“He ran his hands over my hair and spoke to me in a low, steady voice, repeating the same phrase over and over. I kept my face down, ignoring his touch, his words. I didn’t understand what he was saying. ‘What is he saying, Anthony?’ Anthony took his time answering. ‘He’s telling you that you will die tonight.’” – It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario
September 11 rocked the nation. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in a plan to incite fear and bring our nation to its knees. Headlines screamed, “Act of War,” “Today, Our Nation Saw Evil,” and “War on The World,” which set the tone for the War on Terror. The War on Terror seemed to bring just that, with 17,500 bombs launched on Afghanistan by the end of December of 2001. Millions of lives were affected, and the military has never attempted to record an overall tally of civilian deaths. Still, the word “terrorist” has become synonymous with “Muslim.” Since before the attacks on the World Trade Center Twin Towers to the recent move of the American Embassy, the U.S. has played a critical role in the perception of millions of people in the Middle East—a loose term that encompasses twenty nine countries across multiple continents.
It is the “terrorist” narrative, however, that opened the door for the POTUS’ recent attempt to block Muslim immigration with a travel ban against people from predominantly Muslim countries, countries with residents who predominantly follow a religion called Islam. “Muslim” is not a race. “You can’t make that general statement about Christians, for example,” Lynsey Addario told us. “When we see these big mass shootings, they are often white people who are not Muslim, who open fire and kill many, many Americans, and no one ever uses the word ‘terrorist.’ To me, I feel like there needs to be a lot more dialogue about this, and there needs to be an even playing field when we talk about terrorism overall in our country.”
Few people understand these conflicts like Addario, a photojournalist who has covered every major conflict and humanitarian crises of her generation, including crises within the borders of Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, South Sudan, Somalia and DR Congo. She has dedicated her life to her job in hopes of educating people: “I was now a photojournalist willing to die for stories that had the potential to educate people,” Lynsey affirms in her breathtaking book, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. “I wanted to make people think, to open their minds, to give them the full picture of what was happening in Iraq so that they could decide whether they supported our presence there.”
Addario came to this pivotal realization after Lifemagazine told her they would not publish her essay of injured American soldiers, because it was too “real” for the American public. In her opinion, “The human costs of the war had been carefully concealed,” and the American people deserved to know where many of their own children were fighting. There’s also the glaring fact that Addario risked her own life in the process of this assignment—and Lifewanted to censor it.
But this was not the first—and definitely not the last—time Addario put her life on the line for a story. “Three weeks into the Libyan uprising-—a revolution that quickly became a war—I was kidnapped,” Addario recounts in her book. “We had been completely at the Libyans’ mercy. But we had lived. I felt lucky. I had interviewed suffering people all over the world, and they never felt like victims. They felt like survivors. I had learned from them.” She was also kidnapped by Sunni insurgents in Iraq, ambushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and severely injured in a car accident that killed her driver while on assignment in Pakistan.
Through it all, Addario credits her belief in free press as the driving force behind her continued pursuit of these wartime stories. “I believe in free press! I believe in journalism. I believe in the role of journalists to show the world what’s happening. I think that policy makers and governments rely, in part, on journalists to get information about what’s happening on the ground, because many times they can’t go to the places we go to,” Addario fiercely asserts. “I am not at all fearless. I get scared like everyone else.” With her passion for honest journalism came the experience and grit to continue her work: “What comes with experience in covering war is, basically, you learn how to deal with that fear. We learn how to tuck it away and manage it, so I can continue doing my work simultaneously . . . It’s not being fearless. It’s just survival. A lot of this ends up being survival.
And survival has become more difficult as the years—and conflicts—continue unabated. “Things have gotten progressively worse for journalists. Journalists are killed routinely. They are targeted by governments,” Addario reveals. “I have been doing this work for a long time, and a lot of this work is sort of like Russian roulette. The more chances you take, the more often I think my number might come up.” On April 30 of this year, nine journalists were killed in Afghanistan, making Addario’s sentiments glaringly clear. “When I hear about what happened in Afghanistan,” she comments, “it devastates me. These are journalists who gave their lives trying to tell a story about Afghanistan. It could have been any one of us.”
Addario is referring to the two suicide bombers who killed 25 people in Kabul, Afghanistan, including nine journalists. The journalists are thought to have been targeted; the second attacker pretended to be a member of the press and stood within a crowd of reporters covering the scene. This is reported to be the most devastating attack on the media since 2001, during the fall of the Taliban. “Where media are in danger, all other human rights are under greater threat,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul declared. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said it was an example of “war crimes,” and Addario concurs. “They were trying to show what’s going on and document the war, and we rely on news from those journalists to know what’s going on in that country. It’s not okay to kill journalists. It should be a war crime.”
