Exploring the double bind for women on the front lines, through the lens of Addario’s gripping memoir.
Lynsey Addario, veteran war photographer—or “conflict photographer,” as the job is known at a time when clashing nations have been replaced by factions and splinter factions and splinter-splinter factions—knew it was time to go. Driving into the Libyan city of Ajdabiya with three of her New York Times colleagues in March 2011, she could see civilians fleeing the town on foot, belongings atop their heads. A long stream of cars was also departing, and in them were women, the first she’d encountered outdoors on her multiple visits to this conservative Muslim city. Worst of all, when she and the Times guys stopped at a hospital to collect casualty figures, the notoriously gonzo French journalists gathered there announced that they too were headed out. Gaddhafi’s troops, it seemed, were on the verge of storming the city.
I didn’t want to be the cowardly journalist or the terrified girl.
“The joke was that if the French left a combat zone before you, you were screwed,” Addario writes in It’s What I Do, her propulsive, and ultimately transgressive, new memoir about her nearly two-decade-long career. “I watched in horror as they scrambled into their cars, but I said nothing. I didn’t want to be the cowardly journalist or the terrified girl….”
This all happens in the first 10 pages, and if you follow the news, you know that Addario, fellow photographer Tyler Hicks, and reporters Stephen Farrell and the late Anthony Shadid were indeed captured by Gaddhafi’s men. It’s a credit to the Pulitzer Prize winner’s skill with language as well as images that the reader doesn’t mind waiting until one of the last chapters, called “You Will Die Tonight” (what one of the captors told Addario as he stroked her face), to find out the harrowing details of the incident, her second kidnapping in seven years. The four were blindfolded, bound, beaten, repeatedly felt up (Addario), flown to Tripoli, and kept for a week before their release.
In the chapters in between, we learn about the self-taught Addario’s remarkable dedication to doing whatever it takes to get the shot: hiking through the Sudanese desert for days with a band of rebels, being ambushed by the Taliban during a months-long, physically punishing embed with a small army unit in the mountains of Afghanistan, living off-and-on for several years in post-Saddam Baghdad, where “two or three bombs went off every day.”
A MacArthur “genius” grant winner who was just named one of the five most influential photographers of the past 25 years by American Photo magazine, Addario is known not for what the publication calls “bang-bang” images but for capturing the human tragedy behind the front lines. That comes into sharpest focus in the book when she describes photographing Congolese women who’d been used as weapons of war, taken as sex slaves and then shunned upon return to their villages, suffering alone from untreated HIV and devastating internal injuries. “I often openly cried during interviews,” Addario writes.
Despite the power and influence of her images—she was one of the first to document the Darfur genocide—Addario’s memoir is not so much illuminating about the nature of the world’s suffering as it is vicariously thrilling and thought-provoking for women—Western women,
to be exact. On a superficial level, I can’t be the only woman who believes she could’ve, should’ve been a swashbuckling war correspondent, who fantasizes about the freedom and adventure of it. Or—if imagining you’re tough enough to dodge bullets and run toward rather than away from explosions isn’t your thing—I can’t be the only one whose heart is set thrumming by tales of a girl who beats the boys at their own game.
“I didn’t want my gender to determine whether or not I could cover breaking news.”
When an unnamed New York Times Magazine reporter, whom Addario had been paired with to profile an anti-Taliban warlord, greets her with, “I think as a woman you’re going to ruin our access, so it’s probably best if we do this story separately,” she uses her own contacts and is sitting with said warlord when the correspondent arrives. In various Muslim countries where men consider foreign women afoot outdoors to be “fair game,” she endures pawing without complaint: “I didn’t want my gender to determine whether or not I could cover breaking news.” In one especially egregious instance, during an angry demonstration of Pakistanis in the run-up to the American invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, she gets separated from her male colleagues and suddenly feels “not a few hands on my butt but dozens. And this time it wasn’t a subtle feel but an aggressive, wide-handed clutch, butt-to-crotch, back-to-front. I kept shooting.” She eventually does a karate back-kick, then beans one of the gropers with her camera lens. “His eyes rolled back in their sockets, and he staggered,” she writes. “I sprinted back to the car, where I found my male colleagues, lounging, all of them smitten with their afternoon’s work, checking the backs of their digital cameras for their prize-winning photographs, completely oblivious to what I had gone through to compose a single frame.”
Breaking the rules in a professional context is one thing; it’s in our personal lives that the male/female codes are often strictest, so ingrained that sometimes it can be hard to see how they’re framing your existence. Yet we almost didn’t have a word about Addario’s life without a camera, she says, speaking from the London home she shares with her husband, a former Reuters bureau chief, and their young son. “I don’t know if anyone will get upset I told you this,” she tells me, laughing, “but I submitted the whole thing, and there was not one mention of a boyfriend or a man in the entire manuscript, and Ann [Godoff, the renowned editor] just looked at me and said, ‘Do you honestly want me to believe that you’ve never had a boyfriend?’ ”
“I didn’t want it to be that kind of book,” she continues—in other words, a typical female memoir. (Specifically, she may have wanted to avoid the kind of criticism visited upon Deborah Copaken Kogan’s memoir, Shutterbabe, with chapters named for each man she bedded during her brief overseas photography career.)
