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The Fearless Lynsey Addario

Katie Couric interviews the lauded photojournalist about her adventures abroad and her challenges at home.

Lynsey Addario, Taimaa Abazli, 24, holds her new baby Heln in their tent at the Karamalis camp in Thessaloniki, Greece, 2016
© the artist

Lynsey Addario has been kidnapped twice, was ambushed by the Taliban, and is one of the few photojournalists who has experience working in Afghanistan. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Addario regularly shoots for publications such as the New York Times, National Geographic, and Time. Her biography, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War (2015), is currently being developed as a movie to be directed by Steven Spielberg, and is slated to star Jennifer Lawrence. Most recently, Addario has been focusing on the lives of Syrian refugees, including the lives of three babies whose families have been seeking refuge in Europe.

In an interview with Katie Couric at the annual ICP Spotlights luncheon last November, Addario confided, “Most of the time I’m photographing, I’m weeping.” Her immense empathy carries into the projects that she takes on. Addario used her MacArthur fellowship to concentrate on maternal health and mortality, and she speaks passionately about documenting the tragic effects breast cancer in Uganda. Her photographs do nothing to hide the horrors to which she bears witness, but they emphasize a shared humanity, a social responsibility too often neglected by those who can afford to ignore the world’s cruelties. Addario allows—even compels—viewers to see themselves on the other side of her lens, despite differences of race, gender, age, or nationality.
—Annika Klein

Lynsey Addario, Captain Emily Naslundm, patrols through the village of Soorkano, Afghanistan, May 7, 2010
© the artist

Katie Couric: Let’s start at the very beginning, as Maria von Trapp would say. Why did you decide to become a photographer?

Lynsey Addario: I started photographing very young. I was timid. I was terrified to photograph people. Then, in 1999, the Associate Press asked me to do a story on transgender sex workers in the Meatpacking District. There had been series of murders in that community, and when Mayor Rudy Giuliani received a report about these murders, he had allegedly called them “the throwaway community.” I spent about six months of every single Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night in their apartments, going out on the streets with them. I realized that most people don’t have any idea that they’re human beings, that they have a life.

When I first started, the camera felt so obtrusive. I was too shy to walk up to people and take their picture. But now, my camera is exactly the reason I can walk up to people because I have an excuse.

Couric: How has your work evolved over the years? I imagine that you probably look back to some of your earlier work and think, Ugh.

Addario: I went to Afghanistan when it was under the Taliban in 2000, and it was one of the first difficult trips I had taken, one of the first times I had traveled to a war zone. I was twenty-six years old. I borrowed money from my sister, and I called my mom the night before leaving, and said, “Mom, I’m going to Afghanistan tomorrow,” and she said, “Okay, honey! Have a good time!”

I was one of the few people who went into Afghanistan under the Taliban and actually photographed there because photography was illegal at the time. Families would open up their homes and school their little girls at home, which was illegal under the Taliban. I look at these photographs and think, “Ugh, if I could have these opportunities today, with the technical skills I have now, then it would be such a different body of work.”

Lynsey Addario, An Iraqi woman walks through a plume of smoke rising from a massive fire at a liquid gas factory as she searches for her husband in the vicinity, Basra, Iraq, May 2, 2003
© the artist

Couric: Do you remember the experience of going to Iraq and being so up close and personal?

Addario: In 2003, the only way to get into Iraq—if you didn’t have a visa from the government, from Saddam before he fell—was to sneak in through Iran into northern Iraq. I didn’t go with the military because I wasn’t sure I would have the courage to be with them. I had never been in full-on combat. I thought, Why don’t I go to northern Iraq, and if there’s a humanitarian crisis, I’m well positioned. I didn’t think I’d see combat there.

About a month in, there was a proxy war going on with Ansar al-Islam, which was linked to Al Qaeda, and they were being fought by Kurdish Peshmerga backed by American special forces. We started covering that war. There was one day when the Americans fired dozens of cruise missiles into Iraq, into their area. We as journalists—for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, there was a group of us—went to that area where the cruise missiles were fired because we wanted to see if there were civilian casualties.

