Lynsey Addario: Notes from the Conflict Zone
Lynsey Addario didn’t start out wanting to be a conflict photographer. In fact, her first photography assignment was shooting Madonna during the filming of Evita in Argentina. But she has nonetheless become one of the world’s best-known and most-accomplished photojournalists. Initially resistant to the idea of being a photographer at all, she changed her mind once she discovered its hidden qualities: “I can tell stories with pictures, I can educate people, I can use my camera as an excuse to access people and travel the world—those things suddenly became very exciting to me, and that’s when I decided that this was what I wanted to do.”
Once she had that realization, she took every job and was always on the first plane to go anywhere in the world. Her career was jump-started by the events of September 11, 2001; as one of the few photographers with recent experience photographing in Afghanistan under the Taliban, she was suddenly in high demand. She has shot all over (Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq, Libya, Mexico, South Sudan, Syria, Uganda, and more), covering conflict and the resulting humanitarian crises for publications like the New York Times, National Geographic, and Time magazine.
It’s physically and emotionally exhausting work, filled with rejection and being sent away and denied access. “I think one has to be pretty tenacious and pretty dedicated,” she says. But humility, passion for the people and the issues, and respect for her subjects are also crucial qualities. “This work is not about me—it’s about the people and the issues I cover. It makes me really upset when I see photographers who don’t give their subjects enough respect and time.”
She makes powerful and often beautiful images of horrific events, and she has seen terrible things, including death, destruction, and hardship. Her friends and colleagues have been killed. She’s been kidnapped twice, once in Iraq and again in Libya. “I’m pretty sure I have a fair amount of PTSD somewhere in my head,” she says, with a deceptive chuckle. She continues to be inspired by the opportunities to dispel the myths of a place or subject, and to give a voice to people who the rest of the world doesn’t often hear. So much of her creative process is about creating deep relationships and trust with her subjects, allowing them to open up to her. In addition, dedication and commitment to the job—she’s often at it from before sunrise to after sunset—allow her to be in the right place at the right time. “I’m one of those annoying photographers who just really works hard.” And with that hard work has come recognition as one of the leading photojournalists of our day and an upcoming movie based on her biography It’s What I Do, directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Now with a family, including a young son, and years of intense experiences in the field, Lynsey has become more selective about which stories she covers and more hesitant to put herself in the situations she did in the past. “I covered front lines for many years, from 2001 until I was kidnapped in Libya in 2011. I’m still working in war zones all the time, but I don’t go as much to the front lines. So, in my head I feel like since I’ve had a family and been through so much, I’ve sort of backed off. But I guess to a normal person I’m still working in war zones all the time.”
And she still works hard; when we caught up with her she was just back from Uganda, and it was her first day off of the last 30. She’s still photographing, telling people’s stories, covering humanitarian issues and crises, but from a somewhat safer viewpoint. It remains important to her: “There is nothing more incredible than having people around the world from so many different walks of life, and from so many different countries, and with so many different beliefs…that they open their lives to me in the most intimate way—to me that’s such an incredible privilege, to be able to be there and be present for people’s moments, these incredibly intimate moments. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this work.”