Lynsey Addario: Documenting The Human Condition

Lynsey Addario: Documenting The Human Condition

If I had to choose the most important photograph shot in the 21st century, it may just be the opening image for this article, shot by the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Lynsey Addario during one of her assignments in Iraq.

In the caption, you learn the photograph depicts an Iraqi woman desperately looking to find her husband after a massive fire took place at a liquid gas factory in Basra, Iraq. But for me, there’s much more taking place, both visually and metaphorically, in this nightmarish shot, which packs so much about our world into the frame…and into a single image.

From “Of Love & War” With Photos By Lynsey Addario: Pakistan, May 2000

From “Of Love & War” With Photos By Lynsey Addario: Pakistan, May 2000
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An Afghan woman living in a refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, May 2000.

Right off the bat, you instantly sense a world turned on its head from the slanted horizon line. The main figure’s identity, though, is literarily shrouded, like so many women in that part of the world, by a burka-like garb that completely abstracts her form and identity, with the exception of her shoes. Those are what anchor the figure in the frame. So we sense the figure of a woman, but we’re unsure of who she is.

And the longer you look, the stranger things get. For me, if you look at the image long enough, she almost becomes an optical illusion, turning into negative space. And, for me, in that Rorschach-like watercolor blot of a portrait, Addario records a miraculous apparition, which transforms into a figurative black hole that seems to pull everything toward it—history, politics, culture, religion, war, humanity and hope—and into its black void.

In a way, the photograph changes from being a very specific narrative of a woman’s quest to find her husband in Iraq to an ominous, visually abstract metaphor of war, chaos and collapse.

Of course, that’s just one photo.

But it’s one of many spectacular images and photo essays by Addario—most of them tragic and heartbreaking, and several that are almost too painful to look at—included in her recent oversized retrospective book, Of Love & War (published by Penguin Press).

Lynsey Addario: Documenting The Human Condition
Addario says, “Noor Nisa, 18 (right), in labor and stranded with her mother in Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, November 2009. Her husband’s first wife died during childbirth, so he was determined to get her to the hospital, a four-hour drive from their village. His borrowed car broke down, and I ended up taking them to the hospital, where Noor Nisa delivered a baby girl.”

For me, it’s a quintessential image by Addario that powerfully and poetically conveys our era, an age of constant aggression, which she alludes to in her introduction, calling this new century “a century of never-ending wars, never-ending side effects, never-ending tragedy,” yet, despite all this, she adds, “and never-ending resilience.”

Lynsey Addario: On Becoming A War Photographer

Of Love & War is certainly a large, oversized anthology that chronicles Addario’s career since the late 1990s. However, it’s also something more. “It’s a retrospective of my photos,” says Addario, “but it’s also sort of a scrapbook of my thoughts. I didn’t want a typical book of photography. I wanted to make it more personal and be about my journey as a photographer and the narrative of not only my career but also of the moments of frustration, those moments of being really lonely.”

You can get a sense of this scrapbook sensibility right from the start: The first photo in the book is actually an image of a letter to her friend, Vineta, written in March of 2000, in which she describes being in Kashmir, or, as she says in the letter, quoting President Bill Clinton, “the most dangerous place on earth.”

At the end of the letter, she says, “I never thought I’d be attracted to these kinds of pictures, Vin, but I guess I am trying to capture their lives, the tangible tension along the frontier, to put some faces to all the gunfire and constant aggression between the two countries that I read about every day in the papers. Somehow, I always end up seeing everything through this humanistic looking glass, without ever perceiving my own danger.”

It’s a captivating way start to the book, since the handwritten letter seems to predict the path that she will take—which includes covering wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, South Sudan, Libya and other countries; getting published in The New York Times and National Geographic; being kidnapped twice; writing a memoir; and winning major awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship (or “genius grant”) and being part of The New York Times team that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2009.

Lynsey Addario: Documenting The Human Condition
Men stand outside the governor’s house hours after the fall of the Taliban, in Kandahar, December 2001.

But what’s also powerful about presenting the book in a somewhat rough-edges-and-all manner is that it provides a sense of transparency, that allows you to trust her storytelling. In fact, what’s important to see throughout the volume, particularly for young photographers who wish to emulate her, is what an all-around excellent communicator she is, in not only her photos but also in her writing. She’s exceptionally focused.

Telling War Stories About Women: Photographing Noor Nisa

Addario’s 2009 photograph of Noor Nisa, a young pregnant Afghan woman in a remote province of Afghanistan, is an excellent example of the photographer’s instincts for seeing an opportunity to capture a memorable image, tell a remarkable story and also gain more insight into what it means to be a photojournalist.

