Lynsey Addario: Back From the Brink

“You don’t understand. This is history. I have to photograph it now. Later is too late.” New York Times photojournalist Lynsey Addario is talking to Army Captain Dan Kearney at 6 a.m. on the side of a mountain in the dawning Korengal Valley of northeastern Afghanistan. It is fall, 2007, and Kearney’s forces have dropped into a village to confront insurgents following nighttime bombing by American planes. There likely has been “collateral damage.” Afghan civilians have been wounded and Addario wants Kearney to help her get to them to document the injuries. Khalid, a seven-year-old boy with shrapnel wounds and watery eyes becomes a haunting portrait that underscores the absurdity of a term like "collateral damage."

At first, the photo was going to be the cover image for a NY Times Sunday magazine feature story. But it was quashed. Then it was to be in the story inside, then on the Times website on a slideshow—also all quashed. Kathy Ryan, the photo editor argued for inclusion on the website; editor–in-chief Gerry Marzorati refused, citing that it could not be proven that Khalid’s and other villagers’ wounds were caused by American bombs; so, the photo was not run despite strenuous pleadings by Addario. Later, Captain Kearney affirmed that most likely the wounds were caused by shrapnel from American bombs.

This sense of urgency and fierce dedication to her assignments pervades all of Lynsey Addario’s photographs. Here is part of what she wrote to the then current editor-in-chief of the magazine in defense of her work.

After all I have done to get these images of war, up close, personal, soldiers and civilians, please stick your neck out in the most minimal way. To hear that you don’t want to “risk further scrutiny” after I risked my life for two months is the most offensive thing I have ever heard.

She takes no prisoners in her fierce focus. There are few images of stasis or quiet moments of idyllic peace in the maelstrom of her work.

Five years after graduation from Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, Addario was working as a professional photojournalist for the Buenos Aires Herald. Shortly after, she was in Cuba for AP. The past decade she has worked for the NY Times and its magazine as well as for National Geographic. Always on the move, she somehow made time to marry Reuters journalist Paul de Bender in July 2009.

Addario may be an anomaly as a conflict photojournalist: a woman in a field dominated by men. On many of her assignments she is paired with another woman, journalist Elizabeth Warren, covering stories from each of their perspectives, in images and words. It is Warren who recalls the incident that opens this essay. Embedded in the fall of 2007 in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, much as Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger had been for their Oscar nominated documentary film, Restrepo, Warren was already months pregnant. She and Addario are self-described “partners in crime” on assignments throughout the decade’s conflict zones. Here is a PBS slideshow of the Korengal Valley story.

PBS.org—Newshour slideshow link

And here is Warren’s account of her and Addario in the Korengal:

NYTimes.com—Week In Review article link

Rubin also discusses her relationship with Addario and their history in northeastern Afghanistan in a recent feature article in the Winter 2010 issue of Aperture magazine. It is worth getting, not just for Rubin’s detailed account of her relationship with Addario, but as a lesson in the daily rigors of the conflict journalist:

Aperture.org link

Rubin writes about Addario’s penchant for using wide lenses, for working in close:

Wide angles lure me into Lynsey’s work. The intense focus that opens to another layer and then another and another. I asked her once about that. “I don’t know. I just see that way.”

There is no better introduction to the way Addario “sees” than going to her website. The stark, severe black field comes up right away. A seven-image slideshow follows.

Links to the left side of the homepage lead to slideshows of other photo essays.

lynseyaddario.com link

Hotspots of international conflict, all the usual countries run amok with warring men, are listed, a veritable Zagat guide into hell. But what else emerges as you look, are links to essays that document women’s issues: women in the military, women’s health and maternity in Africa, female-self-immolation in Afghanistan, an Indian beauty pageant, transsexual prostitutes. She’s on the front lines in war zones, alongside the boys—but she also stalks a space and themes that most male photojournalist eschew. As you get to know her work, you realize that covering women’s issues is not an ancillary assignment. It is as much the core of her identity as an "engaged observer" as her higher profile war stories. She does not just caption the images; she narrates the story beyond.

Here is a slideshow of an essay on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone.

Time.com— Photo Gallery link

Addario works so close up that she has run smack into numerous situations that could easily have meant her death: a kidnapping; a car wreak that left her driver dead and her with a broken collarbone—and most recently, an arrest, detention and beatings that put her and three other NY Times journalists in the world spotlight when they went missing in Libya for six days.

NYTimes.com—Africa article link

The story of their capture and eventual release highlight the risks taken every day by the men and women who give witness of the world’s traumas.

Here is an audio interview with Addario and Renee Montagne of NPR on April 1, describing the ordeal she and her three times colleagues endured:

NPR.org—“Photographers Libya Ordeal: ‘You’re Going to Die’” article link

Margaret Warner on the PBS Newshour interviewed both Addario and Anthony Shadid who is the NY Times Bureau Chief in Beirut and who was arrested with her.

One section of Addario’s website features images of Afghan women who have tried to immolate themselves to escape violence and oppression.

“Bibi Aisha was 19 when I met her in Kabul's Women for Afghan Women shelter in November 2009. Her husband beat her from the day she was married, at age 12. When he beat her so badly she thought she might die, she escaped to seek a neighbor's help. To punish her for leaving without permission, her husband, who is a Taliban fighter, took her to a remote spot in the mountains. Several men held her while he cut off her nose, ears, and hair. She screamed—to no avail. "If I had the power, I would kill them all," she told me. I wanted to be strong for Aisha to give her hope she would be fine again. But when she described that moment, I began to cry.”

Her passion to document the horror of their fate led her to move beyond these still images to a video documentary with her voiceover narration of the women’s plight. Be warned, this is a difficult video to watch.

But hope for a brighter future for Afghan women is documented in this beautifully arrayed essay for National Geographic titled Veiled Rebellion. It covers a full spectrum of the lives of women in this hardscrabble country struggling to engage the contemporary world outside its boundaries, even as powerful internal forces try to quash it. The essay speaks to the long reach of Addario’s mission letting the world know the reality and the aspirations of Afghan women.

ngm.nationalgeographic.com— slideshow link

The photojournalists that I know personally do not seek the spotlight. The stereotype of the gung ho, half mad provocateur played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, is mostly fiction. Being a weeklong international media sensation is not a fate that either Addario or Tyler Hicks would have chosen. But like my photojournalist friend, Jehad Nga, who was also arrested and interrogated in Libya a few weeks before them, the facts of their ordeals brings into all too sharp focus for the rest of us just what is the cost of these so compelling photos---images made in the face of danger, that they bring to the rest of us, who over a cup of morning coffee impassively scan the tribulations and exaltations of our fellow man.

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