10 things about photojournalist Lynsey Addario that you will find fascinating

Swarms of people are crazy about celebrities. There are also those who glorify royalty. And then there’s me.

As a writer who covers high profile women and international politics, the people I tend to be in awe of are not celebs or royals (I’ll admit I’m not above going into groupie-mode when I catch a glimpse of my favorite musicians) — but rather journalists. Particularly women who go toe to toe with world leaders or those who enter war zones like it’s just another Wednesday.

That’s where the likes of Lynsey Addario come in.

The 50-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist has been covering conflict, humanitarian crises, and women’s issues (particularly in traditional societies) around the world for the New York Times, National Geographic and TIME for more than two decades.

Since September 11, 2001, Addario has taken the most haunting of images on assignments in conflict regions such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Darfur, South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Syria, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Here are ten things you need to know about the woman who continuously risks her life to capture what is happening inside war zones—armed with nothing except for the power of her camera.

1) The first time she was kidnapped, she says it wasn’t “a huge deal”

The first time she was kidnapped, Addario was covering the war in Iraq in 2007.

Security men with Blackwater (a private security firm employed during the Iraq War to guard officials, as well as train Iraq’s new army and police) were killed and set on fire and hung from the bridges of Fallujah.

Addario, alongside two colleagues, were going down a smuggler’s route and were stopped.

Even though the kidnapping was only for a day, it was terrifying, Addario has said in the past.

“Things got very dangerous very quickly. We had, I don’t even know how many, guns to our heads for about eight hours and we just sort of tried to talk our way out of it.”

Addario and her colleagues were fortunate that their driver was from the same tribe as the men from Fallujah. “We were shuttled around.” They were brought to one of the bases and then to a private home. “Everyone was sort of negotiating what to do with us and eventually we were released.”

2) The second time was “much more more dramatic”

In 2011, Addario had been covering the frontlines of the Libyan war. President Gaddafi was against journalists covering the war—Libya has never had a free press—and he had told the soldiers that any journalists were spies. 

When the frontline started to move in, Addario and her three colleagues knew they had to leave for their own safety. But the brink of danger is also where the best picture can be captured, so they stayed.

As they were driving, Gaddafi’s troops got ahead of them and cut the road in front. “We knew we could get arrested and we assumed we would be tortured if not killed.”

All the colleagues—who were all men—were pulled out including the driver. As a woman, Addario was left inside the car because they weren’t sure who she was (they weren’t sure if she was Libyan).

When the shooting started, Addario knew she had to get out because the car wasn’t armored. “I made a run for it,” she said.

“We all ended up behind this stone building. At that point, we were told to lie on the ground execution-style.

“Each one of us had a gun to our heads and begged for our lives. We were very lucky they didn’t kill us, but for the next three days we were tied up, blindfolded, beaten up, punched in the face, and groped.”

Addario recalled the terrifying experience this way: “It’s human nature to go into survival mode and be able to deal with whatever’s at hand, but it’s also the fear of what will happen next.”

Eventually, the four journalists were flown to Tripoli and held captive for another three days. They were released after a week. But the driver who was with this was killed. “We don’t know if he was killed in the crossfire or if they executed him, but we never saw him again. He was a kid, I mean, he was a student who was just working with us.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Lynsey Addario (@lynseyaddario)

3) She first started photographing women living under the Taliban in the spring of 2000

The 26-year-old photographer had never been to a hostile country before. She was able to get a visa to travel to Afghanistan but she remembers having to put her cameras in a bag and sneak around.

In order to photograph the women, she has to get permission from the women themselves of course, but she also has to go through the men in the family, whether they were the husbands, fathers, or brothers.

She had to make sure she didn’t endanger the lives of the women she photographed and had to be both cautious and meticulous in how she went about it. “Sometimes it took weeks to get permission to shoot one photograph,” she has said.

4) When the United States pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021, she made it her personal mission to help the Afghans who had helped her, get out of the country

When the US withdrew their troops from Afghanistan, Addario became immediately concerned for the translators and other Afghan women who had assisted her with her coverage.

She collaborated with her colleague Stephanie Sinclair—a National Geographic photographer who founded Too Young To Wed, an organization that strives to help girls who are forced into marriages—to help evacuate as many people as they could.

“When the Taliban took over, our immediate concern was for these women,” she said in an interview.

