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Photojournalist Lynsey Addario on Reporting From the Front Line
Addario has covered every major conflict, including Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, and Libya.
Photojournalist Lynsey Addario took one of the most haunting photos of the Russia-Ukraine war.
It’s a photograph of a mother, her two kids, and a friend who were killed by Russian mortar fire while fleeing a village on the outskirts of Kyiv.
“At that point, [Vladimir] Putin was saying that he was not intentionally targeting civilians,” Addario told The Profile. “That picture encapsulated exactly why I do this job, why I risk my life, why journalists have to be there, and why it's important to document these things. It’s because there are leaders who lie, and it's very important to show the truth.”
Addario is no stranger to conflict. Over the past two decades, she has covered every major conflict and humanitarian crisis on the planet. As she sees the destruction and the pain through the lens of her camera, her images translate that intense emotion to people across the globe.
“I see myself as kind of a messenger,” she says. “Someone who records people's stories and lives and hardships. I try to bring their stories to the greater public with the goal of creating an understanding.”
Addario had a number of close calls on the job — she has been kidnapped in Libya, abducted in Iraq, and injured in a car accident in Pakistan. But the one consistent thread throughout Addario’s career is that she never puts the camera down — even in the face of extreme danger.
If there’s one lesson she’s learned about the human experience it’s that no matter what is going on in the world, life goes on. Even in the midst of war, Addario shows scenes of people celebrating birthdays, weddings, and graduations.
“It’s human nature to try to have fun, to laugh, to have some normalcy despite the disruptiveness and the devastation that war brings,” she says. “People try to find some semblance of routine, peace, and happiness. I see those moments over and over in war, and it’s always surprising to me, but it always gives me this reassurance. At the end of the day, we are all so similar.”
In this interview, Addario explains how she assesses risk in a war zone, how she’s dealing with the mental scars that result from her work, and why she doesn’t believe you have to be an activist to enact change.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
(Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to listen and watch to the full interview below.)
How have you learned to weigh the level of danger with the importance of the story you're trying to tell?
ADDARIO: It's hard because some of the best stories are in the most dangerous places.
When I was younger — you know, before I had been kidnapped twice, before,I had been thrown out of a car on a highway in Pakistan, before I had been in ambushes — I was a lot more bold. And I didn't realize how precarious life was. I sort of thought I was invincible.
Now, I'm more cautious, and I think that comes with the cost of my coverage being less dramatic or sort of not as good as some of my colleagues’ who will just run directly into the front line. And I think that's difficult.
Yes, some of the best stories are in the most dangerous places, and I will do them, it depends on what that story is. For me, I'm not really willing to just run to the front line into the middle of the most dangerous place just to get soldiers firing a mortar or holding a gun. I think it's important to have civilians involved. I think it's important if I'm going into a place that I need to show why I'm going in there. You know, what is the toll on the population? On women? On children?
And I think if most of the population has fled, I will personally be less likely to go in there. That’s because I have to constantly weigh what will I risk my life for — and it's often civilians.
Can you give me an example of a time when you miscalculated the level of risk and what the consequences of that decision were?
We were working in a group, so there were four of us. We were in two cars, and that is a precaution that we take in case one car breaks down, then you've got a backup vehicle.
We were working on the front line. The front line was shifting very quickly. It was very clear that Qaddafi’s troops were moving into Ajdabiya (the town we were in), and a lot of journalists started pulling east.
The brother of the driver of [fellow journalists] Anthony Shadid and Stephen Farrell’s car was shot on the front line. So suddenly, in the middle of this battle, he just pulled the car over and dumped their stuff on the side of the road.
So we ended up — four journalists and our driver Mohammed — in one car. That meant, you know, not only were the five of us in this very small car with all of our gear, but it meant that everyone had a very different idea of what they needed to do to carry out their job.
Everyone wanted to do different things. Some wanted to go back to the front line, even though it was encroaching on us. Some wanted to go to the hospital to document the wounded and to count the dead. And some wanted to leave.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that we stayed too long. Our driver got a call saying that Qaddafi troops were in the city. We didn't leave at that time. He got a second call from his brother, who was working with the BBC, we still didn't leave because it's hard to corral four journalists.
So by the time we left, we ran into one of Qaddafi’s checkpoints. We were held for a week. We never saw Mohammed again. We're assuming he was killed at that checkpoint — either executed or in crossfire. His death is on us, you know? That is completely our miscalculation. That was not him. That was completely us.
Wow. And how do you grapple with that?
I mean, it's hard. There’s nothing you can do to bring someone back.
For me, it's really about just trying to learn from that and to be more vocal in situations that I don't feel comfortable with.
I think for a long time as one of the very few women in this profession, I didn't really speak up when I felt like something was amiss because I didn't want to be the woman who was scared. And that was a perfect example where I felt it was really stupid to stay as long as we did, and we we were being told to leave. But I didn't say anything, because I was like, ‘Oh, I'm the only woman and maybe they're going to be like, ‘Ugh, she's so annoying,’ so I kept my mouth shut.’
And now I have zero problems saying, ‘I don't give a shit if we don’t get the story. We’re leaving.’ You know, Mohammed died. And that’s his family who lost their son, their brother, their everything.
After years of seeing so much tragedy and destruction, how do you deal with some of the mental scars that result from the work that you do?
I carry them with me. I don't think they're going to disappear. I definitely spontaneously just break down and cry a lot.
Everyone makes fun of me because it's just a reality of my life, but I don't try and hide it or stop it. I think that would be totally unnatural. I also exercise a lot. I think that helps me mentally to just process things.
In your memoir, you wrote, “I choose to live in peace and witness war—to experience the worst in people but to remember the beauty.” How do you find beauty in the middle of a war zone?
Oh I mean, there are so many moments of beauty.
I mean, people are incredible. In the darkest moments, I witness resilience, I witness generosity, I witness people being kind to one another and helping each other.
I do witness horrific things and the brutality that humans can bring out in one another. But I, personally, am an optimist, and I am always very positive. And so I don't dwell on that. I dwell more on the incredible things that I witness in people.
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