Ep. 35 — A war photographer confronts her own mortality as she bears witness to the world’s worst wars / Lynsey Addario, Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist.
Renowned photojournalist and war photographer Lynsey Addario and three fellow journalists were documenting the Arab Spring uprising in Libya in March 2011 when the unthinkable happened at a hostile checkpoint.
The journalists had lingered too long to complete their reporting on the front lines and were cornered and taken hostage by Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s troops. They were repeatedly beaten, tied up, blindfolded and constantly threatened with execution before being released nearly a week later.
It was hard enough to recover from the trauma of her violent kidnapping, the second in her 15-year career as a award winning war photographer. A month later, Addario learned that two other journalist friends had been killed in Libya, leading to a profound existential crisis about the life-threatening career she had chosen.
Addario’s soul searching led to her best-selling memoir, “It’s What I do,” in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, recounts the incredible risks she has taken covering every major conflict and humanitarian crisis of her generation, played out against the backdrop of the post-9/11 War on Terror.
A regular contributor to The NewYorkTimes, National Geographic, and Time, Addario has reported and photographed from some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots including Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, South Sudan, Somalia, and Congo.
Recently, Addario took on another difficult assignment documenting a very different kind of death that challenged her as a photojournalist in an entirely new way. I hope you enjoy this incredible story of courage, perseverance and sacrifice.
Chitra: Renowned photo journalist and war photographer, Lynsey Addario and three fellow journalists were shooting the Arab spring uprising in Libya in March, 2011 when the unthinkable happened at a hostile checkpoint. Addario and her colleagues were released nearly a week later. It was hard enough to recover from the trauma of her violent kidnapping, but when a month later, Addario learned that two other journalists friends had been killed in Libya, her world fell apart.
Chitra: Hello everyone. I’m Chitra Ragavan and this is When It Mattered. This episode is brought to you by Good Story, an advisory firm helping technology startups find their narrative. My guest today is Lynsey Addario, the Pulitzer prize winning photo journalist, who for the past 15 years has covered every major conflict and humanitarian crisis of her generation. A regular contributor to the New York Times, National Geographic and Time magazine, Addario has reported and photographed from some of the most dangerous hotspots in the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, South Sudan, Somalia and Congo. Addario also is the author of the bestselling memoir, It’s What I do, a powerful narrative about her coming of age as a photo journalist during the post 911 War on Terror. Lynsey, welcome to the podcast.
Lynsey: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Chitra: Did you always want to be a photographer?
Lynsey: No, actually I never wanted to be a photographer. For me, I started photographing as a hobby and it was something I did sort of as I was growing up, I taught myself, I bought books on how to photograph, but it was never really something I took seriously, I guess because I didn’t have exposure to photojournalism. And so it wasn’t until I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in international relations and Italian that I moved abroad and I started really paying attention to photography as a form of journalism and storytelling. And that’s really when I decided I wanted to become a photographer.
Chitra: Your first camera was actually a gift from your dad. You were one of four sisters, I guess. You’re born and raised in Westport, Connecticut and you’ve had a very unique childhood and parenting.
Lynsey: I have. Both my parents are hairdressers and we had a very eccentric household growing up. It was sort of a free for all open door. I would come home from school and never really knew who would be sitting at the table, the real hairdressing community of the 70s and 80s. And so when I was eight years old, my dad came out and he left with the colorist Bruce, and they have been together for 35 years now and we all are close and it’s a sort of big happy family. So definitely not your run of the mill family.
Chitra: How did you begin photographing professionally?
Lynsey: Well, dad, one of his clients gave him an old Nikon camera and I was visiting him shortly after my parents separated and I saw the camera at his house and I asked him about it and he just gave it to me sort of instinctively. And that was it really. I just became obsessed with learning how to photograph and the light and how to capture a moment in time. And so for me it was a real passion. It was a love. But really, again, it never dawned on me to try and make a living with photography.
Chitra: And when did you first start doing that?
Lynsey: Well, after I graduated from college, so I was about 21, I moved to Argentina and my goal was to learn Spanish and to spend a little time there. And so I moved down there and almost immediately I went into the Buenos Aires Herald, which was a local newspaper. And I started begging them for a job. I have no idea why because obviously I had no published work and no experience. And they sort of shooed me away and said, “Come back when you learn Spanish and when you know how to photograph.” And so I went and I learned Spanish very quickly because I actually had already spoken Italian. So I just basically kept going back in until I wore them down and then they said, “Okay, well look, Madonna is filming Evita at the Casa Rosada. So if you can sneak on set and get a picture of Madonna, we’ll give you a job.” And so I managed to of course, talk my way on set and I got up to the press riser and I only had a little 50 millimeter lens on my camera. And so I had gotten through the barrier. I got on the riser and I was so far away from the stage where Madonna was performing or the Casa Rosada that obviously I couldn’t take a photograph. And to my luck, one of the photographers standing next to me sort of looked at me and obviously pitied me and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Give me your camera body.” And he put it on the back of his Hubble telescope of the lens and I got a picture of Madonna and I got a job. So that was it.