These sentiments have echoed throughout the journalistic community, and although organizations like Human Rights Watch claim that, “Under the laws of war, deliberate attacks on civilians are war crimes. Posing as a journalist to carry out an attack is also perfidious, a war crime in which the attacker assumes civilian status,” there are still some gray areas, especially for war correspondents who accompany armed forces. Many are calling for a special provisionfor these atrocities.
Journalists who cover wartime news see and hear much of the same things our soldiers do; it’s no surprise many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The risks of Addario’s job don’t end when she’s no longer on assignment. “Definitely. For sure I have PTSD,” Addario told us plainly after we asked about the effects of covering wartime tragedies. After coming home from the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, for instance, there was a time when she couldn’t stop crying, and loud noises became unbearable. After her colleagues Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros died, she broke down. “I couldn’t stop crying for a week. That has to do with trauma. Residual trauma, trauma from not only the big things that have happened to me over the years, but also just witnessing people dying—people in these very vulnerable moments. It takes a toll.”
It takes a toll in more ways than one. “I tried to keep up, to love what he loved, to be the complete woman,” Addario solemnly recounts in her book, explaining the effort she put into a relationship with Uxval, a man she loved. In the end, her job came first, and he couldn’t understand. But it wasn’t just the men in her personal relationships that were problematic. “There is a huge amount of sexism in the industry. Many women face sexism; it is a very real thing,” Addario bluntly replied when I asked about the difficulties of working in a male-dominated industry. “I think that editors need to be assigning more women, more people of color. Most of our profession is populated by white males.”
Addario later married Paul de Bendern, a journalist with Reuters who understood her dedication to her work. Returning home after being kidnapped, she decided to give her husband what he had wanted for so long: a baby. Reading about her fears of potentially ruining her career or losing work because of her pregnancy was like a page from my own journal. Addario continued to receive assignments after her pregnancy began to show, and she went back to work three months after giving birth. “I started to show in Somalia and Kenya,” she recalls, “and after that I started telling my editors. I was sent to Gaza after I had already spoken to an editor”—a move she received a lot of criticism for. “I do know there are judgements made on women like myself who are now mothers working in war zones. I think people are very quick to judge and say, ‘How could you do that with a child?’ When they don’t make those same judgements on men and my male colleagues. That’s just a very archaic way of looking at women.”
A quick look at the comments on a story published in The New York Times Magazinetitled, “What Can a Pregnant Photojournalist Cover? Everything,”and the criticisms are clear. One woman wrote, “I found Lynsey Addario’s behavior absolutely reprehensible! How a mother could put her own ambitions and ego above that of her child is beyond belief. After reading her article, I found myself in the state of disbelief accompanied by an unusual amount of anger.” Not everyone is as simple-minded, however. Another commenter wrote: “This country sends men off to the absolute absurdity called war every day—leaving their pregnant wives alone—and no one makes a peep. They are heroes. A woman goes off to photograph the atrocities created by this government in hopes to educate and she is ridiculed to no end.” None of it seems to bother Addario herself, however: “To me, frankly, people can criticize me all they want. I think there is a lot of ignorance involved in criticizing people, because they are unaware that there are many, many pregnant women in these war zones.”
Addario’s work is most often focused on the experience of women—“Looking at women in full picture of where they are,” as she told VICE. It’s no surprise that criticism doesn’t sway her one bit. As a woman, she has been able to obtain access to subjects in a way journalists in the past could not, and highlights the struggles of women from around the world. Women in Darfur, Uganda and South Sudan; violence against women in Afghanistan; women survivors of sexual assault in war; maternal mortality in Sierra Leone; women in police training in Afghanistan; female fighters in Rojava in Northern Syria; and honoring our female veterans and U.S. Marines with her coverage of Female Engagement Teams in southern Afghanistan.
“Part of being a good journalist and photographer is to really listen, and to care, and to try and understand where people are coming from,” Addario asserts.“I try to go into it to really understand the cultural differences, and the fact that people have different values than myself. I didn’t try to impose my values on others. I try to give people respect and listen to what they have to say.” According to Addario, the women she’s met through her work have become her role models—incredible women across the globe who have survived the most horrible circumstances. What Addario did not expect was for women to see heras a role model. Although she says she does not see herself as such, Addario has paved the way for a more inclusive future in the male-dominated world of photojournalism. She has worked hard to achieve what women have always been told was unachievable, a family and a thriving career, and doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“I choose to live in peace and witness war—to experience the worst in people but to remember the beauty,” Addario surmises at the end of her book. “Journalist. It is who I am. It’s what I do.”