Earlier this month, at London’s Frontline Club, Lynsey Addario gave an intimate talk about her experiences over the past two decades as a photojournalist capturing life in some of the globe’s most contested, dangerous territories. Being one of the few women in her field has granted Addario a unique perspective on human rights issues and women’s role in traditional societies such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur.
Addario spoke of her unconventional upbringing in a cross-dressing, Italian American household in Connecticut. Her mother and father, both hairdressers, separated when she was eight after her father ran off with her mother’s male friend.
“The men were all dressed as women and they had mock weddings and half the women were topless…In my house there were no rules”
After moving to India in 2000, Addario’s career as a photojournalist took off in Afghanistan taking photographs of women living under the Taliban. Journalists were permitted to enter into the country in the early 2000s, but photography of any living thing was interpreted as illegal under Sharia law. Addairo was able to use her status as a woman to her advantage, entering into female only areas that the Taliban could not access. She spent time in a women’s hospital, taking intimate portraits of maternity wards and unveiled patients. Addario recalled that the Afghan people were much more open to having their photograph taken during that time.
“They knew that nothing would get back to Afghanistan because there was no TV, no newspapers… So ironically people were much more open to being photographed then”
Due to a complete ban on women’s activity outside of the home, the only women seen on the street in Afghanistan were widows, unable to work to provide for themselves they were forced to beg on the street for food. Courageous enough to gain access to intimate, domestic settings, Addario’s work forms a rare visual testament to women’s struggle in Afghanistan at the turn of the century.
Addario went on to cover the insurgency in Iraq for almost a decade. She was stationed with the US Marines on assignment from Life Magazine during the counter-insurgency in Fallujah, with a brief to photograph wounded American soldiers. With access to military hospitals and rescue helicopters, Addario captured over 100 images of fallen soldiers. A powerful image shows a stripped-back, military cargo plane with wounded lying end-to-end, strapped to the floor of the aircraft bound for hospitals in Germany. Desperate to get the images published before the presidential election in 2004, Addario was crushed to receive an email from Life Magazine stating:
“We will never run your pictures from Iraq, because my editor thinks they’re too strong for the American public to see.”
The photos, having been held for three months and George Bush re-elected, were published by the New York Times Magazine in 2005.
Her series ‘Talibanistan’, shot in the tribal areas of Northern Pakistan, contains incredibly intimate shots of the Taliban in 2008. Addario’s first encounter with the Taliban again illustrates, perhaps unexpectedly, the benefits of being a female photojournalist amongst an Islamic culture. Having spent a weeks in the ‘creepy’ boarder town Peshawar, Addario and her colleague Dexter Filkins (an American war correspondent) receive a call from commander Haji Namdar and head to their date with the Taliban. Addario describes a tiny room, full of men, with dozens of AK47s and prothetic legs leant against the walls. She is introduced as Filkins’ wife and begins to shoot as many frames as she can, wary of the increasingly awkward atmosphere. With Filkin’s engaged in an interview, several men, looking troubled and skittish, begin to surround Addario. She’s certain they mean to kill her. Lowering his gaze one speaks to her and their translator translates:
“Madame we would like to serve you tea, but we don’t know how you can drink the tea through your veil.”
Addario talks of a world that is incredibly hospitable, offering food and drink to the most unlikely visitors, of a muslim culture that placed women on a pedestal and showed her a deference that allowed her to work to great effect.
In 2011, the risks involved in her work caught up with Addario as she was captured, alongside three other journalists, by Muammar el-Qaddafi’s troops in during the civil war in Libya. Having spent two weeks on the frontline of the conflict, with mortar bombs falling increasingly close-by and reports of Qaddafi’s troops about to break the line, Addario and her colleagues decided to pull back to Benghazi. At a check point on the journey the journalists were forced from the car in a hail of bullets, blindfolded and tied-up. They were beaten and, in Addario’s case, groped sexually, before being released in Tripoli six days later.
Perhaps sobered by her traumatic experiences, her husbands entreaty on US television while she was captive to ‘come back here because we’ve got to have kids’ hit home and by the end of 2011 Addario gave birth to her first child. Her book, written while coping with new motherhood and the adrenaline slump a war correspondent must feel at home in peace time, promises to be a fascinating and uniquely female account of our time’s defining conflicts.
Addario would not confirm reports that she is to be played by Jennifer Lawrence in an upcoming bio-pic at the time, but it has since been announced that Steven Spielberg will direct Lawrence in a film of the memoir It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.