“We joined forces to figure out how we can pressure organizations we’ve worked with to help get them out.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Lynsey Addario (@lynseyaddario)

5) She wrote a New York Times best-selling memoir about her unconventional life and career

In 2015, Addario released her memoir: It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.

The exceptionally raw autobiography talks about coming of age and her life as a young photographer in a post-9/11 world.

From the start, she was determined to be taken as seriously as her male peers: photojournalism was a “boy’s club.” She also felt that she shouldn’t have to choose between a career and personal life and she learned to strike a balance between the two.

She says that her profession has made her see just how fragile life is and she sees herself as a witness to the human cost of war. She’s watched uprisings unfold and watched people fight to the death for their freedom.

6) Already a Pulitzer Prize winner, she was a finalist this year for a haunting image she took on the war in Ukraine

Addario has garnered a number of accolades including one from American Photo Magazine in 2015 as one of the five most influential photographers of the past 25 years. They said in a statement: “Addario changed the way we saw the world’s conflicts.”

Before that, in 2009, she was awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, which was for her work in Waziristan.

This year, Addario was a Pulitzer finalist for “Breaking News Photography” for her single image of Ukrainian victims of a Russian mortar attack on a civilian safe passage route during the first weeks of the invasion of Ukraine.

7) She is completely self-taught

Addario has had no formal training in photography.

But she was on the path pretty early. She remembers her father giving her her very first camera when she was 13 years old.

“It was a Nikon FG, which had been given to him by a client” she wrote in her book. “The gift happened by chance: I saw it, I asked about it, and he casually handed it over. I was fascinated by the science of the camera, the way the light and the shutter could freeze a moment in time.”

Addario taught herself the basics from an old “How to Photograph in Black and White” manual. “With rolls of black-and-white film, long exposures, and no tripod, I sat on the roof and tried to shoot the moon.”

Because she was too shy to photograph people, she started by pointing her camera at flowers, cemeteries and landscapes instead.

Soon, a professional photographer friend of her mother’s, invited Addario to her darkroom and taught her how to develop and print film. She writes: “I watched with wonder as the still life’s of tulips and tombstones twinned onto the page. It was like magic.”

Later she would “connect the dots that photojournalism was a way to incorporate current events within art”.

8) In her twenties, she asked her dad to give her the “wedding money” so that she could buy camera equipment instead

In her memoir, Addario writes that it was around her 25th birthday that she had an epiphany.

The last of her three sisters has just gotten married and her father (along with his partner Bruce) had given each of them $15,000 to put towards the costs of their wedding.

Addario has just broken up with her boyfriend and at the time didn’t think she would love anything as much as she loved photography. So she made her father a proposition: she asked him to advance her the “wedding money” so that she could use it to invest in her career.

She said that if and when she did get married, that she would fund her own wedding. Her father and Bruce agreed. She used the “wedding money” to buy new cameras and lenses and then put the rest of the money in the bank.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Lynsey Addario (@lynseyaddario)

9) She calls her childhood home a kaleidoscope of transvestites and “The Village People” lookalikes

Addario writes that her family home in Westport, Connecticut was a haven for people who weren’t accepted elsewhere.

Her parents were both hairdressers and ran a successful salon. They often brought home employees, clients, and friends.

The group included a manic-depressive chain smoker, an openly gay Mexican (rare in the seventies) who played showtunes on the family piano. There was also Frank, who they called “Auntie Dax,” who dressed as a woman wearing a feather boa.

10) She’s married to a journalist who is also a…Count

Addario’s husband, Paul de Bendern, is a foreign correspondent. After a while of seeing each other as much as they could (they both had jobs that frequently took them to different parts of the world), he told her he needed to tell her something.

De Bendern informed Addario that he had a title: he was a Count. He explained that his grandfather was the adopted son of Jewish Austro-Hungarian baron, a wealthy banker who lent money to Edward VII and made a fortune building railways connecting Turkey to Europe.

But to Addario he was more: “It wasn’t just that Paul was accepting of my work,” she writes. “He was energetically supportive, excited to help me plan my reporting, fascinated by the next possible story, and visibly proud of my accomplishments.”

The reason why Addario does what she does

Addario believes that journalism is fundamental to informing the public about humanitarian crises and the injustices of war:

“My role is to help express the stories and experiences of the people I photograph and interview. It gives me the chance to educate people, to take people to places that wouldn’t otherwise be able to go.”

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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