Whether in a war zone or refugee camp, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario has spent her career on the front line armed with little more than a lens. While covering the Arab Spring uprising in Libya in 2011, Addario and her colleagues were kidnapped and beaten for days and their driver was killed. Her 2015 memoir, It’s What I Do, is a New York Times bestseller, and she put out a coffee table book of her photographs in 2018 titled Of Love & War. A native of Westport, Addario currently lives in London with her husband and two children.
What was your childhood like in Westport?
Really great, actually. Growing up in Westport was incredible. It’s such a child-friendly town and we lived close to Coleytown Elementary School; that’s where I went to elementary. So we’d either take a bus or walk to school. I had three older sisters. We had a lot of fun. It was a great childhood.
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Why Wisconsin for college?
I wanted to get off the East Coast. And I was interested in going to a big school.
Why did you want to get off the East Coast?
Because I grew up there. My philosophy has always been the more I travel, the more I explore, the more well-rounded person I can become.
How did the photography thing start for you?
My dad, he’s a hairdresser, and he had a client who gave him a Nikon. He gave that to me. From the time I was about 12 or 13 I started experimenting with that camera and got some books on how to photograph. I started photographing at home, inanimate objects. I would go to the cemetery, and go to places where I wasn’t intimidated by people.
You said you wanted to leave the East Coast, but traveling the world, was that something you knew you wanted to do?
When I was younger it was just about exploring new things and new cultures and new countries. Then, the more I did this job and the more I started to find my footing as a young photographer, it became about exploring places that were taboo or places that were off limits and trying to understand. Are these places “the bad place?” Are these places the way that we perceive them from the outside or are these places similar to our own country, but we just don’t have a good political relationship with them or we only have one side of a picture?
After 9/11 you went to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq when most Americans wouldn’t dream of doing something like that.
Well, yeah. I [also] went before 9/11. I made three trips to Afghanistan before 9/11. I had been reading about the situation for women under the Taliban, and the situation of life under the Taliban. I was curious, frankly. What is it really like? Is this a situation where we’re imposing our views on what a culture should be like from the outside or is it really that grim? And how do the local people feel, how do Afghans feel? I was able to get a few visas from the Taliban and went.
That’s amazing, the idea of getting visas from the Taliban.
It was a very difficult process, not only because I was American but because I was a single woman and I was traveling there alone. They had to provide me what is locally called a mahram, which means almost like a male escort, to walk around with me because women can’t just walk around the streets alone, or they couldn’t at that time in Afghanistan.
That didn’t feel like a trap? An American woman alone in Afghanistan, and the Taliban knows where you’re going to be at all times. That seems incomprehensible.
At the end of the day it’s all in the way you approach something. In order to do the work I do I have to inherently trust people. I have to believe in the best in people because otherwise fear would take over my life and I would just be scared all the time. I really have to believe in the places I’m going and be very open and transparent and honest about what my goals are and what I plan on doing there. And I’ve been very lucky. Yeah, I have been kidnapped. I have been in ambushes. I’ve been through a lot, but ultimately I’m still alive.
I imagine when you got kidnapped in Libya that was your worst fear come to life.
For any photographer covering an uprising, there is always the fear that we might get shot, or something might happen or we would get kidnapped. When it happened, at that time I felt like it was a stupid judgment call. It was a bad judgment call on our parts because we stayed too long covering the front line. We could have avoided being kidnapped. There were many journalists who left right before us and we waited. That obviously caused us, and our families, an extraordinary amount of pain. But our driver was killed. That’s something that we can never get back. His family, that’s an extraordinary loss that we all bear the responsibility for.
How long were you held captive?
A week. It was a week.
Longest week ever.
Yeah. Yeah it was. [Laughs] It was pretty miserable.
Another thing that’s incomprehensible.
You just kinda shut down. I have no power, no control, no telephone and no shoes. You just shut down emotionally.