Addario conducts her love life—though “love” didn’t always enter into it—with the matter-of-fact license of the opposite sex. To be clear, she isn’t showy or bawdy about her sexual conquests, which is exactly what’s so “male” about her. She refers obliquely to various short-lived affairs—particularly in the hothouse environment of a popular hotel for journalists in Baghdad—and offers an occasional detail, like this about an Iranian actor she dated in Istanbul, where she lived when she was off duty: “He was so handsome that some mornings I would just watch him sleep, wondering how I had pulled off an affair with such visual candy.” But it’s all treated as just, taking a cue from the book’s title, what she does; she doesn’t worry that she’s sleeping around too much or that she can’t find “the one.”
Her masculine prerogative is nowhere more pronounced than when she recounts a relationship with a man named Uxval, with whom she fell in love virtually at first sight while working in Mexico City—he called off his own wedding to be with her. One morning, they’re jolted out of bed to watch the Twin Towers fall, and that evening Addario starts preparing to leave to cover the ensuing war on terror. Uxval eventually follows her, living in her place in Turkey (this was pre–Iranian actor) and sometimes joining her on assignment. She pays all the bills, gives him spending money when she goes off to work—you can almost see her stacking the cash on the nightstand for him before she leaves the apartment at dawn, camera slung over her shoulder. On one trip home, however, she realizes that he’s cheating on her. She decides she can accept it: “I loved him, and I didn’t want to come home from long stretches away to an empty apartment.” The relationship ends when she gets involved with an American war reporter in Baghdad, and when Uxval comes to visit her there, she tells him to go back to Mexico. “I gave him all the cash I had on me—around $2,500—to pay for his trip home. And with this petty alimony, he disappeared.”
It’s not that this is necessarily admirable, but Addario’s abiding, most loyal passion is her work, and it’s incredibly refreshing for a woman to admit that without hand-wringing or apology.
The biggest taboo Addario breaks isn’t in her approach to romance, however—it’s motherhood. She meets a man she wants to marry, the aforementioned Reuters reporter, Paul de Bendern, who seems to deeply understand and support her work. He wants children, and she thinks she does, but “[i]f I took six months off to have a baby, I believed I would be written off by my editors.” So she amps up her travel schedule postnuptials, the impact being that she is barely home to conceive. Indeed, it took the near-death experience of the Libyan kidnapping to persuade Addario to jettison birth control. She (promptly) gets pregnant, and once again she works like a maniac—ignoring her doctor’s warnings about malaria, radiation in airplanes, and working in medically barren locales. In her fifth month, she decides to go to Mogadishu, “the kidnapping capital of the world.” The trip was crucial for a story she’d been assigned about drought on the Horn of Africa in the summer of 2011, she believed, “and I didn’t want to start compromising my professional instincts before I had a baby.” (Are you reading this, Sheryl Sandberg?) “I was holding on to my identity, my freedom, what I had been working toward my entire adult life—as well as panic that it was all about to disappear with the birth of my child.”
The biggest taboo Addario breaks isn’t in her approach to romance, however—it’s motherhood.
Such active, very active, refusal to treat oneself as a fragile incubator during pregnancy—some might say Addario chose to “risk” her pregnancy, even—is truly unspeakable in many circles, no matter that all risk is relative and no matter how many plaints about maternal ambivalence you think you’ve read (some of which I myself have written).
The same goes for her willingness, once her son is born hale and hearty, to put her love for him on the same plane as that for her work. She “cherishes” her early time with him, but in three months, she’s off. Addario cries and cries on her departure: “Being away from Lukas was worse than any heartbreak…than anything I had ever known.” She cries until she starts shooting, when, “with my first few frames I lost myself in my work.”
When I read this, I think, Ha! Here’s a kindred spirit who isn’t afraid to let her work call more loudly to her than her children do, even when they’re babies—I took a trip like that when my youngest daughter was five months old. Then I immediately think: But I went only to San Francisco, and my story was only about American kids taking too many psychiatric meds. Hers was about an African famine. She’s saving the world. See how hard it is to let yourself not feel guilty about your devotion to work when you’re a woman? How hard it is to own the fact that your work can be as important to you as your children?
Addario’s attitude hasn’t seemed to change much as Lukas has gotten older. When I talk to her in late December, she says that she has gotten somewhat more cautious in the field—basically by asking more questions before going out—because she “needs to stay alive” now that she’s “responsible for another human being.” Addario adds that her kidnappings and the killing of several of her closest colleagues also chastened her. But when I ask for some concrete example of how her new vigilance has manifested, her first few words say it all: “In covering ISIS in northern Iraq….”