Sub-Saharan Africa: Photographed by Lynsey Addario

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario Discusses Of Love & War

2019-06-03 | 10 min. read

As a photojournalist, Lynsey Addario has worked with The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Time, and National Geographic to bring back images of war, conflict and humanitarian crisis from around the world. An industry veteran, Addario has earned a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Grant and been twice kidnapped while on assignment—in Iraq in 2004 and Libya in 2011. In her first photo book, Of Love & War, Addario presents readers with a collection of photographs taken throughout her career and combines these images with personal notes and behind-the-scenes stories of her work in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

The Section Magazine spoke with Addario about Of Love & War, what it was like to photograph in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, and what she wants the world to know about the war in Yemen.

The Section Magazine: Of Love & War captures the layers and nuance of war, which includes battles and death, but also the parts of daily life that always continue, even in war. An example of this is the series of photographs in the book which capture an underground wedding celebration in Afghanistan in March 2001. Can you tell me the story behind these images?

Lynsey Addario: In March in 2001, there was a really bad drought in western Afghanistan so the governor of Herat made a special dispensation allowing photographers to photograph people legally in the camps for displaced persons. I was working in the camps and [my] driver who was also my translator said that a relative of his was getting married and he had to leave early so I said, “can I just come to the wedding”? I was curious [about] what a wedding looks like under the Taliban because music and any type of entertainment were essentially illegal.

I went [to the wedding] and the streets at that time were silent. People were really scared to leave their homes because the Taliban would beat people for really any reason...so there were very few people on the street. It was silent and we got out of the car and we walked to the house and down the stairs and into a basement where the soundtrack to the Titanic is blasting. I thought, “wow, this is incredible” [because] the women were unveiled, and there were men and women dancing and celebrating together. I hadn’t worked in a war zone before so I hadn’t realized that life really does go on, and people continue to get married and they continue to have whatever semblance of fun they can have even in the [grimmest] of times.

Photographed by Lynsey Addario

The Taliban enforced a long list of rules and restrictions (photography was banned under Taliban rule) for those in Afghanistan. When you photographed in Afghanistan how did you figure out the boundaries and then work within--or around--those boundaries?

I had never worked in a place before where photography was illegal and I hadn’t worked with a population that was really scared for their life. For me, it was about going around and asking people if it was okay for me to take their picture and [then] learning those boundaries. With every trip to Afghanistan, I learned a little more. Ironically, those boundaries really changed after the fall of the Taliban and with the proliferation of social media. Afghans now see the images they have allowed show up on Facebook and, they are now less apt to give permission than they were under the Taliban because the images come back in a way that they didn’t come back before.

The images in the book of US Navy Marines in Southern Afghanistan trying to save the life of Lance Corporal Jonathan A. Taylor are viscerally upsetting. Why did you feel compelled to include these images?

It's very difficult as a journalist to get access to soldiers dying and I think it speaks to our generation. It speaks to the fact that in the last two decades, more or less, we have had thousands of American soldiers die, yet, it is not easy to access them, because the military doesn’t necessarily want us to have access to those images. Obviously, with Vietnam, the army learned because there were all of these uncensored images and the American public rose up and said, “what are we doing there”? And that didn’t happen in Afghanistan or Iraq because we didn’t have that access.

Why do you think it is important that Americans view images of wounded and dead soldiers?

Because this is the price of war—it is the ultimate price of war. We started the war in Iraq--it had nothing to do with Afghanistan--and went in there on completely false pretenses of weapons of mass destruction that the American government knew very well did not exist. We were drawn into this war and not only were [members of the military] killed but they came back with PTSD and that is something they are facing now.

Korengal Valley, Afghanistan: Photographed by Lynsey Addario

You gave a talk at Library Foundation of Los Angeles where you said that when shooting traumatic events you feel the emotions deeply and often find yourself crying as you shoot. Is this how your process the trauma you are witnessing?

I do think allowing myself to be emotional does help me process what I see and what I go through. I am a very emotional person and I am a passionate person and I am also someone who is communicative and so I don’t bottle up what I have inside. I think it is very important to talk about it and to feel it and to process very actively what I go through. I never feel bad for myself because I voluntarily put myself in all of these situations and so that is a choice that most people don’t have but certainly, I think it is important to deal with what I am seeing and to not ignore it.

Many of the photographs in your book are images of vulnerable people who are facing trauma. Do you have an ethics process for documenting a story where people are vulnerable and suffering?

Usually, I try to have a counselor near me or someone who has been working with that person from the U.N. or an aid organization. It is very important for me to lay out who I am, why I am even asking them to dredge up what they have been through and to give them a choice as to whether they want to speak about something or not. Then, if there is a counselor or someone who has been working with that person present, I have them sit nearby and make sure that I am not asking them questions that will traumatize [them] and that they are also in a position to be able to answer those questions. What I have found over the years is that it is very rare for most people I come upon to have a nonjudgmental person just listen to their stories and so it becomes quite useful to them. They feel they are able to tell their stories to someone who is not going to judge them and this is often quite helpful.

Photographed by Lynsey Addario

Thinking about your experiences in Libya and what happened when you were kidnapped, do you feel more of a connection to women who have these similar experiences during times of conflict?

For sure. I was not raped in Libya but I certainly understand what it is like to have a gun to my head, to be blindfolded and to have men touch me in places and ways that I did not want them to and that unbelievable fear, powerlessness and the unknown of what will happen next. I don’t think it makes me a better photographer and reporter but I think I can understand it in a way that I think is difficult to conceive of unless you have actually been in a situation where you have been assaulted.

In the book, you said, “I had never seen anything as scary as Libya.” What made Libya so scary?