Chitra: That’s amazing. And you started selling photographs for 10 bucks a photo, right? Something like that.
Lynsey: I did, yeah. That was the going rate then.
Chitra: Your boyfriend at the time, Miguel gave you some sage advice about the importance of making mistakes in Argentina versus elsewhere?
Lynsey: Yeah, he sort of ushered me into journalism actually. And he gave me some very good advice at that time and he said, “Make all your mistakes in Argentina because no one will give you a second chance in New York.” And he was right. I mean, I think I got a few chances in New York, but it paid off to spend some time there learning sort of how to work a situation.
Chitra: So when you wound up in New York in the late 1990s and began your freelance career in earnest, what were some of the most important assignments you had in those first few years in trying to get that break?
Lynsey: Well, look, I started the… I was very lucky because the Associated Press in New York sort of opened their doors to me and they took me on as a freelancer. So that meant at the time I would run around New York city with a pager and a cell phone and basically wait for an assignment. And I think what that taught me from 1996 was that I have to hustle, I have to always look for the light and a good photograph and I can’t come back from any situation without a strong image. So that meant trying to make strong photographs out of a press conference or whether it was Giuliani who was Mayor at the time or a protest or a demonstration or things that are not so easy to make compelling. I had to make a good photo because that’s what it was like working at a wire service. And so I think that that taught me an incredible amount of discipline and it taught me perseverance and it taught me how to stick with a situation until I can make a good photo.
Chitra: And that kind of patience I think came in handy when you took on one of your most challenging initial assignments, which was photographing the transvestite prostitute community in New York. What was that like and how did you go about that?
Lynsey: So basically, in the late 90s, there was a series of murders in the transgender prostitution community. And apparently Mayor Giuliani had received a report on the series of murders and head the report, and he said, “This is a throwaway community, so we don’t really need to pay attention to them ultimately.” And so the idea at the Associated Press was to take on that story and to really tell the story of what is this community, who are these people, what are they like? And to just sort of have a more intimate view of what it was like in the 90s to be a transgender prostitute. And were there a series of murders going on? And so, one of the editors at the time, Berbito came to me and he was also a photographer he still is a photographer. And he came to me and he said, “Would you like to do this assignment?”
Lynsey: And it basically means spending every single weekend for the next X amount of months, basically walking the streets in the Meatpacking District and in lower Manhattan. And for me it was a dream come true because I knew it was a chance to actually try to get into a community that had been impenetrable for me and to try to tell their story. And I felt like it was for the first time in my career really giving a voice to a community that wasn’t really being accessed and wasn’t really talking about what it was like for them. So it took a long time. I mean, for weeks I went down. I was very lucky because there was a van, a sort of community outreach fan that went down into the Meatpacking district and handed out condoms and talk to the women about STDs.
Lynsey: And so I sort of rode around in the van with them and I didn’t try and photograph for weeks in the beginning. I just sort of showed my face and let people become familiar with me. And then eventually, I started taking out my camera but not really shooting, sort of waiting for permission. And then finally one night, Akima, who was one of the women who walked the streets, she said, “Okay girl, you want to start photographing us, we’ll come up to my apartment at 1:00 in the morning and you can hang out with us.” And that was really sort of the door opening. And then I spent months basically every Thursday, Friday and Saturday hanging out with them and really getting to know them and documenting their lives.
Chitra: And they got to know you really well. And there’s this really funny anecdote in your book where you were dating somebody and you ended up in that neighborhood. Tell us what happened.
Lynsey: I actually wasn’t dating somebody, it was my first date with him. It was a guy that I had met and he was a musician and we decided to go out on a date. And so we met in the Meatpacking District because it was also very hip place to hang out. And so we met and we went to dinner or we went for drinks and then he walked me home and as he was walking me home, we sort of got to the doorstep where I was staying and we’re waiting. And it was a very sort of awkward time where it’s your first date, you don’t know if you’re going to kiss or you’re sort of waiting and saying goodbye.
