“Ugh, girls”: Review of Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War

Natalie Leppard

Addario began photographing in Buenos Aires in 1996 and has since worked in India, South Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Darfur, and Congo, among other war-torn parts of the world, documenting war from all sides, Taliban rule, everyday life as impacted by conflict, and humanitarian issues. The photographs have earned numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize (as part of a New York Times team, 2009) and the MacArthur Fellowship, perhaps better known as the “Genius Grant” (2009). Addario’s photos of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winners were part of an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center (2014).

Addario has been kidnapped twice while working, once in Iraq and once in Libya, and survived a horrific car wreck in Pakistan that resulted in having her collarbone replaced with a metal plate and undergoing months of recuperation. After each event, Addario returned to the field to photograph conflict.

Addario also happens to be a woman.

She has had to contend with sexual abuse in the field ranging from her breasts being squeezed “like a child honking a rubber horn” (14) to more threatening situations:

One day I went to one of these demonstrations [against Bush] with a handful of my male colleagues. Though I was dressed as a Muslim–respectfully with not a strand of hair showing–the Pakistanis knew I was a foreign woman simply because I was carrying a camera, working, trespassing in a man’s world. To them, that was enough to merit a quick feel on any part of my body. They perceived foreign women based on what they saw in movies, often porn movies; easy and available for sex. I tried not to make a scene in front of my peers. I didn’t want my gender to determine whether or not I could cover breaking news, so I continued photographing, ignoring the sweeping hands on my butt, the occasional grab.

Once President Bush went up in flames, my colleagues were nowhere to be found. I tried to focus on shooting, but this time there were not a few hands on my butt but dozens. And this time it wasn’t a subtle feel but an aggressive, wide-handed clutch, butt to crotch, back to front. A combative Western woman could elicit terrible anger from these men. (96-97)

And to the threat of being raped while kidnapped or being interrogated. Going into the field as a woman in countries that do not allow women freedom of movement was a constant danger. She “was always being dressed up as someone’s wife” (251) to do her job, because she couldn’t move as freely as her male colleagues.

To further complicate her role as photojournalist and woman, she didn’t “want to be the cowardly photographer or the terrified girl who prevented the men from doing their work” (10) and “felt guilty for getting easier treatment because I was a woman” (291) while she was kidnapped with three men in Libya. Though she states that her male colleagues wouldn’t have called her out for being a woman, she “was the one who was all too aware of being the only woman in the car” (12).

And, perhaps strangely, she found that “some of the biggest extremists were open to meeting with women so long as we were not their women. Western female journalists didn’t have to abide by either male of female traditions, and I assumed they had given up trying to figure us out long ago” (252). But, she still couldn’t sit in the exit row of Ariana Afghan Airlines because “a woman wouldn’t be capable of opening the exit door” (238). Never mind that she was replaced with a “frail old man with a white beard, hunched with osteoporosis” (238) or that she was returning from a grueling imbed with Battle Company during which her protective vest was loaded with steel plates because she gave her lighter ceramic plates to a pregnant colleague (who was embedded with Addario).

And, yet, Addario often found herself in this androgynous limbo: “As a foreign journalist I was exempt from all norms and rules that applied to the women here. I was androgynous, a third undefined sex” (65). A limbo that allowed her to work without the constraints a man might have had because she was dismissed as a woman. She notes that she and Elizabeth Rubin, a journalist, often worked as a team and “people opened their doors to us. I wondered if they underestimated us because we were women in a part of the world dominated by men” (116).

Not to mention the pressures of her own society and friends whose “friends’ advice evolved from ‘stop running around war zones’ to ‘stop running around war zones and get pregnant’” (266) as she moved into her thirties. She had to try to “keep up [with her hiking boyfriend], to love what he loved, to be the complete woman” (108). As well as deal with Western ideas of what women should and should not do with their lives:

The reality was that most male war correspondents had wives or faithful girlfriends waiting at home for months on end, while most female war correspondents and photographers remained hopelessly single, stringing along love affairs in the field and at home, ever in search of someone who wasn’t threatened by our commitment to our work or put off by the relentless travel schedule. (147)

As she notes just prior to her wedding, “I was in a man’s profession. I couldn’t think of a single female photojournalist who was married or had a child” (266). But she did both, eventually, while continuing to be a conflict photographer well into her pregnancy and resuming work shortly after giving birth to her son because she had the support of her husband and her male editor who knew Addario should be the one making the decisions about her work.

Her work is important and is “documenting the fate of a society that has been oppressed for decades” (italics in original, 7), not only in Libya, about which that statement was made, but in other war-torn areas of the world and even the US (she photographed transsexual prostitutes in New York early in her career). The book offers a great insight into what it means to be a photojournalist, what it means to be a female photojournalist, and what it means to be a woman in the world. The accompanying photographs are at turns joyful and heartbreaking.

For classroom use, excerpts would be acceptable (the hardcopy of the book is lovely but perhaps cost prohibitive) and Addario’s web site has an excellent selection of her work, including photos from the book.

Addario, Lynsey. It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. Print.