February 2015

Laura Michele Diener


It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario

Lynsey Addario knows exactly who she is and what matters to her most. She is an artist who has dedicated her life to taking images of people ravaged by war, starvation, and disease. Throughout the last two decades, she has traveled through conflict zones most Americans only see on the evening news and braved rebel armies, land mines, and car bombs in relentless pursuit of the perfect picture. It is hard to imagine a reader who won't find her life fascinating. Her book, It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War, is less a memoir of her life, however, than it is a recounting of her love affair with photojournalism.

To that end, a quick summary of her unconventional childhood only serves to explain her introduction to a Nikon camera, a gift from her father. She gives us brief glimpses of how her parents' divorce devastated her family, her painful adolescence alone with her struggling single mother, and her wanderlust that began with a study-abroad year in Bologna. All of those experiences, which other memoirists could alchemize into entire volumes, merely foreground her entry into the life of freelance photojournalism, a life of thrills, danger, and immense responsibility. She experienced two kidnappings and got shot at by Taliban forces while travelling with American troops in Abas Ghar. As she survives one brutal experience after another, she is motivated by the knowledge that her pictures will matter to policy makers and encourage them to shape a world far more peaceful than the one she photographs.

With eighty-nine arresting images, the book is worthy of a coffee table, although it is infinitely more interesting than the garden variety of tabletop volumes. The majority of the photographs depict scenes of war and refugees, interspersed with a few family shots. The pictures could stand alone as a testament to her talent and experience. While it is a cliché to describe a picture as "haunting," I am not sure what else to call Addario's photograph of a women's hospital room in Kabul that appears to be full of ghosts. The layered fabrics of burkas are indistinguishable from the curtains. Only an uncovered small child suggests that flesh and blood are present beneath the mounds of cloth. The jewel-like colors of the room have to serve as replacements for the empty ciphers of the covered female bodies.

Addario is as conscious of color in her writing as she is in her photographs, eloquently capturing the golds, azures, and peaches of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Landscapes elicit her most lyrical writing: "The sandy brown mountains fold like rumpled bed sheets into layers of vegetation, and clay houses fade into the land."

She is less astute about the people she meets, occasionally leaving readers wondering about fascinating acquaintances briefly introduced and then narratively abandoned, such as Salim, the twenty-three-year-old Kurdish driver desperate to experience life outside of his native Mosul, or Muhammad, another driver and a member of one of the most conservative tribes in Afghanistan who nevertheless introduced her to the world of forbidden girls' schools.

Addario has a pleasant knack for sustaining suspense throughout a chapter, successfully imbuing her readers with a sense of her terror in extreme circumstances, most notably her two kidnappings -- the first time by Iraqi insurgents, the second by pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya. She acknowledges and accepts the risks involved with her continuing drive to document conflict and did not allow these traumatic experiences to slow her pace. In order to obtain the best picture, she needed to throw herself in harm's way. But she also relates the quiet terror of ordinary travelers, those who must live and work without the backing of major newspapers and powerful governments, who end up in danger without ever seeking it. Perhaps even more frightening than her brutal treatment at the hands of the pro-Gaddafi forces is the casual callousness of Israeli soldiers who forced her to go through a full-body scanner three times at twenty-seven weeks pregnant, and then ordered her to be strip searched. "If the Israeli soldiers were doing this to me, a New York Times journalist accredited by the Israeli government itself... how on earth did they treat a poor Palestinian pregnant woman?"

In 2004, she transitioned from breaking news photography to documenting humanitarian outrages in Africa. Her travels in the Congo inspired some of the most emotionally affective moments in the book. As part of a grant to study women and gender in the arts, she interviewed and photographed women from the North and South Nivu provinces. These women had endured first kidnapping and gang rape by Rwandan soldiers, sometimes for years, followed by ostracism from their husbands upon release. Some had borne children to their captors while others were dying of AIDS. Addario admitted she cried openly during these interviews. She chose to include selections from their interviews as well as their photographs; the combination devastates. These encounters matured Addario, and ironically, instilled in her a sense of positivity about her future: "The sadness and injustice I encountered as a journalist could either sink me into a depression or open the door to a new vision of my own life. I chose the latter."

Addario is brutally clear about the ways the military, the government, and even magazine editors control which images of foreign wars the American public gets to see. In 2004 she shot a series of images of wounded American soldiers for Life magazine. To her fury, Life held them back through George Bush's second inauguration and finally refused to publish them because they were too "real." She faced a similar struggle in 2007 after returning from Korengal Valley, where she took a photo of Khalid, an Afghan boy wounded by shrapnel from NATO bombs. The military public affairs officer couldn't verify his wounds, so despite the intervention of the captain of the 173rd battalion (present during the bombing) as well as Elizabeth Rubin, the journalist of the piece, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine refused to run the picture. Addario rebelliously included not only the picture but the letter of protest she composed to the editor, where she angrily stated, "This is war. There is ambiguity." Her anger stemmed from her understanding of the significance of her photos. In the midst of conflicting news stories and cultural misunderstandings, a photograph can act as "a historical document of truth" flying in the face of government rhetoric. In these cases, a picture is indeed worth a thousand inaccurate and deliberately deceptive words.

She also critiques the American public for their mercurial interests in international events. In 2000, Addario had photographed women living under the Taliban with no commercial success. After September 11, American interest soared in all things Islamic, and Addario could parlay her experience into a job freelancing for the New York Times. Afghani women's lives suddenly became newsworthy, although as Addario sardonically pointed out, their conditions had hardly changed from the previous year.

"There is a somewhat accurate cliché of the ever-haunted war correspondent who can't escape the darkness of what he has seen... I didn't want to be that person." With great honesty, Addario recounts her frequently unsuccessful struggles not to be this person, to find love and to maintain family connections while living in high-pressure environments far from any place she could reasonably call home. Between assignments she searched for a partner who could accept her relentless devotion to her work. After a string of unfulfilling relationships and loves lost in the chaos of war, she met and married Paul, a Reuters bureau chief who is also, improbably but truly, a French count. Equally career driven, he offered Addario respect as well as love, although the way he pressured her to have a baby despite her misgivings may make readers uncomfortable.

This discomfort stems from the reader's investment, by the closing chapters, in Addario's autonomy. Running through the book is a consideration of the pressures a woman must face to convince her male colleagues to take her seriously. While women from multiple professions can empathize with these struggles, Addario has the unique challenge of acting tough in front of American men while maintaining a traditionally feminine façade in front of non-Western men, because their approval could guarantee her access to visas and intimate spaces, and, on occasion, save her life. The pressures come as much from herself as from her coworkers; after navigating the minefield of gender relations in the Middle East, she refuses to let her pregnancy compromise her vocation. At the end of the book, however, she does wonder if motherhood will eventually force her to reassess the amount of risk she is willing to take.

Addario's most rewarding insights pertain to the nature of work. She explores what it is we all actually do when we call ourselves journalists, cooks, and doctors. At the end of her memoir, I was left marveling at the beauty of vocation. Her profound satisfaction raises a central modern conundrum -- in a world where we are frequently divorced from the products we create or sell or market, where people struggle through boring hours for a paycheck, how many jobs can produce that kind of fulfillment? How would our society have to change in order for the average worker to watch the fruits of their labor impact the world so positively? Addario is lucky, but she also earned that luck through passionate tenacity and a complete lack of compromise. She will inspire readers to look to all the sacrifices and joys embedded in their own professions and to wonder whether they are indeed following their own callings.

It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario
Penguin Press
ISBN 978-11594205378
368 pages