One Woman's Wars: A Q&A with Photojournalist Lynsey Addario

In the world of twenty-first-century photojournalism, Lynsey Addario is a staggering anomaly. Not merely the rare woman in a field typically dominated by male adrenaline junkies, she has repeatedly survived situations almost as harrowing as those she's covered relentlessly for the past decade and a half. Afghanistan, Libya, Darfur, Iraq, the Congo -- Addario has sprinted headlong into the worst nightmares of post-9/11 violence and warfare, her camera her only weapon, endlessly driven to document the faces and tragedies of the victimized for The New York Times, National Geographic, Time, and other publications. Now forty-one years old, the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient has decided to tell her own story in It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War, a groundbreaking memoir that is now in stores. With an adventure-filled life one could easily see dramatized on the big screen, Addario recently spoke to Signature about the new book and the whys and hows of her personal and professional mission.

SIGNATURE: Has writing a book been on your mind for a while, or did it only come up recently?

LYNSEY ADDARIO: What prompted it was Libya [in 2011]. I've always kept journals through the years, and been good at correspondence and telling stories through tons of e-mails. After we were released from captivity in Libya, I was thinking of doing a photo book. I was sitting down in a meeting with Aperture, and that's when I found out Tim [Hetherington] and Chris [Hondros] were killed. Immediately, I sort of rejected photography. I just thought, The last thing I want to do is spend the next six months poring over brutal images of death and war. I wanted to do something more cerebral. It seemed like the right time in my life, it seemed like I was ready to sit back and download all the experience I'd had that I'd never really taken any time to stop and process. I was basically a shooting machine: I would just go from assignment to assignment to assignment. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that. We really wanted to make it a book that would inspire young women and not only get in the front lines of photography but also, how does one balance a personal life?

SIG: Are there books or memoirs that you've admired, either by photographers or other traveling adventurers?

LA: The first book I ever read about photojournalism and war photography was Shutterbabe [Adventures in Love and War, by Deborah Copaken Kogan]. That was incredibly eye-opening, because it was written by a woman and it was all about what happens on the front line and in the field. It seemed like this endless stream of adventure. And then Joan Didion's writing has always been incredibly inspirational. I've followed her work, and everything she publishes I devour.

SIG: What accounts for your willingness, or even desire, to be displaced and uncomfortable? Is it merely a function of your passion for your job, or is there more to it?

LA: I think it's a curiosity. Any journalist has to be curious, has to care about the people and the stories around them. So a lot of what inspired me was curiosity, and that eventually evolved into passion and a mission of telling people's stories and going to places that I know that there are injustices. But in the beginning it was simply being young and curious and, not fearless, but just not being hindered by fear. At that age, I would think of something and say, Oh, why not do it? And there was never a good reason not to, because it just seemed like everything would be okay.

SIG: There are plenty of people who have those ideas, but not everyone actually does them.

LA: It never dawned on me to not do them. That also is a product of the way we were raised. We were raised by parents who always encouraged us to do what we believed in and to follow whatever it was that our dreams were. They never instilled doubt or fear into us; it was always about positive.

SIG: To what extent is your personal and professional mission driven specifically by the mistreatment of women around the world? Or is that something that evolved during your travels?

LA: It evolved as a byproduct of what I was seeing. It just seemed like a natural thing for me to follow. When I started covering these stories, I thought, Oh my God, this is unbelievable. Most women live with incredible hardship and discrimination. So then I thought, I have to do this, and I can't stop. So initially I didn't set out to photograph women's issues, but when I was introduced to them it was so natural to continue.

SIG: Is there a photo you've taken that has special meaning for you?

LA: There are so many photos that I've taken that have special meaning, and some that sit with me for a very long time. A lot of the women's stories, some of them are painful for even me to look at, and I was there. Because sometimes when I'm in the moment and I'm shooting, I'm so focused on trying to get the picture and to capture the drama of the moment -- and I have the camera in front of my face, so I'm almost distanced by the camera -- but then when I go home and I look at the pictures, sometimes it's really painful for me to look at them. There's a story of women burn victims in Afghanistan, or women who set themselves on fire in attempted suicide -- some of those pictures I have a very hard time looking at.

SIG: You've been in a number of very hairy scenarios. Has getting married or becoming a mother changed your willingness to put yourself in dangerous situations?

LA: My willingness to how far I'll go or what I will do has changed. The first reason being that I have a son. I love my husband, and it was great getting married, but that didn't change anything. [laughs] Because, God forbid anything ever happened to me, Paul would survive. It's really being a mother that makes the difference. Also, the nature of being a photojournalist in war zones has changed exponentially in the last fifteen years. Now, increasingly journalists are targets. There were not bounties on our heads and people were not looking actively to kidnap journalists when I first started. The stakes are a lot higher. I've been kidnapped twice, I've been in a big car accident, two of my drivers have been killed, I've been ambushed by the Taliban -- I've been through a lot -- and my friends get killed! We've lost Anthony Shadid, Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros, Marie Colvin, Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff -- João Silva lost both of his legs in Afghanistan, and he wrote The Bang-Bang Club with one of his colleagues. The list goes on and on. So it's not just the fact that I am a mother, or that I've gotten married; it's a combination of so many factors.

SIG: So does that mean you'll feel bored a lot more now?

LA: Bored?! [laughs] No! I don't think I've ever been bored in my life. I don't even know what that word means.