Photojournalist Lynsey Addario on why her job is more dangerous now


Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynsey Addario has risked her life to document the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and civil wars and humanitarian crises in Libya, South Sudan and Syria. Her work has been featured in the The New York Times, Time Magazine, and National Geographic.

After shooting for about two decades, some of her most striking images are now in the new book “Of Love and War.”

Addario tells Press Play the remarkable survival story of one of her subjects, a young boy named Choul, who fled his village in South Sudan

Addario: When I met Choul, he had fled from his village outside of Leer in South Sudan. His village had been attacked by government forces. And his father was killed… He was trying to make his way with his grandmother and sister to Kenya because they had relatives there, and Choul wanted to go to school, and they were seeking safety.

But because they fled in the middle of the night when their village was attacked, he left behind his mother and about eight siblings… And so he didn’t know if his mother was alive. He didn’t know if his siblings had survived because it was so chaotic in the aftermath of that.

So we spent about five days with him. And then as I always do, I leave my phone number and email for them. And I left it with his grandmother, who spoke a little bit of English. And about a month later, I got a call from the grandmother. And she said, “Miss Lynsey, we’re in Kenya!” And essentially, we ended up touching base every sort of month or so.

About six months later, I got an assignment from Time Magazine to go to Leer… I thought, “I wonder if I can find Choul’s mother.” And so I started asking the ICRC, which traces families separated. And they said, You know, there’s a food distribution tomorrow. And there are 17,000 people coming. So if Choul’s mother is alive, she’ll be there because she’ll be hungry.”

And so I said, “Yeah. What are the chances of finding a woman in 17,000 people?” So I gave her name and the village name to someone at the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross). And within a few hours, someone came to me and said, “This is Choul’s mother.” And I said, “No, I believe it.”

And so I started asking her all these questions. Like what happened your son? What happened your husband? Is your husband alive? What village you from? And eventually I realised it was really her. And I started crying. I just sort of broke down.

…And so I asked if I could go to her house the next day. And I brought a copy of The New York Times Magazine with Choul on the cover — just in case I found her. And so I went to her, and I brought the magazine to her and her grandmother, who was still alive. And they looked to Choul, and they both just started weeping, saying, “My son, my son, he’s alive!” And realizing that I was the messenger between this mother and her son.

And so I recorded a video of her to bring to Choul. And then I went to Kakuma. And I saw him there, and I brought him the video of his mother. And so they realize they’re both alive.

…It was so satisfying, but I mean I was so gutted. After that story, I felt like I had had such an emotional upheaval.

Addario also talks about the famine and displacement caused by Yemen’s civil war

What we are not seeing is the fact that hundreds of thousands — if not millions — are on the brink of famine… The hospitals are full of children with severe malnutrition. They have complications associated with malnutrition.

There are thousands of Yemenis who have been displaced from their homes within Yemen, who are living on the sidewalks, who are living in schools, they’re living in sort of makeshift tent camps. Because very few aid agencies are in there working. They don’t have the funding.

A lot of the the role of journalists is we get the story out. And funding is often generated as a result of the stories we do — for UNICEF and for a lot of these U.N. organizations. But because no journalists have gotten in, it’s sort of the forgotten war.

When covering the uprising in Libya in 2011, Addario and three other journalists were kidnapped

The nature of the war in Libya — it was along one paved road that went from eastern Libya, from Benghazi, all the way to Tripoli. And the terrain was very open and flat. …There was really literally no place for cover.

And at that point Gaddafi, he was using airstrikes, had helicopter gunships coming in, spraying the ground around us with I think 50 caliber bullets. And we were with a completely untrained militia.

…All the journalists covering the popular uprising in eastern Libya snuck in illegally because Gaddafi did not want journalists covering the uprising, so he wasn’t giving visas to go there.

So of course we knew that the danger as journalists was running into Gaddafi’s troops, or being overrun by his troops. Because we didn’t have visas, and we could be thrown in prison. Which is what happened.

My first and foremost concern was that I was going to be killed. I mean, we were told to lie facedown in the dirt. We each had a Kalashnikov put to our heads. We we were about to be executed.

And at that moment the commander said, “You can’t kill them. They’re Americans.” So they then tied us up, blindfolded us.

And for me as the only woman, the the main fear I had aside from survival was that I would be raped. I had covered rape as a weapon of war in so many countries around the Middle East and Africa. And why wouldn’t I fall victim to the same thing that so many women I had covered had fallen victim to?

…I was not raped…I was groped…My genitals were touched over my jeans repeatedly. I’d say pretty much every man whose hands we fell into touched me and my body.

How she approaches her job differently now

I’m still doing this job. …I just came back from Yemen. I was just in northern Nigeria. I’m still working in war zones all the time.

But I’m not covering frontline as much…That’s not a direct result of Libya. That’s a result of I’ve done this job for almost two decades. I’ve lost a lot of friends. I’ve been kidnapped twice. I’ve been thrown out of a car on a highway. I kind of feel like I’m running out of chances. And so I think for me, the more interesting stories — visually — are always to cover what happens as a result of war.

Addario believes the rhetoric from the U.S. president makes working as a photojournalist more dangerous worldwide

What frustrates me is the rhetoric that journalists are the enemy of the people. That the media is blamed for almost everything by the president. And I think that is a terrifying and very dangerous place to be.

…I think the more president says “journalists are the enemy of the people,” people who believe what he says and who follow him — they feel like they have license to be violent against journalists.

And I’m not talking about only within the United States. I’m talking about overseas too. You know, there are authoritarian regimes. There are leaders of other countries who don’t respect journalism and free press anyway. And now they feel like they have license to do what they want with their own local journalists because they assume that, you know, Americans won’t take them to task.

Lynsey Addario. Credit: Sam Taylor Johnson.