Lynsey: And so I was sort of just standing there and we were just saying goodbye and I think we just started kissing and suddenly I hear all these cat calls like, “It’s the photo lady, hey, it’s the photo lady Lynsey.” And I was like, “It can’t be possible.” I sort of stopped him and it was the entire… It was Akimao, Lala, all of the girls were surrounding us and they’re like, “You go girl. Yeah, you have a life.” What? Because basically I had never… They thought I had absolutely no life, which I didn’t because I spent all my free time with them. So the poor guy was like, “Who are you again?” But that was very funny. Yeah.
Chitra: I bet you never saw him again.
Lynsey: Yeah. He didn’t seem very like easily scared off, but no, I didn’t go out with him again.
Chitra: How did you go from being a photojournalist to becoming a war photographer? It’s quite a leap.
Lynsey: I mean, first of all, I never sort of set out to be a war photographer. I wasn’t one of those photographers who from the time I was very young, sort of dreamed of following in the footsteps of Robert Kappa or any of the great photographers. For me, when I was becoming a photographer, I would spend so much time in Soho at the Photographers Place, which was a bookstore at the time that it has since closed down and looking at books, not only of war photography, Gilles Peress and Joseph Kudelka and Jim Nachtwey but also looking at Sally Mann and Mary Ellen Mark and photographers who didn’t necessarily cover war. So it was a gradual process. I mean, I was telling stories. For me it’s always been about giving a voice to people who are underrepresented or who are often misunderstood.
Lynsey: And I felt like after September 11th, those communities were really in the Muslim world and there were so many questions about why were we attacked, who are these people, where are the attacks coming from? And so immediately it was Afghanistan and Pakistan and South Asia primarily. And I had already had experience there because I had been based in India in 2000. And so for me, it was very natural to just get on a plane and go to Pakistan and Afghanistan because I had already worked there and I was very comfortable. And so basically I stayed there through the fall of the Taliban. I ended up covering the fall of the Taliban and Khandahar.
Lynsey: And then by that time I worked consistently in Afghanistan. And so when the war in Iraq was sort of brewing, I wanted to go, I guess because I felt like, okay, these are the wars of our generation and I want to be part of history. I want to document these wars and sort of create a historical document, create understanding, help America understand what is going on, where we’re sending American troops. And so it was more of an intellectual reasoning. It was more of a sort of drive to document the truths and to cover history.
Chitra: The work that you did in Afghanistan before 911 actually positioned you to do some of this groundbreaking work. You actually went there to shoot images of the women under Taliban rule and a friend of yours in Delhi had told you, “Go to Afghanistan, you’re interested in women’s issues. This is a very interesting story.” And I think that proved to be… You did some amazing work there. What was that like?
Lynsey: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny because, at that time, it was 2000 and I was based in New Delhi and I was trying to sort of make it as a photographer based overseas and I was dirt poor and renting a room from Ed Lane who was the Dow Jones Bureau chief at the time. And he was going in and out of Afghanistan with the backing of Dow Jones and it was under the Taliban, but there were very few journalists who were actually getting visas to go in and report there. And so he came back from one of the trips and he said, “You’re a woman and you care about women’s issues and you should go and cover this.” And I thought. “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. That’s a great idea.” But I went into it like pretty naively. For me, I’ve sort of thrown myself head on into everything that I’ve done believing that people in general are good around the world and if I go in there with an open heart and kind of saying, “Okay, I’m here to tell your story.” I’ll be safe.
Lynsey: And so that’s ironically how I went into going into Afghanistan under the Taliban. I just want to tell the story of the women living here and what it’s like for them. And so he really encouraged me. I ended up borrowing money from my sister to go because of course no publication would back me at the time. I had very little experience and I also didn’t have a consistent relationship with a newspaper at that time. So I ended up going on my own and spending my own money and trying to tell these stories and then selling the pictures after the fact.
Chitra: Yeah. And as you pointed out in your book, it was a time when people weren’t interested in Afghanistan.
Lynsey: No, not really. I mean it had been at war already for 20 years and there was… People were sort of not that interested, but it was right after September 11th of course, that everyone was sort of vying for those pictures because again, very few people had gotten in and been able to document life under the Taliban.
Chitra: What was it like when you went there to sort of learn how you would have to build trust in this new environment, this new culture where you couldn’t make eye contact with men especially and everyone, how you dress, how you moved around, what were some of the… And it was a risky, dangerous environment. What was it like for you and how did you learn to do that?