The reason why Libya was different is because we were not with the properly trained military—we were with a bunch of doctors, engineers, teachers who literally like threw on green clothes and ran to the front line. They didn’t know what they were doing and they barely knew how to handle their own weapons. We were being hit by Gaddafi who has a trained military using airstrikes, using helicopter gunship, tank rounds, mortar rounds, we were being pummeled. The other thing is that we were in completely flat terrain and there was no place to hide. Once you made a decision to go the front line in Libya, you were there with all sorts of artillery and everything landing around you and so there really wasn’t any place to exfil [leave]. That is a very different fighting landscape from the other countries where I have worked. In Afghanistan there are caves, there are rocks, there are literally places to hide when you are under fire and that didn’t exist [in Libya].

Freedom of the press did not exist under Muammar Gaddafi and he systematically targeted journalists. Do you think the Libyan government's distrust of the press led to your kidnapping?

Of course. Gaddafi said repeatedly journalists are spies and if you see them kill them. This is a society that did not have a free press, and Gaddafi’s soldiers, loyalists to Gaddafi they didn’t know the difference, they had never lived in a society with a free press and so we were just sort of the enemy.

Can you tell me what your process is for verifying facts and for making sure you are reporting on a story from all sides?

When I take a picture I ask very extensive questions about who this person is...what’s their name and age. A lot of the countries where I work, they don’t know that information. For example in the countryside in Yemen, people don’t often know their age and so I also ask relatives, I ask people around them.

Then there is a very rigorous fact-checking process that The New York Times, National Geographic, Time...they all do serious fact-checking and I think that is something that people don’t understand is that when I take a picture there is a fact checker in Washington DC or New York who then calls the people I photograph to make sure I have the right information. So there is a very lengthy process to understand the back story.

I also work with amazing writers and they are also collecting facts and we compare notes so if we get different answers to questions we have a talk about why that is. So these are all part of the process of getting the facts straight.

Photographed by Lynsey Addario

Is there a particular US-based story that you are keen to cover over the next year?

I am photographing a new book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on poverty in America that covers race, poverty, criminal justice, the addiction problem in America...it covers a lot of ground. I have also been working on the border for The New York Times so there is quite a bit of work I have been doing in the US.

It is almost impossible for journalists to get into Yemen, and because of this, it is the forgotten war. In late September 2018, you were in Northern Yemen where you photographed the humanitarian crisis for The New York Times Magazine. What do you want the public to know about the war in Yemen?

I think the public should understand that we as Americans play a part in perpetuating the war because we are supporting the Saudis who are on a bombing campaign and [have been] killing women and children for years now. The other thing that people don’t understand is that while there isn’t a formal embargo against Yemen, they are basically closing the roads, closing the borders and not letting wheat, food, medicine into the country to feed people and to treat people who are sick. So they are basically starving and killing the population. When you see those dramatic images of children who are starving and who are dying from terminal illness, there is a reason we are taking those images because that is what is happening to millions of Yemenis right now—there are millions on the brink of famine and it is simply preventable.

It is very difficult [for journalists] to get in and move around because the Saudis have closed the airspace to Sana so they know if they ask for a manifest of every  US plane flying into Northern Yemen and if there is a journalist on that plane they ground it, so what does that say? Obviously, they don’t want the world to know what's going on. So we take a very big risk—the journalists who have gone in by taking that journey overland which takes 11 hours. There are all sorts of people, militias on the road—there could be ISIS or Al-Qaeda. You don’t know who you are going to run into. So it is a very dangerous trip and there is a reason why we are not seeing images and why the public is not reacting because we don’t know anything about the war and it seems so far off.

Iraq: Photographed by Lynsey Addario

You took that 11-hour journey. What does it look like? What are you feeling and experiencing during that car journey?  

Well, I was really scared because I have been kidnapped twice already and I have had that experience where I am traveling down that road and it fills up with gunmen and I end up being held hostage, and that is a terrifying moment that I have lived through and that is what I was terrified would happen in Yemen. I had to really think about what are the risks on this road: is it possible to make this journey safely? I wore local dress, meaning a black hijab and a niqab—a face covering—but I was with an American male who looks incredibly American. He stood out and so we talked about that and joked about it and we're like ‘oh my god, could we cover you.’ It is very scary to take that journey.

The images you took of the severely malnourished children are haunting. Is there a particular image that you took in Yemen that haunts you?

I think the overall desperation is what sticks with me. Here is a population that doesn’t have the resources to do anything and there are parents who are watching their children waste away. They don’t have money to take them back and forth to the hospital and they are not unique; there are millions of kids like them. So I think it is just unbelievable to see that. You see the infrastructure is bombed out and it is a really desperate situation and I think there has to be some sort of endgame—some sort of conversation that has to happen from the coverage that has recently come out.

In your book, you said that your goal with photographing these conflicts and humanitarian crises is to influence policy. In an ideal world, what impact would you like your images of Yemen to have regarding the U.S response?

Stop supporting the war, stop selling weapons to the Saudis. What I am very confused about is that we have Saudi Arabia who is perpetuating this war in Yemen, they abducted the Lebanese prime minister, they lured a Saudi journalist into their consulate in Istanbul and killed him. Lied about it for weeks and finally admitted it. Why are they our allies without question? I think it is very important for American policymakers to ask themselves why are we reinstating the sanctions against Iran when Saudi is doing all of these things.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Photographed by Lynsey Addario

What is a question that you wish journalists would ask you when you are being interviewed?

I don’t know. I guess I would turn that around and say, what is a question I wish I was never asked which would be “do you do this for the adrenalin rush?”, which drives me crazy because we’ve just had a conversation about all the reasons that I do this and I think people just want to dumb everything down to one descriptive interpretation of why anyone would live this type of life and take a risk.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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