Lynsey Addario never received any formal training in photography, but her award-winning work has been featured in The New York Times, National Geographic, and Time magazine. She’s worked in some of the world’s most dangerous countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, documenting conflict and its toll on civilians, particularly women. She spoke with senior writer Joe Castaldo from her home in London, England.
Birthplace: Westport, Conn.
Age she received her first camera: 13
Year she won a MacArthur Fellowship: 2009
Countries she’s worked in: 40+
Number of kidnappings: 2
One of your earliest experiences in a conflict zone was Afghanistan in 2000. What drew you there?
Women. A guy I was renting a room from in New Delhi knew I was very interested in women’s issues. He had gone there and said, “You really should try and make a trip to Afghanistan because that’s where you’re going to see women oppressed.” And so I researched and went. I really didn’t know much. I had always read articles about Afghanistan and the horrible conditions of women there, but I didn’t realize what a risk it was to go.
When did you realize?
Not until a few years later. I think there’s some value in being really naive sometimes. When I think back on the things that I used to do, I don’t know if I would do them again. Not necessarily my behaviour, more just going there alone and having a few thousand dollars to my name. There were no telephones, no TVs—no contact with the outside world.
So you weren’t afraid?
There was one time that I was afraid, on my second trip. In Kabul, I had a camera around my neck, which I was hiding with my chador, and a truckload of men from the Vice and Virtue Ministry—the hardcore Taliban who would go around and stop people from doing anything illegal—saw my camera and stopped me. They jumped out of the truck and said, “Give us your film!” I managed to switch the film out and hide the roll that I had been using in my bra, and give them an empty roll. That was pretty scary, and I ended up moving right after that.
A few years later, you went to cover the war in Iraq. How prepared were you?
I brought, like, platform heels and nice earrings. I was like a little girl. I had never put on a flak jacket before. I remember the first time a colleague put a flak jacket on me, I almost fell over. But I was eager and I wanted to learn.
What was it like covering combat for the first time?
I was kidnapped in April 2004. Only for a day, but it was pretty jarring, and my family had asked me to stop going to Iraq.… There were a few hours where it was unclear what our fate would be because our car had been surrounded by gunmen, and so The New York Times had to call our parents and say, “Look, we’re unsure what’s happening.” When I first called my father after, he said, “Please come home.” And that’s the first time he had said anything like that. I remember realizing at that point that it is a very selfish career. As selfless as it is to dedicate your life to trying to reveal these injustices and to document history, it is also selfish because you put your loved ones through a lot.
Last year, you and three colleagues were captured by Moammar Gadhafi’s troops and held for nearly a week. Did that change how you approach your work?
I’m taking a calculated risk. I weigh all the factors of what’s going on around me, and I hope I make the right decision of how long to stay, where to position myself and so on. With something like what happened to us in Libya, of course I re-evaluate. Maybe I was too daring? Maybe I stayed too long? Every time I go to a place, I try to be as cautious as I can be while still getting the story.
In February, two foreign journalists working in Syria were killed by government troops. Given the risks involved, what keeps you going back to conflict zones?
I think I end up going back because I think these stories are important. Somalia, for example, is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. I was almost six months pregnant when I went there [after Libya]. My husband and I talked about it, and I thought, “Am I really an idiot? Am I really going to go to Somalia?” And then I thought, “I’m doing this huge story on the drought in the Horn of Africa, and I really can’t tell the story adequately without going to Somalia.” And so I went.
What was that talk with your husband like?
He knew if I didn’t go that I would be miserable, and I would feel like I hadn’t done my job thoroughly. He’s a journalist as well.… He’s pretty much the only person that I had ever dated who didn’t say, “When are you coming home?” and, “Do you have to go?” I would go on a trip and he never said a word.
When photographing in conflict zones, what’s going through your head?
That I hope I don’t get shot; that I don’t get hit by shrapnel. But I want to ensure that I’m able to cover the story effectively and dramatically, because the only pictures people look at have drama and tension in them. It’s tough to cover a war without combat, so you have to position yourself and get in the thick of things.
You’ve seen and experienced a lot of traumatic events. How do you cope?
I come from a very solid family, and a very open family. We communicate very well, and I think that’s helped me through a lot of things that I’ve seen and done. We’re all just built differently, and I fortunately am able to get through a lot of the hardships I’ve been through and not lose my mind.
There aren’t many female conflict photographers. Does being a woman affect your work?
A lot of the time it has to do with access. I work a lot in the Muslim world so I can access women, whereas my male colleagues can’t necessarily get that same access. I also think that one of the reasons I’m still alive is because I’m a woman. Whether they admit it or not, people tend to treat women a bit more fragilely than they do men. I got off sort of easier than my colleagues in Libya because they were getting hit on the back of the head with rifle butts all the time and I wasn’t, because I’m a woman. Yes, I got punched in the face, and yes, I got groped—but you know, it’s just different. Women are treated differently than men.