Book review: It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War

A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
Lynsey Addario

I have a fondness for photography books which almost verges on an obsession. I enjoy spending time in my off grid cabin where there is nothing more enjoyable than sitting down to a photobook while the outside is blanketed in snow. I love being able to look into the world in complete stillness through a photographer’s lens. Sometimes the photobook  is a walk down memory lane as one looks at familiar landscapes and world events. Other times, it is a descent into the unknown, tragedy and conflict. As I started photographing, I found I knew very little about the world of photography. Reading is how learn, so I started purchasing photo books and reading!

When I mentioned to my photographer friend Stephen that I wanted to start writing short photobook reviews, I could hear his eyes rolling (we were on the phone)! Photobook reviews? Like writing words on a page? Yeah, that’s never going to happen! And where would you do this? In your current blog? The blog you post to once or twice a year? Who are we kidding here? And where would you find the time to do this? True words were never spoken! Given my work and travel schedule, it indeed seems impossible that I would be able to find the time to write photobook reviews in any shape or form!

Let’s have some fun and take a page out of Muhammed Ali’s book and say: Impossible is nothing! My photobook library is growing and it is time I introduced you to some incredible photographers. Plus, I haven’t commuted to work due to COVID-19 for a few weeks, I have put that time to good use!

Today I am going to start not with a photobook per say, but Linsey Addario’s memoir: “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War”. This is cheating a little bit I know but not to worry, I will follow up with a review of her photobook “Of War and Love”.

I came across Lynsey Addario’s work on the pages of the New York Times years ago. I remember reading a photo credit and realizing Lynsey was a in Afghanistan and thinking what the hell is she doing in Afghanistan? This was before other photojournalists arrived in Afghanistan. Addario has covered just about every major conflict and humanitarian crisis of our generation, including Iraq, Yemen, Darfur, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, South Sudan, Somalia, and Congo. “It’s What I Do,” chronicles her personal and professional life as a photojournalist coming of age in the post-9/11 world. To get a feel for the breath of her work, take a look at her editorial prints.

Lynsey Addario began her photography career for the Buenos Aires Herald in Argentina in 1996 without any previous photography experience. Today, Addario is one of America’s most accomplished conflict photographer. She does not just photograph wars, but the world’s injustices, conflicts, displacements and oppressions. Everywhere she goes, she bears witness, constantly making the decision not to stay home and travel to cover the stories that need to be told. Being behind the viewfinder is where she wants to be and in those moments, nothing else matters. In her book, we follow along in her journey.

For her work, Addario has won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur fellowship, she has been named one of the five most influential photographers of the last twenty-five years (American Photo) and one of 150 Women Who Shake the World (Newsweek).

Following her kidnapping in Libya in 2011, and the subsequent deaths of her friends and colleagues Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya, Addario decided to process her kidnapping and survival experience by writing a memoir. Addario’s memoirs take us along as a driver side passenger while she is covering difficult assignments. I was struck by her openness to talk about her fears, being a women in a male dominated field, her dubious choices in love, loss and her unwavering desire to get her stories out.

Addario grew up in a family of hairdressers, in what she describes as a hippie home. She was a self-taught photographer who started her photography career when she moved to Argentina after college. Her first break was an assignment from the Associated Press to photograph transgender-prostitues in the Meatpacking District in 1999 amidst a spate of ignored homicides. This was her first long-term assignment and her first opportunity for a real photo-essay. In true Addario style, she spent weeks venturing out in the Meatpacking District “to make inroads into the seemingly impenetrable world of transgender prostitutes.” She traveled with a local organization that distributed condoms and information on sexually transmitted diseases and never took out her camera! Getting close to her subjects required earning their trust. 

Caption: Transgender prostitutes in the Meatpacking Distric in New York, 1999.

In 2000 she traveled to Afghanistan to photograph women living under the Taliban. Not only did she manage to land a visa to Afghanistan, but she also photographed people while photography was banned!

Post 9/11 brought on a series of assignments including: Iraq, South Korea, Haiti, the Middle East, Syria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo.

As Addario herself mentions, her type of photography “bears witness to history, and influences policy.” Throughout her career she has given a voice to the voiceless and has been a champion of forgotten conflicts. Anywhere she goes, there is a story aching to get out and policies worth championing. Her book in its frankness and emotional honesty engages and moves the reader: if getting these photographs is worth the risks that Addario and her colleagues take daily, it behooves us to look. And understand the conflicts around us. And influence policy. And drive change.

Caption: Hanaa rides to work at a plum orchard before dawn along with other Syrian refugees from her informal tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, August 3, 2015. Hanaa and her family fled Syria in 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and moved to this settlement two years ago.
Caption: Syrian refugees line up for one of two daily hot meals distributed by Insani Yardim Vakfi, IHH, at the Bab al-Salam camp at the Syrian side of the country’s border with Turkey, in Syria, February 11, 2013. Roughly 800,000 Syrians have been displaced to neighboring countries by the fighting across Syria, and the aid to refugees has been marred by politics.
Caption: Afghan policewomen handle AMD-65 rifles at a dusty firing range outside Kabul. They are trained by carabinieri, Italian military police from the local NATO troops. Joining the police force is a bold decision for an Afghan woman. Insurgents often attack the police. Very few women get permission to sign up from their husband and male relatives. Of 100,000 officers, only about 700 are female.
Caption: North Darfur. Soldiers with the Sudanese Liberation Army wait by their truck while struck in the mud and hit by a sandstorm in North Darfur, Sudan, August 21, 2004.  
Kenyan women await food handouts and nutrition checks by Doctors without Borders during an ambulatory therapeutic feeding program for severely malnourished children in villages across Turkana, Kenya, August 15, 2011.

Pick up her biography anywhere you usually get your books. You will not be disappointed. It is beautifully written, emotional, and will nudge you out of your comfort zone to leave you with a better understanding of our world conflicts and a desire to change things.

If you would like to learn a bit more about Lyndsey Addario I would suggest the following videos and interviews. These segments are wonderful companions to the book:

  1. Rukmini Callimachi, New York Times foreign correspondent and three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, moderates a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times photojournalist and best-selling author Lynsey Addario:
  2. From the front lines of Libya:
  3. Lindsay Addario tells the story behind five war photos:
  4. Lynsey Addario: ‘War journalists are not all addicted to adrenaline. It’s a calling’
  5. Inside the Story: Photojournalist Lynsey Addario Documents Three Families’ Search for Asylum

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