I was photographing, and, suddenly, the locals started warning us to get out. We reconvened the journalists; there were about fourteen of us. We said, “Okay, we should go.” Everyone is warning us to leave. I was standing next to this TV camera man, and we were shooting side by side this truckload of Peshmerga. I got this feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I dropped my camera, and ran back to the car, and I shut the door, and a car bomb went off at that truckload of Peshmerga. The guy that I had been standing with was killed.

We didn’t know what happened. In those moments you have no idea, all you know is that you have to get out. We fled to a school where there were wounded being unloaded. A taxi driver pulled up and he said, “Is anyone here a journalist?” I said, “I am.” He said, “I have the body of a journalist in the back of my car. Can you help me identify him?” I thought I was going to throw up, and I ran to the back of the school and just started crying and thinking, “I don’t want to do this for a living. This is horrible.”

Lynsey Addario, An Iraqi man leans against a wall as he walks along rows of remains of bodies discovered in a mass grave south of Baghdad, now laid out in a building in Iraq, May 29, 2003
© the artist

Couric: Did you identify him?

Addario: No, I couldn’t look. I asked Elizabeth Rubin, who was there, to look, because she was much more seasoned than I was. There was no way to get out of the country because I didn’t have another visa for Iran and Saddam Hussein had not fallen. So I had to stay, but I was terrified.

Couric: There have been many other terrifying situations, I know. One was the Korengal Valley. What were you doing there, and why was it such a scary place?

Addario: In 2007, Elizabeth Rubin for The New York Times Magazine wanted to do a story about why there were so many civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

If we had the best military in the world—

Couric: So-called “smart bombs.”

Addario: Right. We were trying to figure out what was going on, so we asked to go to the heart of the war, where it was most dangerous, and the U.S. military was dropping the most bombs. Elizabeth and I went to the public affairs officer, and said, “Hi, we’d like to go to the Korengal Valley.” We were already in Afghanistan. The guy just looked us over and said, “Mm, it’s not really a place that’s fit for women.” And we’re like, “Why?” And he said, “There’s no place for you to sleep, and there’s no place for you to go to the bathroom.” And we looked at him and were like, “Well, where do men sleep? Where do men go to the bathroom?” He said, “They sleep in bunkers.” And we said, “We can do that.” He got flustered because, at that point, women in the military were not allowed on the front lines, but there was no rule for journalists. He said, “Come back tomorrow,” and we went.

We spent two months living on the side of the mountain with the troops. At the end there was Operation Rock Avalanche, which was a battalion-wide operation. We were airlifted in Black Hawks, and jumped out of Black Hawks in the middle of the night on the side of the mountain, and walked for a week with everything we owned on our backs. On the sixth day, we were ambushed by the Taliban.

Lynsey Addario, Soldiers with the 173rd Airborne, Battle Company, on a battalion-wide mission in the Korengal valley on the Abas Ghar ridge line, October 23, 2007
© the artist

Couric: Another place we were going to talk about was when you were meeting the Taliban, when you were really frightened—understandably so. Paint a picture for us.

Addario: Exactly a year later, Dexter Filkins, who is now with The New Yorker but was with the New York Times at the time, called me up and said he had this great story on the Talibanization of Pakistan. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, said, “You’re not going to meet the Taliban.” I was like, “No, absolutely not. Why would I do such a thing?”

Of course, a month later, we were invited to meet Haji Namdar. They said the one thing you can’t do is to bring a woman. Our translator, who was basically Taliban, said, “Can’t Mr. Dexter take your camera and take photos?” And I was like, “No, Mr. Dexter can’t.” [Audience laughs.] They dressed us up as husband and wife. All Taliban will understand is that you can’t leave your wife in this strange village, so you have to go together.

Couric: How did he explain that his wife happened to have a camera?

Addario: We go to Haji Namdar’s compound, and I’m fully veiled—I can’t see anything. I go in this very small room with fifteen to twenty fighters and they all have their weapons and rockets. It’s very awkward because women don’t leave their house in this part of the world. I’m stumbling in, and sit down behind Dexter, who says, “Hey, Haji Namdar, man, thanks for welcoming my wife. She happens to have a camera, do you mind if she takes a few photos?” [Laughs.] At that point, the fact that there was a woman in the room was so awkward that it didn’t matter what I did.

