Lynsey Addario, 41, is a photojournalist who works mostly in conflict zones. She grew up in Connecticut, the daughter of Italian-American hairdressers, and was given her first camera, a Nikon FG, by her father when she was 13. She joined the Associated Press in 1996, and later began working for the , initially as a stringer. She has reported from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, Iraq, Syria and . In 2009 she was part of the team that won the Pulitzer prize for the , and the same year she won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. It has been reported that her new memoir, , is to be . She is married to Paul de Bendern, formerly a Reuters bureau chief, with whom she has a three-year-old son, Lukas. She lives in London.
That’s interesting. For me, taking photographs is such a tortured process. I’m always feeling like I’m not getting enough: I’m in the wrong place, the light isn’t good, the subject’s not comfortable. When I’m writing, I don’t bring that pressure to bear. I guess I don’t have such high expectations about it. So the whole process was fun. It was the first time in 15 years that I’d really given myself time to download my experiences. I’d been moving at such a fast pace for so long that I never stopped to process it all. It was therapeutic.
There are so many misconceptions about why journalists cover war. I would hope that they come away understanding that as war correspondents we are not driven by adrenaline. There are so many other reasons why we do this work than that. It is a calling. It’s so much greater than an addiction to adrenaline.
I don’t think addiction is the right word. There were times – in was one example – when I was bearing witness to such incredible historic moments. By getting my pictures in the I hoped that I was informing both the policymakers and the public, and that felt pretty monumental. To walk away from it just wasn’t an option. Where in the world would I rather be than on the frontline of history?
At certain times in my life it did, and that was why I struggled so much with my personal life. I write very honestly about this in my book. I wanted the ideal personal life, but I also wanted to keep rushing off, and that doesn’t work, not unless you’ve got an incredibly understanding partner [Addario married in 2009]. That’s not to say that normal life isn’t exciting. It’s just a different existence. Right now, I spend half my time on assignment and half at home, and I don’t feel like I’m not satisfied at home. I’m 41, and I have a family, and I spent 15 years getting on a plane, packing and unpacking. I’m in a different headspace than when I started. But I’ve certainly been through those stages where I didn’t ever feel like I was in the right place unless I was on a plane to .
I’m a very open person, very self-deprecating. I accept my flaws. So it wasn’t a big step to put my vulnerabilities out there: the fact that I broke down, the fact that I got my ass grabbed on assignment and the men didn’t. We all have these moments of self-doubt and extreme frustration, and I couldn’t imagine not including them. I wrote this book from my heart. I had nothing to lose. I didn’t have anyone to impress.
Yes. It is horrible to talk about cliches when you mean mass graves and dozens of people pulling plastic bags of bones out of the earth. . You have to get the reader to stop and realise: yes, it is as bad as it seems. It’s not all about bravado and just showing up and shooting. If I have the time, I do think about composition. Because if no one stops to look at the picture, what’s the point of taking it? And if making it beautiful does that, that’s what I’m striving for. Sometimes there is beauty in war zones.
Yes. I made three trips to Afghanistan under the Taliban. [At the time] I wasn’t able to give those pictures away. Only got a few published. But I learned such a lot about how to work. of any living thing was illegal under the Taliban. I had to sneak around and figure out how to get access to the women I wanted to photograph. After September 11, the whole world turned to that region, and I felt like I had an advantage.
I’m not hindered by physical dress. I will put on whatever I have to. So many of us in the west look at the burka and the abaya and we get so caught up in that. But talk to the women themselves, and for them the issues are not being able to work, not being able to go to school. It [the veil] is such a trivial thing.
I’m always conscious of my gender. I try to be respectable and accommodating. If I am with Afghan men, I make sure I’m appropriately dressed and as gracious as I can be in terms of not drawing attention to myself. But actually, it is the same with US soldiers in a way: my goal was to keep up with them and to get the work done. In all instances you have to prove yourself.
It was one of the most acute instances I’ve had of being with a completely untrained group of fighters: the insurgents were teachers, doctors, engineers, and they were learning on the fly, using Kalashnikovs and rocks to fight Gaddafi’s incredibly well-trained military. Also, the terrain. The frontline was a road through the desert and it was wide open; there was nowhere to hide. When planes flew overhead, you looked up and waited to see where the bomb would fall.
No! I felt like the biggest coward. I was terrified. I was trying to stay alive. I was so busy to find a place to lie down and bury myself, I kept forgetting to take pictures.
I made it very consciously. I was terrified of getting pregnant because I was terrified of losing my identity. I didn’t know any other women who did the same work as me who had children, or who were even in relationships. So when I found out I was pregnant, I did the only thing I could: I held on to my work. I went to Senegal, Afghanistan, Saudia Arabia, Somalia; I was 26 weeks pregnant when I went into Gaza, and 28 weeks when I came out. But I wasn’t covering combat in any of these places. I’ve spent my life photographing women who continue to work while they are pregnant because they have to. To those who have criticised me for working when I was pregnant, I can only say: I’m sorry if I offended anyone, but I have a healthy baby who I love.
I bore witness to Iraq, and it was a tragedy to watch it fall apart, to watch us go in there on fabricated reasons
I feel like journalists know a whole lot more than most of the policymakers, and it’s difficult to watch mistakes being made, though I also tell myself that maybe they have access to intelligence that we don’t. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. But I bore witness to Iraq, and it was a tragedy to watch it fall apart, to watch us go in there acting on completely fabricated reasons. I took great pride in being American for so many years and then I suddenly became embarrassed by it. That was huge. I remember the day I saw the pictures coming out from . I was in an airport in the US. I remember looking at the screen and breaking down. For me, it was almost like a loss of innocence. We created the insurgency with those mistakes.
It’s fundamental. You have to feel comfortable enough to be able to say: “I need to pull out.”
That’s funny; there was an entire chapter in the book about packing, but it fell out and I still regret that. Aside from technical stuff like my camera and satellite dish, I take protein bars, a head lamp, and my hiking boots. I always take coffee, those instant Starbucks Via packs. Before those were available, I used to have a travel mug with a French press inside it, and I would take my grinds and Coffee-Mate in a Ziploc because I cannot function without coffee. What else? Sugar-free gum, my running shoes and work-out clothes, two pairs of sunglasses, and a photograph of me and my husband and of my son. My luxury is body lotion. You need yummy smelling things to make yourself feel good in a war zone.
Of course. I used to go away for two months; now I will only go away for two weeks, and I don’t work as much on the frontline. I will go to Afghanistan or Iraq, but not into combat or to places where journalists are targets. In Africa, the sanctity of journalists is still respected. I feel comfortable there in a way that I wouldn’t on the border of Syria.
I’ve just been in Saudia Arabia for . I’m hankering to go back to Darfur. I haven’t been there for six years, and I feel like I left the story unfinished. South Sudan, too. I’d rather use my existing knowledge than go jumping all over the map.
Warner Bros has optioned the book. But it’s in the very early stages; I haven’t even signed a contract yet, so it would be premature to talk about Jennifer Lawrence or Steven Spielberg. It’s very flattering, obviously. I was just relieved to finish the book, much less have a Hollywood movie made out of it. But if a movie can enlighten people and get rid of some of the misconceptions they have about the work that I do, that would be wonderful. It would be great to bring the reality of what drives journalists to a wider audience.