. It's just my determination and my belief in this work overrides the fear. My answer is: It's who I am. It's what I do."


Text Charlotte Gush
Image via Getty Images

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Lynsey Addario
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