Lynsey Addario, Pakistani Taliban fighters in Bar Kambar Khel, in the Pakistani tribal area near the border of Afghanistan, July 4, 2008
© the artist

Couric: Let’s talk about your scariest experience of all, which was in Libya. Why were you there, and what was going on at the time?

Addario: When the Arab Spring started in Egypt and Tunisia, I was on assignment for National Geographic in Iraq. But, eventually, I went into Egypt and crossed illegally into Libya. In many of these cases, that’s how you cover an uprising, because the government doesn’t want journalists there. Almost immediately, the war started. None of us thought there would be combat, because we expected it to be an uprising, like in Egypt. None of us had flak jackets or helmets, or any of the combat gear that we needed. But there was a call to arms, and, suddenly, we started moving forward on the front line with some of the rebels. It was unbelievable, it was not like anything I’ve ever seen because there was no place to hide. It was in completely flat desert. We were with guys who had no training at all. Often the journalists had more experience in combat than they did. Gaddafi had his military still. There were air strikes, helicopter gunships, mortars, sniper rounds, and they were hitting us from all sides. Often, the rebels would just turn around and leave when things got really bad, and the journalists were just sort of there. I was working on the front line for about two weeks.

Couric: And then what happened?

Addario: On March 15, 2011, I was working with Tyler Hicks, Stephen Farrell, and Anthony Shadid—all for the New York Times. The front line was moving in very quickly, so we knew Gaddafi’s troops were moving in, and that we had to pull back towards Benghazi. Originally, we were in two cars, which journalists often do in case one of the cars breaks down, but the driver of the second car, his brother was shot, so he stopped in the middle of the battle and said, “I quit.” There were four of us in one vehicle. To ask four journalists how long to stay in one place is quite complicated because everyone had a different idea of safety and different needs journalistically. We went back to the hospital to measure civilian casualties, and then we went back to the front line, when we knew it was about to fall. Mortar rounds were locking into our position, and civilians were fleeing. Eventually, by the time we made a decision to leave, we ran directly into one of Gaddafi’s checkpoints. Our driver panicked, stopped the car, and jumped out. They were all pulled out of the car. I, as the only woman, am often left sitting in the car. It was the second time I had been kidnapped, and the same thing had happened in Iraq.

At that moment, the rebels that we were covering started opening fire on the checkpoint. We were caught in a wall of bullets, and I knew I had to get out of the car. I crawled across the back seat and jumped out where Tyler, Anthony, and Steve had jumped out. Eventually, we ran for cover to a small cement building. Once we got behind that building, we were told to lie facedown in the dirt. We each had a gun put to our heads, and our hands and our ankles were tied together. They were about to execute us when the commander walked over and said, “You can’t kill them, they’re American.” We were very lucky because, obviously, there are a lot of people who don’t feel that way.

We were put in vehicles and placed on the front lines for hours while bullets and bombs rained around us. They laughed at us because we were tied up and couldn’t get out. For the next few days, we were beaten up, blindfolded, remained tied up, threatened with execution. As the only woman, I was groped repeatedly. Then we were transferred to a glorified prison-apartment in Tripoli, and we were released after six days.

Lynsey Addario, Opposition troops burn tires for cover during heavy fighting, shelling and airstrikes near the main checkpoint in Ras Lanuf, Eastern Libya, March 11, 2011
© the artist

Couric: As you were going though that horrific experience—I’m sure it was very scary for your mom, your husband, for your friends, your family—and most of all, for the four of you. Tell me about when you realized that you were finally going to be released?

Addario: There was an incredible guilt involved, because I knew my family was suffering. That is one of the hardest things about putting my life at risk. It’s not about me, and what happens to me, and if I get killed. That’s a consequence of doing this work. It’s more about, What do you leave behind? I’ve lost a lot of friends, and I’ve seen how it tears apart their families, and that’s very difficult.

