Perhaps it’s because Lynsey Addario grew up the youngest of four sisters. Perhaps it’s because she was raised to be nonjudgmental and encouraged to be open and accepting by her hairdresser parents. Or, perhaps, it’s because she cares about capturing entire stories through her photographs, bearing witness to things that others may turn away from.
Actually, it’s all this and more that has made Addario an Emmy Award -- and Pulitzer Prize -- winning photojournalist as well as MacArthur Grant recipient who’s work regularly appears in the New York Times, National Geographic, Time magazine and other outlets. Her photos have captured human conflict and struggles—in war and peace—all over the world. Titles of some of her photo series? "Women at War," "Invisible Genocide," "Muslims in America" and "The Displaced"—to name but some.
Currently calling London home, Addario returns stateside about four times a year to visit family in Westport, the town where she was raised and where her parents still reside. She was in town recently to give a talk at the Quick Center in Fairfield, “Eyewitness Through My Camera Lens: Worlds in Conflict”—the second in the Quick Center’s new Women and Leadership series. The talk traced the arc of her career. And it’s an interesting arc.
“…I realized that I can tell stories with pictures…”
At the age of 12 she picked up photography as a hobby, never expecting that she found her future vocation. Addario graduated from Staples High School in 1991 and then from the University of Wisconsin four years later, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Italian, with her sights set on a translating career or something similar that would take her around the world. Believing she was taking her first steps toward those goals, in 1996 Addario moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina to perfect her Spanish. To support herself, she worked as a photographer for a local newspaper.
“At that point it was so early on in my career,” recalled Addario. “I was just learning how to photograph. I had low expectations, low skills and had never studied photography. But it was there I realized that I can tell stories with pictures and started to consider photojournalism as something I can do.”
After a year or so, Addario returned to the States and began freelancing at the Associated Press in New York City. She credits having a great mentor there who guided her in photography.
“That’s when I really started learning how to tell stories and how to be a photographer,” said Addario.
Studying photography with her mentor and on her own by looking at books of other photographers’ work—such as that of Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann and Susan Meiselas, to name but a few—Addario refined her visual storytelling.
As you might expect from this time frame, Addario was still using a film camera. It was right after September 11, 2001 when she switched to digital.
“I had been living in Mexico City and my agency called me right after September 11,” said Addario. “They handed me a digital camera and told me to learn how to use it on the plane flight back.”
She did, of course, and went on to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and later the fall of Qaddafi in Libya as well as the human carnage of the conflict in Syria, often at great risk to her own life. Indeed, she’s been kidnapped twice (in Iraq in 2004 and in Libya in 2011—coincidentally along with a fellow Staples grad and New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks), but still she returns to areas of war, famine and danger.
A recent article in the Washington Post claiming that the U.S. government had painted a false rosy picture of how the war in Afghanistan was actually going didn’t surprise Addario.
“I think our government learned a lot from Vietnam,” she said, referring to how seeing war on evening news broadcasts helped turn Americans against it. “There was a fair amount of censorship.”
That censorship was downright threatening at times. In Iraq in early 2003, Addario was less than welcomed by American troops when she tried to photograph an attack on an American tank by Iraqi insurgency.
“They turned the turret of a tank at me and basically threatened me,” said Addario. “They didn’t want me to show the attack on Americans.”
Those early days in Iraq provide the only professional regrets for Addario, but understandably so: “There were times we were under fire and I wish I had shot more photographs,” she admitted. “I was too busy digging myself as flat as I could, digging myself into the ground. I didn’t have the skills yet to cover combat. I do regret those early, early experiences.”
During live combat, no one tends to care if you’re taking photos while bullets are flying, but it’s a different story when Addario shoots photos of women in Afghanistan and other areas where women’s rights differ from our own. Sometimes her subjects risk their lives by allowing her to photograph them.
“I go through a lengthy process to get permission to photograph,” she said “I ask the women and their fathers, brothers and husbands in Afghanistan. I’m pretty careful about that and I’ve learned how sensitive those photos are.”
“Life goes on.”
Yes, Addario finds herself in many dangerous situations; however, these same situations occasionally reveal the humanity in her subjects.
When Addario (with Dexter Fillkins reporting then for the New York Times) met with the Taliban in 2009 in deep tribal areas of Pakistan where foreigners were not allowed, she had to wear a full burka with only her eyes revealed to “protect her modesty.” And even though it was the Taliban, laws of hospitality, often sacrosanct around the world, had to be observed.
“There were about 15 Taliban fighters in the room,” remembered Addario. “One came in and they all became really tense and I feared that they would kidnap us. But it turned out they wanted to offer us tea as hospitality and the newcomer wanted me to drink the tea but still honor my modesty and wasn't sure how to do it, so he said I had to turn to the wall to lift my veil to drink.”
Moments like that, with a group that doesn’t value a woman yet still values her enough to serve her tea, spark humor, albeit of the dark variety.
“There’s a lot of humor a lot of the time,” added Addario. “People don’t realize how funny Iraqis and Afghanis are. They need to laugh to get through their situations. Often we laugh at the same things.”
That wasn’t what surprised Addario the most in covering wars, however.
“Before I started covering war,” she said, “I didn’t realize how much life goes on. When you look at images in the press you often only see the worst possible scenes, but people don’t realize that it’s only one small area of a place and for other swaths of the city or country, life is normal. Life goes on.”
Life has gone on for Addario as well.
Addario’s 2016 memoir, “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War,” is being shopped around for Hollywood treatment. Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg were said to have been attached to the project at one time or another as have Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence, who were each said to be interested in playing Addario.
Addario, however, is still in meetings about the project as the option came up, and says it’s “tough to say what’s happening and who will be involved.”
Additionally, Addario also released a book of her photographs, Of Love and War, in 2018.
The photojournalist calls herself lucky in finding love and having a family with a fellow journalist who’s familiar with the lifestyle. You can hear the smile in her voice when she said, “it works.”
“Getting married and having a family wasn’t a priority in my life,” she said. “You have to put everything you are and have into the life. It can be thrilling, lonely and educational. But I never could have accomplished what I have if I had children earlier.”
She still visits areas in conflict and photographs intense happenings. One of these was the euthanasia of Marieke Vervoort, a Belgian para-olympic athlete who decided to end her own life when years of debilitating pain from her degenerative muscle disease became too much. Addario's photos and story ran in the New York Times in its December 8 issue.
The photo project was three years in the making, and, because of the duration, Addario was able to become friends with her subject, a first for the photojournalist.
“She became a good friend,” said Addario of Vervoort. “I think this was probably one of the hardest assignments I’ve done. Going through watching someone decide life and death is difficult whether in a war zone or peace. This is one of the most intimate decisions someone has to make. In war, people have no choice, they flee for their lives; this euthanasia was equally intense.”
Addario went into the project without any formed opinion on euthanasia.
“My philosophy with many things in life is that people need to decide what’s best for them,” she said. “These things are personal; I’m not there to judge but to document—to create a record of history and educate people now to give a broader idea of a subject people don’t know much about.”
It always comes back to the story—getting an accurate and honest depiction of what’s happening, bearing witness, capturing history. There are myriad stories to tell and Adddario has no plans to slow down.
“I’m a photojournalist,” concluded Addario. “I tell an entire story with pictures.”
It’s who she is and what she does.