Lynsey: So I was very lucky because Kathy Gannon, who was the Bureau chief then for the Associated Press in Pakistan, she had been going in and out of Afghanistan for years and she still is going in and out of Afghanistan and she was incredibly generous with her knowledge and her experience. And so she helped me get the visa to go in and she also sort of schooled me a little bit on how I should dress, how to conduct myself, where to stay, how to deal with the Taliban foreign ministry because they actually had a ministry. They were operating out of buildings that were half standing.
Lynsey: There was one hotel functioning in the entire Kabul, if not the entire country. And that hotel was half sort of rocketed out, no electricity, only generator run, water at certain times. And so Kathy really taught me sort of how to dress and how to act. And so that was helpful. But then of course on the ground, it was also sort of learning how to deal with certain situations. I mean, photography was illegal at the time, photographing any living being was illegal. So while I had permission to photograph destroyed buildings, I did not have permission to photograph people. So I had to sneak pictures of women or go inside people’s homes and take pictures then.
Chitra: You have this amazing anecdote in the book about trying to get a visa in Karachi to enter Afghanistan and to deal with this young visa officer named Mohammad. And you are warned, you had to deal with him in a certain way, but you actually ended up having a very revealing conversation with him.
Lynsey: So was in Islamabad actually and Mohammad was… I was sort of warned that he would not look me in the eye. He would make me sit there for days and he would basically just shoo me away at some point. It would just take ages because I was a single woman trying to get into Afghanistan. And so luckily Kathy sent with one of her drivers and she came in and checked on me a few times and made sure that they were actually dealing with me. But I sort of sat there with my eyes to the ground and sort of basically waited to be noticed by Mohammad. And he would ask, “Are you married? Do you have children?” And I lied and said, “Yes, I’m married. And yes, I have children.” Because I was told that it’s better to be married than to be single.
Lynsey: And so this is all years ago. And so finally there were people coming in and out of the visa room, drivers and people procuring visas for other journalists and other companies. And finally there was a moment where there was like no one else. And it was like I had already been sitting there for days and he started asking me more and more personal questions like, “What is it like in your country?” And so we ended up sort of developing this very not quick friendship, but he opened up to me and he started telling me that his mother had died and he was worried that he would never find a wife. And in the end he gave me a visa.
Chitra: That’s amazing. After 911, your world became infinitely more dangerous and you’ve kind of been in every major hotspot in the world, framed by this backdrop of the War on Terror. And your book describes in graphic details the dangers of being a female photographer in these parts of the world and you’ve kind of been subjected to all kinds of dangerous incidents. Can you list some of the lowlights?
Lynsey: Some of the lowlights. I have been kidnapped twice, once in Iraq in April of 2004 with the New York Times colleague in Garma on the outskirts of Fallujah. It was right before the first invasion of Fallujah. The second time was in Libya for a week in 2011 also on assignment for the New York times, I was kidnapped with three other New York times journalists and held for a week. We were taken by forces loyal to Gaddafi at the time. I was thrown out of a car on a highway in Pakistan in 2009. And my driver Raza, who was an incredible driver and great journalists and friend to many, died in that accident. I was ambushed in the Korengal Valley in October of 2007 with the 173rd Airborne. It was pretty intense battle. It was during Operation Rock Avalanche and three soldiers were shot and Sergeant Rugle was killed.
Lynsey: And then just a countless other times I’ve been detained in Darfur and photographing often detained by the same men who signed my paper to be able to photograph would then detain me the next day. And it’s sort of terrifying show of force and intimidation to try to get me to stop doing my job. So it’s been tough. One who takes on this job has to continuously remind him or herself why we do this and why it’s important to tell these stories.
Chitra: You were… Just talk briefly about the two kidnappings. The first time was in Iraq. How long was that for and how did you get out of that?
Lynsey: That actually was for a day obviously look a day with like many, many guns to my head was not a very good day. Compared to Libya, it was not so bad. We had heard that a helicopter had gone down, a U.S. helicopter with troops outside of Fallujah and it was sort of everything was ramping up to the first siege of Fallujah. And the situation in Iraq was getting a really bad very quickly. This is in April of 2004. And so we were looking to find that helicopter and we ended up taking a smuggler’s route towards Fallujah because all the main roads were closed in preparation for the siege. And so in taking the smuggler’s route, we ended up driving like smack into a village of insurgents and it was sort of terrifying.
