Lynsey Addario — New York Times photojournalist, Pulitzer Prize winner, MacArthur fellowship recipient, Westport native and Staples grad — has written a fascinating book. “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War” provides great insight into what it’s like to cover war, famine and horror — and how being a woman has impacted every aspect of her professional and personal life.
This coming Sunday’s Times Magazine includes a long, compelling excerpt from the book. It begins with the harrowing account of being captured — along with fellow Staples grad and Times photographer Tyler Hicks — in 2011, by forces loyal to Muammar el-Qaddafi:
You have two options when you approach a hostile checkpoint in a war zone, and each is a gamble. The first is to stop and identify yourself as a journalist and hope that you are respected as a neutral observer. The second is to blow past the checkpoint and hope the soldiers guarding it don’t open fire on you.
The group’s young driver tried to avoid capture by yelling “Media!” It did not work.
After providing harrowing details about their captivity, Lynsey describes the agonizing pull she felt between doing what she felt was her life’s mission, and her responsibility to her loved ones:
I had imposed unspeakable worry on my husband, Paul de Bendern, on more occasions than I could count. And Anthony [Shadid] and Steve [Farrell] each had infants at home. Yet as guilty as we felt, and as terrified as we were, only Steve sounded convinced by his own declaration that he would no longer cover war. Each one of us knew that this work was an intrinsic part of who we were: It was what we believed in; it governed our lives.
“We need to get to Tripoli,” Anthony said. “We will never get released if we don’t get to Tripoli. We will probably survive, it will be difficult, but we might live if we get there.”
“If we do, I am going to be so fat in nine months!” I cried out suddenly.
After more than a decade of feeling ambivalent about having a child, I knew that if we made it out of Libya alive, I would finally give Paul what he had been wanting since we married: a baby.
Later, she digs deeper into the lives of war correspondents:
There was a lot of cheating in war zones, a lot of love and a lot of mistaking loneliness for love. But the reality was different for men and women. Most male war correspondents had wives or girlfriends waiting at home while they fooled around on assignment. Most female war correspondents and photographers remained single, searching fruitlessly for someone who would accept our devotion to our work.
My romantic life was colorful but difficult: I had an affair with a Cuban diplomat in New York, fell in love with an artist in Mexico City and had a relationship with an Iranian actor in Tehran, whom I could rarely get a visa to visit. But I gave only a finite part of myself to each of these men; work remained my priority, keeping me on the road 280 days a year. I began to assume that my relationships would end in affairs and heartbreak.
After meeting her husband, marrying, getting captured and then pregnant, Lynsey continued to work:
At four and a half months, Doctors Without Borders sent me to photograph its medical outreach for victims of the drought in the Horn of Africa, from the Turkana region to the Somali refugee camps at Dadaab in Kenya. Part way through the assignment, working in remote African villages, I could no longer button my pants. I was 20 weeks pregnant. The nausea and exhaustion were gone, my energy had returned and I was eating regularly, though careful to avoid harmful bacteria, which meant a diet of bread, rice, bananas and protein bars that I carried from home.
She continued on to Mogadishu, where the situation was far worse than even Kenya. She knew that if anything happened to her — 5 months pregnant — her editors and peers would write her off as “crazy and irresponsible.” But, she says, “I couldn’t leave that story of starvation untold.” She traveled on:
Something strange happened then: the baby that I had imagined as a pea or an avocado pit for weeks and weeks started kicking. He came to life inside me as I entered Somalia, a place where so many people were dying.
Working quickly — and trying to avoid kidnapping — she photographed the death of a 1 1/2-year-old boy from malnutrition.
His skeletal chest pumped up and down as he labored to breathe. His eyes rolled back into his head and then forward again as he focused on his mother. I knelt down beside the two women, introduced myself as a journalist and asked permission to photograph. They agreed. I began shooting as the two women put their hands on Abbas’s tiny frame and then onto his face. Each time that his eyes rolled back into his head, the women thought he was dead. To my horror, they began closing his tiny mouth with their hands, a premature death ritual. They were covering his eyes and closing his mouth. As I photographed, I felt my own baby inside of me, kicking and twisting.
In Gaza — caught in the frenzy of a prisoner exchange — Lynsey started to panic.
In the Muslim world, women and children are put on a protected pedestal, and pregnant women are slightly higher up on that pedestal. Naturally, no pregnant woman in Gaza would voluntarily be in that mix of madness, but it was too late to lament my stupidity. I had an idea: I threw my arms up in the air and screamed, “Baby!” and pointed down at my very round stomach with my index fingers on both hands. “Baby!” I screamed again, pointing down.
All the men around me momentarily paused. They looked at my face and then down at my stomach, and the seas parted. Spontaneously, they made a human gate around me, cocooning me from the crowd. And I continued shooting with my new bodyguards keeping watch over my unborn son and me.
Lukas Simon de Bendern was born perfectly healthy on Dec. 28, 2011, at St. Mary’s Hospital in London.
There is much, much more in this fascinating excerpt from an important book. To read the entire Times story, click here.