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We Spoke to Frontline Photojournalist Lynsey Addario About Fear and Female Resilience

"At a certain point when you're being held hostage, you don't have power to do anything. The only power you have is to listen to your captors and do what they ask you to do."

by Kat Lister
26 March 2015, 12:00pm

All images © Lynsey Addario / Getty Images

"Libya was incredibly violent," frontline photojournalist Lynsey Addario begins. We're instantly a world away from the civilised lunchtime chatter and clanging crockery of the London member's club we're sat in. We're transported back to March 16th 2011, when Addario and three other New York Times colleagues were taken captive by pro-Gaddafi forces.

"We were bound, tied up, blindfolded and beaten," she says, as calmly as her request for a latte minutes earlier. "I was punched in the face repeatedly and threatened with execution. I was groped over and over – basically by every single man that I came in contact with, whether it was my breasts or my butt, or touching me over my jeans. No one took my clothes off, I was not raped. But as a woman, my fear throughout that week we were held captive was that I would be raped. That was the ultimate fear for me."

Spanning 20 years, Addario's fearless photojournalistic work has taken her from Afghanistan and Iraq to Congo, Senegal and Gaza. Her lense? Looking for the female experience, or, in her own words, "Looking at women in full picture of where they are."

As the title of her new memoir declares: "It's What I Do". And just how she does it, in an undeniably male-dominated industry, despite multiple kidnappings and near-death experiences – in addition to pregnancy and motherhood – is why we're here today. I'm not the only one fascinated by her story, either: rumour has it that Steven Spielberg is set to direct a biopic based on her book, starring one Jennifer Lawrence. You can imagine the film posters already.

As we talk about the book's full title – It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War – the question of love – specifically, love in wartime – comes up immediately. "There's always that sensation that you..." she falters before correcting herself, "that one might die at any moment. I felt very vulnerable in those moments. It's also been a struggle throughout my career to figure out how to balance love and have a personal life with such a demanding profession."

VICE: In the book, you speak of how the men you worked alongside on the frontline had wives and girlfriends at home, whereas the women chose not to have that set-up. Tell me a bit about that.
Lynsey Addario: Well, it's not like we chose not to. Myself and my female colleagues had a hard time finding men who would put up with our schedule, especially right after 9/11. There were very few people who came home if you were covering these wars: there was the war in Afghanistan followed by the war in Iraq and they were incredibly intense. I was on the road almost 300 days of the year – most men will not wait for a woman who is basically never home.

On the subject of gender-divide, one would assume – rightly or wrongly – that being a woman in a notoriously male-dominated industry, in male-dominated scenes of conflict, has meant you've has had to work twice as hard.
I think it's a very competitive profession, but everyone has to work hard. I think I've had to prove myself to my colleagues and not necessarily to my editors, ironically. I wasn't photographing to please my colleagues,so I couldn't care less if they accepted me or not – I was photographing to tell a story. Nevertheless, you want to be accepted by your peers because you're in these remote, lonely places and you want to hang out with them.

You began your frontline photojournalistic career in 2000 when you travelled to Afghanistan without a single assignment commissioned. What went through your mind when you booked that ticket?
Well, I was never really raised with inhibitions and the fear of failure. I think everything always seems worse from the outside then when you get on the ground. I was curious, I wanted to see how women were living. I really wanted to see if life was as bad as the West thought it was and what the women themselves felt.

You've written that, as a woman, you were able to access places no man or Taliban could go in Afghanistan.
First of all, the Taliban could go anywhere they wanted, but, because of their beliefs that women should not be viewed by men who aren't their relatives, they wouldn't have entered the women's hospital, for example, or women's homes – those are the sorts of scenes I was able to see that my male colleagues could not. For me, that inspired a career of work covering women's issues.

You've travelled extensively and seen women in the most extraordinary circumstances. What have you learned about the universal experience of being a woman?
I've learned about the resilience of women and how incredibly strong they are. Most women were built to survive. There is a biological and visceral need to take care of our children. I've seen the most incredible women in the most vulnerable circumstances and they have become role-models to me. Every difficult situation that I've been through, I think back to the women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, women in Darfur, women in Afghanistan and Iraq who I've interviewed along the way and have survived.

A powerful example of that is the photograph you took of a woman in eastern Congo in 2008 with her two children...
...under the bug nets, yes. Those children were born out of multiple gang rapes. And there she was, taking care of them with all the love in the world.

When you yourself found out you were pregnant you say you thought your life was over. Did you really think your career was finished?
Yes. And I knew I'd get criticism for writing that so openly but I was terrified. I didn't know any women personally who were doing the work I was doing who even had boyfriends – much less were about to have a child.

Despite that terror, you did do it. In fact, you were on assignment in Gaza at seven months. Women who work the frontline are given such a hard time when it comes to work and family, yet men are never asked: why did you become a father?
Sure, there's a total double standard. For me, when I was pregnant, I was so terrified of losing my identity – everything I've built my life around is this calling that I've had since I was 21. And so, when I was pregnant, I wanted to hold onto that identity as much as I could. I did my research in terms of speaking to doctors, and I wasn't in combat – I was in situations like Somalia, Afghanistan and Gaza, where women are pregnant and give birth every day. I didn't feel like I was taking some crazy risk. You can monitor your pregnancy no matter where you are...

When a woman goes to war with children at home people say, "How can you do that, how can you leave your kids at home?" But pretty much all the men in the field have children and no one ever asks how they can do that. I've had colleagues who have been killed and left their children without a father. No one says, "How could he had gone off to war?" It is an issue that we need to address.

You've written in the book: "Until you get injured or shot or kidnapped, you believe you are invincible." In Libya, in 2011, this became a reality for you. What goes through your mind at the point of capture?
At the immediate moment I'm being pulled out of a car it's: What the hell am I doing in Libya? Do I really care about this story that much? Will I ever see my cameras again? What will my husband think? It's everything you'd think as you think you're going to die. Then there's an odd peace, resigning yourself to the fact that you'll probably die. At a certain point when you're being held hostage, you don't have power to do anything. The only power you have is to listen to your captors and do what they ask you to do.

How has Islamic State changed things in your field?
Their presence has changed the stakes, 100 percent. They are targeting journalists. There used to be this respect that, even in civil war, people always respect journalists as neutral observers. ISIS has no regard for journalists at all. In fact, we are seen as bargaining chips. There is no negotiating with ISIS. You don't have a second chance.

Will it ever become too hard to do what you do?
No. I would never throw in the towel, because you don't just walk away from this kind of job. It's who I am.

@Madame_George

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