Lynsey: The beginning of any kidnapping is the most terrifying part because adrenaline is running high and the insurgents or whoever and such kidnapping you is screaming and shooting and rockets and everyone had their faces wrapped and pulled the driver and translator out of the car and tried to pull my colleague out of the car and then just left me sitting there because as the only woman I’m often just left in the corner, which never really makes any sense to me. So I ended up… I watched sort of my colleague get ushered off into the sea of guns and rockets and I just thought an American man alone will get killed.
Lynsey: So I jumped out and I thought I’m just going to say I’m his wife and so we went, I ran up and I sort of pointed to my ring and I said, “He’s my husband and I’m not leaving him.” And I sort of looped my arm around his arm and we ended up getting taken for the day together, questions, guns to the head. Then we were ostensibly released around 3:00 in the afternoon or a little later and they ended up shooting rockets over our heads toward the American base. And then the commander handed us off to a guy who was supposed to lead us out of the town and instead he brought us to another safe house and basically detained us all over again.
Lynsey: And so it was terrifying because we didn’t know if we would get released. Obviously night was falling and the fear was that if we spent the night there we would be killed. And so eventually we were very, very lucky at the sort of right at dusk, the owner of the safe house we were brought into ended up just basically driving us out of the city and saying, “Get out.” And so we were very lucky. It turned out one of our colleagues was later embedded with that same group of insurgents and said they were linked to Al-Qaeda and we were so lucky we got out.
Lynsey: The second time was in 2011. It was relatively the beginning of the popular uprising and Libya and any journalists covering the popular uprising of Libya had to sneak in without a visa because obviously Gaddafi did not want the world to know that there was a popular uprising. So I entered through Egypt and to Eastern Libya to Bengazi and shortly after there was sort of a call to arms and this call to go fight against Gaddafi’s troops by the rebel forces. And those, at that time, this is February of 2011, those guys had very, very little fighting experience. So it basically, me and a handful of other photographers sort of followed those fighters right up to the front line and ended up spending three weeks covering very, very heavy combat against Gaddafi’s military.
Lynsey: And we knew the main sort of danger aside from being hit and crossfire or by a mortar round or tank ground was really being taken by Gaddafi’s troops because Gaddafi from Western Libya was saying, “All journalists are spies. And if you see any journalists in Eastern Libya, they’re spies. And you should kill them.” So we knew that as the frontline approached, that Gaddafi’s troops approached that one of the big dangers was that they would overrun our positions and that we would be taken into custody. And so on March 15th, 2011, I was covering the front line with Tyler Hicks, Anthony Shadid and Steven Feral. And there was very heavy fighting in the town of AJ Dabia and we were in two separate vehicles. And the vehicle that Anthony and Steve were traveling in, their driver’s brother was shot at the front line.
Lynsey: So he suddenly in the middle of the battle just dump their stuff on the side of the road. So it ended up that we were four journalists in one car with our driver Mohammad and four journalists in one car is tricky of course, because we all have very different needs. Anthony was a writer, me and Tyler are photographers and Steve was a video journalist and so we all had different ideas of what we needed to do to cover the story. So we ended up going to the hospital to count the wounded. And then went back to the front line as the front line, as Gaddafi’s troops were really closing in on the town, we ended up staying too long, Mohammad received several phone calls saying Gaddafi’s troops were entering in the city.
Lynsey: His brother Abdullah was working for the BBC and we continued working through those calls, which was obviously a grave mistake. And by the time we made a decision to leave, Gaddafi’s troops had flanked the desert and cut the road in front of us. And so we ran directly into one of his checkpoints and it was extremely violent. We were pulled out of the car. All the men again, were pulled out of the car, we’re wrestling with his soldiers. At that time, the rebels that we had been covering started opening fire on Gaddafi’s checkpoints. So we were caught and sort of a wall of bullets. I knew personally I had to get out of the car at that point because we were not in armored vehicles so I could get shot. So I ended up jumping out of the car to the right hand side and immediately was sort of taken by one of Gaddafi’s troops and wrestling for my cameras, which is very stupid, with him.
Lynsey: And finally, we all made a run for to a building nearby. Immediately, the atmosphere was incredibly hostile, incredibly tense, we were clearly the enemy to them. They asked immediately if we were spies, they told us to lie face down in the dirt, put our arms behind our back, took my Nike shoes off my feet, pulled the laces out, tied me up with my laces and put Kalashnikovs to our heads. So they put guns to our heads and were about to execute us. And we were all lying face down in the dirt execution style in a line.
