Title:It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
Genre: Memoir, Photography, Autobiography, Non-Fiction
What It’s About: Lynsey Addario recounts the story of her childhood, her early adulthood and the wars that shaped her as a photographer with a keen eye in photojournalism.
She was born in Connecticut to parents of Italian descent, who worked as hairdressers, and lived in a house with three other sisters, as well as a rotating amount of family friends. Despite her parent’s divorce, they continued to build her confidence and told her to do whatever it was that she loved.
After college, Lynsey moved to Latin America where she had a relationship with a man who was a journalist for a local newspaper. He encouraged her to go photograph images for some of the newspapers in town, and told her that she should make all of her mistakes as a photographer in Latin America, because New York would not be so kind. Ultimately she returned to New York, convinced her dad to give her the $15,000.00 that he would have otherwise given her for her wedding in order to buy lenses and camera gear, with the promise that she would be the one paying in full for her wedding. Using the remainder of her money, she made her way to India, where there were a lot of journalists.
In conversation with one of these journalists, they told her that she should go photograph what women’s life is like in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and so Lynsey decided to do it, becoming one of the only photographers to photograph women under Taliban rule before 9/11. When she entered the country, she did not go right away to register with the Foreign Correspondent’s Office, but instead drove around some towns with her driver to meet people in Afghanistan. At the time, very few people in the media were interested in learning about Afghanistan and Pakistan, so there wasn’t much interest in her work.
As a result, she and another journalist turned friend returned to Latin America, where they were when 9/11 happened. She knew that she had to fly home, and shortly thereafter she ended up going to Afghanistan to document the stories of the aftermath of the war. Then she went to Iraq when the started. Over time, she would return to document the US military that was embedded in both countries, learning about loss of friends. At one point in 2004, she even almost got kidnapped in Fallujah.
Taking a rest from documenting War in the Middle East, Lynsey then began to work in Africa starting with documenting the crisis in Darfur, in Sudan. At some point she becomes stationed out of Istanbul, and that is how she met her husband, Paul, who was running the Reuters office out of Ankara. With him, she went over every subsequent assignment–the pros and the cons, and he was the one who told her to continue chasing whatever it was that she wanted, with the request that she always come back. They got engaged, and after another stint in Pakistan where Lynsey was documenting refugees fleeing northern Pakistan where there was Taliban spillover, she ended up in a car accident that killed her driver, and resulted in her having to go through surgery.
She was still in pain from it–to an extent–when she married Paul in France. Shortly thereafter, while they were living in Istanbul, Lynsey received the message that she had won a grant from the MacArthur Foundation that would allow her to step back from the brutal work of a conflict photographer. But she chose to not stop, to continue photographing at a pace that she had up until now.
Then Libya happened–she and three other journalists who had been traveling together to document the Arab Spring in 2011 that had turned into a Civil War in Libya were kidnapped. She talks of her time in captivity, how she was treated and how the men who were traveling with her were treated, before they were finally released. During that time in captivity, she made the promise that she would give Paul what he wanted–a child–if she saw him again. But of course, she busied herself with items, and during a meeting with Aputure, she found out that two of her fellow photographers had died in Libya. The whole journalistic community was wrecked with guilt and sadness at their deaths, and so she and Paul stayed in New York to be part of the community.
When they returned to India, Lynsey finds out that she is pregnant and she is not happy about it, hoping that the doctor’s visit will result in it showing that they were false positives. The doctor tells her instead that she is indeed pregnant and to not travel, because the metal detector’s radiation at the airport would hurt the baby. Even worse, Lynsey was to head to Somalia. Once in Somalia, she photographed the humanitarian crisis there due to the drought, but she realizes that she needs to go deeper inland to get the story, so she heads over to Mogadishu, while pregnant. At this point, her baby starts kicking and she is conflicted over the fact that she’s experiencing the loss of innocent lives–babies were dying from malnutrition–while her own was growing.
From Somalia she headed out to Israel and Palestine to photograph the release and exchange of prisoners. At the exchange, she gets jostled and tells everyone that she’s pregnant in the crowd, which causes the men to create a circle around her as they respect women and especially women who are pregnant need extra care. From there, on her exit, she gets harassed by the Israeli Military telling her to go through a metal detector several times while she was pregnant, even though she had asked to be hand patted in order to not expose her unborn child to radiation.
Her son was born in December 2011 in London where she and Paul had moved for his job. She spent three months on maternity leave, before a message to her blackberry about another war correspondent being killed in Syria. From there, she went to Syria, and has continued to document the humanitarian crises around the Middle East.
My Thoughts: I was really astounded by this memoir, how she continues to show up and do her thing, blaze her own path, and coming up with many solutions to her problem. The fact that she asked her father for an upfront payment of $15,000.00 instead of a wedding fund shows creativity, while at the same time it tells me that she honors her word–she never did have him pay for the wedding because she was the one who paid for it.
On so many ways, Lynsey’s story resonates with me because of shared attributes, and passions. The work that she does truly does call to me in ways that I cannot begin to fathom or understand on a deeper level, but it’s something that I gravitate towards very often. Now I’m not saying I’m about to go out there and get involved in the middle of armed conflict (lord knows I’d probably be the easiest target) but the stories of humanity in chaos is what really strikes me and interests me.
If you are interested in understanding what a war correspondent’s life is like–what it takes to do the work to bring you the pictures that you see on the front page of so many magazine and newspaper publications, then this is a great read for you. Even if all that you take away from it is the understanding that people like Lynsey put their lives on the line over and over again so that they could make change, make people care about situations outside the four walls of their own home.