Couric: You wrote a piece about being pregnant and doing your job in The New York Times Magazine. Tell us why you wrote it, and the backlash that you got as a result.

Addario: When I got pregnant, I was terrified. It was right after Libya—about six weeks after I was released from captivity. My husband and I had talked about having a family at some point, but as a woman and a professional, I was terrified of what that would do to my career. There were no role models. I didn’t know a single woman who did what I do who even had a boyfriend, much less a child. For me, the natural reaction was to hold on to my identity, and to work as much as I possibly could before I gave birth. I went to Senegal. I was in Saudi Arabia. I was in America—I did a road trip.

No one talked about how hard it is; everyone just talks about how beautiful it is to have a child—which it is, of course, but it’s very, very difficult. I felt like I needed to be honest. I wrote about going to Kenya to cover a drought, and going to Somalia, which was a war zone, when I was six months pregnant.

I received a lot of criticism. My response is: first of all, there are male journalists who get killed with children at home, and no one says, “What were they doing in a war zone?” It’s just as bad to lose a father as it is to lose a mother. Second, in these places that I cover, there are women who are pregnant and having children, and no one talks about the conditions for them. All they talk about is, “How can a girl from Connecticut go to Somalia when she’s pregnant?”

Lynsey Addario, Killis Camp, Turkish–Syrian Border in Turkey, October 22, 2013
© the artist

Couric: Tell us about the sexism you’ve faced early in your career. Do you feel that it’s gotten better as you’ve proven yourself to be so competent?

Addario: I kept thinking, when I started out, that there would be more and more women in the field—and there just aren’t. There are women who decide the lifestyle isn’t for them, but I also think that editors need to start assigning women, and putting more faith in women. When I look around in the field, it’s mostly white men, and that, to me, is a problem. We need local people to tell their own stories. We need people of color. We need women. And it’s just not happening.

Couric: As a woman, you’ve been able to have access to some extraordinary situations that men wouldn’t have access to. These are some of your proudest photographs as well. 

Addario: In 2009, when I won the MacArthur, I wanted to focus on maternal health and maternal mortality. At that point, 550,000 women were dying in childbirth every year, around the world. Now, 800 women die every day around the world. That is extraordinary because 98 percent of those deaths are preventable.

Once, in Afghanistan, on the way back from some very remote hospitals and clinics, we saw these two women on the side of the mountain. Anyone who’s familiar with Afghanistan knows that a woman is always accompanied by a man. We didn’t see a man, so we assumed something was wrong. It turned out the woman on the right was in labor, and her water had broken. Her husband’s first wife had died in childbirth. He was so determined not to lose her that he borrowed a car, and that car broke down. I brought the family to the hospital and she delivered safely.

Lynsey Addario, Nazer Begam and her pregnant daughter Noor Nisa, 20, wait for transport to hospital, after their car broke down, November 14, 2009
© the artist

Couric: You stepped in and helped the woman in Afghanistan. It must be so difficult not to get emotionally invested in these stories. I’m sure you want to help every person you photograph.

Addario: Most of the time I’m photographing, I’m weeping. This picture is out of focus because when the daughter came in and saw her mother in the coffin, she didn’t even know that her mother had cancer. All of the attention went to preventing HIV/AIDS. Cancer was overlooked. This little girl came in and looked in the coffin and saw her mother, and I was crying so hard that I couldn’t even take the picture.

Couric: Why is photography so powerful? As someone who is a communicator and a storyteller myself, when can photographs tell a story that a documentary or television news story can’t?

Addario: It’s the moment that brings you to the heart of the image, and the emotion that is captured in that one second. I’ve been photographing a lot of Syrian refugees for the past five, six years. When the public hears about Syrian refugees, or refugees in general, you just generally turn the page, and you are like, I don’t even know how to connect with that story because it’s so far away. And, for example, I’ll take a picture of this mother and her children to show you she’s a mother—

Couric: The shared humanity.

Addario: An entry point. That’s constantly what I’m trying to do—to bring you into that moment and that emotion.

Katie Couric is an American journalist and author.

This interview is adapted from a live conversation at the International Center of Photography Spotlights luncheon on November 7, 2017.

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