Lynsey: And at that point, we don’t know why, but one of the commanders came over and he said, “You can’t kill them. They’re American.” And so they didn’t execute us, but instead they blindfolded us and put us back in vehicles in the middle of the battle. So like right on the front line and kind of made fun of us watching us squirm and get be terrified that we would be shot or mortared for hours. I was punched in the face immediately. I was forced to speak to the wife of one of the soldiers who told me I was a dog and a donkey because I was a journalist and then they put us in the back of a tank and moved us to a different place on the front line.
Lynsey: And basically for the first three, four days we were beaten, repeatedly, tied up, blindfolded, threatened with execution, psychologically just sort of tortured, said they would kill us now they were about to kill us. And then eventually we were moved to Tripoli where we were put inside of sort of a VIP prison. What that means is basically an apartment with bars on the window and we think a sort of military base, but we have no idea where. And then we were released after about a week.
Chitra: All the dangerous things you’ve done, would you say that was the greatest moment of adversity in your life?
Lynsey: Yeah, I mean that was the most terrifying moment of my life. You know, there was a moment when I was lying face down in the dirt. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t even swallow. I was sure it was the moment of my death. I had a gun to my head and I was literally just… I was staring down a barrel of a Kalashnikov and I thought, “What am I doing here? I can’t believe I’m going to die in a town called Ajdabiya for what?” And it’s a question, obviously I know the answer to that question. It’s question I have had to ask myself throughout my entire career. But yeah, I do ask myself constantly because every time I’m confronted with the possibility that I might die, I have to ask myself, how important is it that I tell these stories?
Chitra: And I think it’s important for people to understand just how afraid you are at times. You’re terrified. There are times when you’re crying and it’s like you’re constantly questioning and there’s that inner voice that you have to listen to that says, “You need to get out now.” And I thought it was interesting. There was one in Libya, I think when you first started shooting the Arab Spring one day you were like, “I can’t even put the camera to my eye.”
Lynsey: It was that day, actually. It was the day I had a premonition that something would happen that day and I was so sort of paralyzed by fear that I could barely shoot that entire morning.
Chitra: How do you push yourself? How do you get out of that? How do you overcome that fear?
Lynsey: Well, I mean, it’s funny because the question I get asked most is, are you fearless? You must be super fearless or sort of the statement I get most. And it’s so frustrating because no, obviously I’m not fearless. I’m terrified in these moments. Any rational human being is terrified. It’s just really learning how to manage that fear and deal with that fear and process it in the moment. So obviously I was so scared that morning for whatever reason. I think we had just been sort of in the middle of battle for two straight weeks and I was exhausted and I just had a feeling, sort of our luck was going to run out very soon but the only way through that is to literally push through it. And I just said, “Okay, I’ve got to get through the morning because we’re going back to Bengazi in the afternoon and then I can rest and sort of recoup and really center myself again.” And it was a matter of just trying to get through that morning.
Chitra: And so how did you recover from the Libyan kidnapping, especially since I guess a month after that you got some terrible news about a couple of your friends too.
Lynsey: Yeah, I mean, ironically when we got out of Libya, I was okay. I mean, I mentally felt we’re so lucky we survived. Our driver was killed, Mohammad was killed. And so that was something that we really had to process and deal with and accept responsibility for because it was really our fault. I mean, we were the ones who pushed to stay. So I think that was sort of the hardest thing about what happened in Libya. What happened to us, I know this sounds ridiculous, but human beings are built for survival. And the mind is very powerful and it can get you through very traumatic events. So when we came out of Libya, I was just so grateful to have survived and I felt very guilty about what I put my family through.
Lynsey: I think that’s one of the hardest parts was dealing with Mohammad’s death and dealing with what the stress and the trauma that I put my parents through and my sisters and my husband and then sort of just coming to terms with all of that, that this is part of doing this work. And then I think there was a period where we did a lot of sort of press interviews and we felt, okay, we’re journalists and we have to be transparent about what happened because it’d be hypocritical not to. And so we talked. We did a lot of media and that actually helped process what we had gone through.
Lynsey: But then when Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed a month later, suddenly everything sort of just collapsed because I don’t know if it’s survivor’s guilt, if it’s that I realize like how we really should have been dead. I mean, there’s no reason that we survived that. There is no logical reason that we survived what we did. And so it was really traumatic because just sort of witnessing sort of this wave of sadness and trauma that went through our community of war photographers and photo and sort of war correspondence, it really showed sort of how selfish this profession is at times and what we put our loved ones through.