“I was working on a story on maternal mortality,” says Addario, “a body of work I’ve been doing for the last 10 years or so. I had been traveling in Badakhshan province of Afghanistan,” a province with one of the highest rates of maternal deaths in the world. “I had been meeting with women in hospitals and very remote clinics.”

Addario says while traveling through Afghanistan, back from these meetings with her translator, Dr. Zeba, “we saw these two women in burkas on the side of the road, and right away when we realized there was something amiss because women are always accompanied by a man, and those two women were not. They were just on the side of the road in the middle of the mountains.”

Addario and her translator stopped the car. “We jumped out and asked, ‘what’s going on? Is there something wrong?’ It turned out the woman on the right, Noor Nisa, was in labor,” says Addario. The reason they were alone was because the pregnant woman’s husband’s car had broken down. The husband, whose first wife had died in childbirth and was determined not to lose his second wife, had gone off to find help. 

“So I asked,” says Addario, “why don’t I just take them to a hospital?” But Addario said that the women needed permission from the husband. “So, I turned to Dr. Zeba and I said, ‘Go find the husband.’” Luckily, Addario says, Dr. Zeba found the husband almost immediately. (Essentially, there’s only one road in the whole province.) “I gave them all a ride to the hospital,” says Addario, where Noor Nisa safely delivered a baby girl.

Lynsey Addario: Documenting The Human Condition
One-hundred-nine African refugees from the Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Nigeria are rescued by the Italian navy from a rubber boat in the sea between Italy and Libya, October 2014.

Although there’s a happy ending to this story, when many people hear it, they often ask Addario if she captured photos of her delivery.

“I did not,” she says, “because actually, I knew that I had really changed the story with my presence and that they probably would not have made it to the hospital had I not taken them.”

However, when she thinks back on what transpired, she says, “But I could have. I could have taken pictures and put it in the caption that I’m the one who took her to the hospital. So it was just a personal decision.”

For me, Addario’s image may tell a story of one woman in a specific time and place, but it resonates on a global scale.

“I’ve always been interested in telling stories about women,” says Addario, “and not only the injustices but also celebrating strong women. And so I think it was sort of natural for me to focus on women where I had more access.” For example, in Afghanistan under the Taliban, during her first assignments, being a female allowed her access to women in situations that were inaccessible to her male colleagues. “Afghanistan, especially under the Taliban,” says Addario, “was very segregated—male, female—and men who are not blood relatives couldn’t actually get into family homes or go into the women’s hospital. So I realized that my gender as a woman was an asset and that I could focus on these women’s stories.”

But she had a personal interest as well: “I grew up with three sisters, my mother and a gay father.” So, Addario says, early on her family supported and embraced strong women.

Finding Surprising Images From The Past

Addario notes in the book that she has captured perhaps millions of photos in her lifetime, starting as a photojournalist 23 years ago. What’s interesting to note, though, is that during that time, photography itself went from a film-based system to a digital-based one. For Addario, that has meant she had some older projects in an analog format and needed them to be digitized. To help out, she hired an archivist.

Lynsey Addario: Documenting The Human Condition
Kahindo, 20, sits in her home with her two children born out of rape in North Kivu Province, eastern Congo, April 2008.

“When I started doing the book,” Addario says, “I had a room full of negatives from when I first started shooting from the ’90s.” Addario says her archivist was scanning all of her negatives, many of which the photographer had forgotten about. But just as Addario and her team were closing the book, the archivist sent in a scanned image of men standing outside the governor’s house in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. “She sent me this panoramic, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to include it.’ It went perfectly with the text. It described what I was feeling, and so we were able to get it in.”

Connecting With Subjects

One common element in most of Addario’s photos is her ability to have subjects agree to be photographed. Some of them have endured unimaginable traumas, such as the parents of soldiers killed in battle or victims who have suffered rape in war. To do so, Addario says it has meant she has had to form strong relationships with them, and they have had to build a sense of trust together…which in some cases may mean deciding not to photograph them.

But building relationships is central to her work. “For me, photography is all about connecting with my subjects,” says Addario. “And so I think for me, it’s really important to have those relationships that you establish that have some sort of connection. Otherwise, how would I be a sensitive photographer who can accurately convey a situation. I have to understand what’s going on. I have to really have a good sense of the subject and sort of what they’re feeling and what they’re trying to say. So for me, it’s really about communicating.”

Yet in a book comprising war photos, one thing puzzled me: I asked Addario why she chose to include the word “Love” in the title Of Love & War.

“It could mean many different things for me,” says Addario. “People always associate war with the most horrific things, because, of course, it brings out the worst in humanity. But it also brings out the best in many. I see generosity, I see kindness, I see love and inspiration.

“I also sort of fall in love with the people I photograph. I think that in these relationships, they have opened themselves up, and I open myself up…So there are many reasons for including ‘love’ in the title.”

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