Chitra: You’ve been very open and candid about sort of the physical limitations of being a female war photographer in these countries that are so hostile to women, not looking weak or wimpy or taking on these dangerous assignments, keeping up with the military and also your fellow male journalists while always listening to your inner voice that’s telling you when to quit, but you don’t want to quit and look weak. And so you’ve got this push and pull as you talk about your work and you have this great anecdote in your book where you were shooting this increasingly unruly demonstration, I think it was in Pakistan and you were getting groped and you were comparing that to what your male counterparts, kind of the relatively easy time they had.
Lynsey: Yeah, I mean, look, I think it’s impossible to sort of quantify trauma. I just don’t think it’s possible to say like being punched in the face is worse than being groped or better than being groped. I think for me I was treated differently because I was a woman, I was touched basically by every soldier we came in contact with. I was not raped but I was definitely, when you’re blindfolded and tied up and to be touched sort of very intimately it was terrifying because all I could think of is that this will lead to rape. But at the same time I could hear my male colleagues getting beaten up and getting smacked with the gun butts. And I thought, “God, they have it so much worse than me.” And at the same time Tyler admitted that he was thinking he could hear me crying and begging for them to stop touching me. And it was horrible for him to hear that. So I think you can’t really say what’s worse. I mean, for me I felt like I got off easy because I wasn’t raped. But I don’t know who’s to say what’s worse.
Chitra: Yeah. But it’s very challenging being a female photographer in these environments.
Lynsey: Yeah, of course it is. I mean, well it’s challenging being a photographer in these environments. I don’t think it’s more challenging being a woman. I think actually one of the reasons why I’m still alive is because I’m a woman, so many of the hostile situations I’ve been in, the insurgents or the Taliban or the people that I’m sort of up against, they sort of assume I’m weak and they kind of take pity on me and treat me more gently. So actually I don’t think it’s worse being a woman. I think it’s kind of better being a woman.
Chitra: You’ve really grappled also, at least in your early career with managing, balancing work and family, because you’ve always felt this pull of getting on the next plane and going to the next hotspot. And I’m aware of when all your other friends we’re getting settled down and getting married and so it seemed like it was quite a struggle for a while to reconcile those two things.
Lynsey: Yeah, I mean it has been and it was sort of the sort of struggle of my life. I mean, I’ve since for as long as I can remember my entire sort of passion and drive has been towards this career and photojournalism and covering humanitarian crises and war and human rights abuses. And then for many, many years, there was no place for a personal life. I didn’t have the time, the energy or the space. And I think that it was in my early 30s that I sort of realized, “Do I want to be sort of single and family less my entire life?” And I kind of need to figure out how I’m going to fit time for another person in my life.
Lynsey: And I had tried, but every relationship just failed miserably. And so I think at that time in my sort of early 30s, I met my husband who was a journalist who was the Bureau Chief for Reuters at that time. And he was the first person that I had actually dated who understands sort of the rigors of journalism and the demands and the fact that you have to run off at the last minute to be at a story. And so it was the first time I was in a relationship where it wasn’t so black and white. It wasn’t either sort of him or my job. And so that enabled me a life. But I think obviously when we decided to have children right after I got out of Libya, it was terrifying for me. I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant till I was six months pregnant because I was sure people would stop hiring me.
Lynsey: So I sort of hid my pregnancy from everybody. And then after I had children, my editors were less understanding. I mean, there is no question, I’ve had one editor who said, “I’m not sending you to war because you’re a mother.” I’ve had editors who’s just sort of gradually stopped giving me tough assignments. I’ve had an editor question, how do I feel being a mother going into war? Don’t I feel bad? So these are editors and I guess I’m lucky that they feel close enough for me to be honest with me, but the fact is I don’t get treated the same as I did before I was a mother.
Chitra: And sometimes you put your life in danger but the photos don’t get published or they don’t get the visibility they deserve perhaps because of an editor’s judgment call. How do you deal with that when you’ve literally put your life on the line?
Lynsey: It’s so hard. There’s such a delicate balance because you don’t want to push too much because you don’t want to be the difficult photographer that no one wants to work with anymore. But at the same time there is a point, I risked my life and we all risk our lives and we want those images out there. I think, I don’t know, there is no answer to it. I think it’s important to be honest and to try to vie for those images to get published. And just to make your case. But I think at the end of the day it’s the editor’s call.
Chitra: You recently took on a very different type of assignment documenting a very different type of death. Can you talk a little bit about that assignment and why you decided to take it?
Lynsey: Sure. So the New York times sports desk came to me actually in 2017 and they asked me to go to Japan to meet Marieke Vervoort who was a Paralympic athlete. And at that point, she had won a gold two silvers and a bronze in the Paralympics. And so she had also in 2008 signed her paperwork to do euthanasia because she was suffering from a degenerative muscular disease. And so she did the paperwork in 2008, even though she knew at that time she was not ready. She kind of wanted them as a security for the time when she was ready. She wanted to know that she sort of had the papers in order and it was her way of controlling her illness. And so when I met her, she was in constant pain. I mean, she had some good days, some bad days.
Lynsey: She was in Japan, which was one of the last things on her bucket list. And we spent a few days together and then I ended up going to visit her very routinely to her house in Belgium and Diest over the course of the next two and a half years. And really the story initially started out about the life of Marieke Vervoort and what was her life like as she grappled with deciding when to end her life. But it really became about her and this constant struggle to… She was an incredibly complicated woman who loved life so much. She loved her friends. She had a very close relationship with the people in her life and a real sort of charisma. And the kind of woman who just threw her head back and laughed all the time and then suddenly that would just change in an instant and her eyes would be rolling back in her head and she would be vomiting and having a seizure and passing out and choking and that for the almost three years I photographed her, that was her life.
Lynsey: It was just a constant back and forth of horrific moments and beautiful moments. And finally she chose to end her life on October 22nd, 2019. And I was in the room with her and her parents and her loved ones and her nurse and it was an incredible privilege to witness the end of her life. It was something she asked me to document and to be there for. And she was very savvy about wanting to tell the story about euthanasia and how important it is for someone who suffered like her to be able to decide to end their life with dignity. And so she really sort of entrusted me with that story.
Chitra: And it was an amazing story. And you had your own article accompanying those photographs as well.
Lynsey: I did. I thought it was really important to write about those boundaries we have in journalism of we’re not supposed to get too close to the subject, we’re supposed to remain objective where we can’t interfere and we can’t. There are so many rules. And I think we all follow those rules and I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now, but this was a very particular story that challenged me in ways I’ve never been confronted with. In order to be there for the moments where I had to document her having a seizure in the middle of the night, I had to sleep on her couch.
Lynsey: And so every time I went to Diest to cover her, I slept on her couch and it was me in the end who ended up sort of holding her up while she choked or holding the bucket while she vomited. And so how do you deal with that as a journalist? I photograph and then I’m holding her head up and so I became very, very close with her and our relationship was proximity to a subject that I’ve never before experienced. And so I wanted to sort of write about that in full transparency.
Chitra: Looking back on that young photographer in Argentina, selling her photos at $10 a photo, what would you say to that person about this incredible journey that you’ve been on over the past nearly quarter century?
Lynsey: Look, I mean, it’s such a privilege to be able to sort of walk in and out of people’s lives and to tell their stories and to be sort of the person who communicates these issues through incredible publications like New York Times and National Geographic and Time and I think, I just can only hope that I’ve been able to provide people with a better understanding of issues. Maybe they didn’t know so much about or with political situations or with the wars, the behind the scenes of these Wars.
Chitra: And in today’s environment where there’s so much distrust and suspicion of the news and news outlets, news reporters, journalists, what comes across that people forget is, I think is the people that actually bring that news… The incredible sacrifice that reporters like yourself undertake on the front lines and the dangerous situations you are in, in order to deliver the news. And I think that’s something worth bearing note.
Lynsey: Yeah. I mean, it’s sort of a tragic time for journalism right now because we’re in an environment and we have a President who generally sort of refers to everything as fake news and there’s a lot of rhetoric going on and people have just really lost respect for journalism and the fact that, we are there to do a service, to provide a service, to document situations, to hold people accountable. We are there to counter lies, to tell the truth. And so I think there are people behind all of the stories and the photographs you see, and it’s important not to forget that. And I think that there’s been a lot of negativity and I hope that people can step back at some point and realize how important the role of journalism is.
Chitra: Lynsey, thank you so much for joining me today and for the fascinating and inspiring conversation.
Lynsey: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Chitra: Lynsey Addario is a Pulitzer Prize winning photo journalist, who for the past 15 years has covered every major conflict and humanitarian crisis of our generation. A regular contributor to the New York Times, National Geographic and Time magazine among other outlets. Addario has reported and photographed from some of the most dangerous hotspots in the world. She’s also the author of the bestselling memoir, It’s What I Do, a powerful narrative about her coming of age as a photo journalist during the post 911 War on Terror. This is When It Mattered. I’m Chitra Ragavan.
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