Q&A with Lynsey Addario, Author of 'It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War'
Lynsey Addario is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist known for her images of war. Her book, It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War, is a memoir of her experience surviving in war zones, living through kidnappings, and meeting people she says are “beautiful and generous” despite their circumstances.
Her book was chosen as the Penn State Reads common text. She will visit the community on Oct. 16-17 for events at Penn State and Schlow Centre Region Library. Town&Gown caught up with her for an interview in mid-September.
T&G: Where are you now? What are you working on?
Addario: I am in London. I got back from Germany this morning. That assignment is a year-long project I've been working on for Time magazine called “Finding Home,” and we've been following three Syrian refugee families. When we started the project all three women were pregnant, like 8 or 9 months pregnant, and we followed them through delivery and are following the babies through the first year of their lives.
T&G: What would be lacking from conflict coverage if we didn't have photos?
Addario: I think that there are some incredible writers who do a really amazing job of painting a picture of what it looks like on the front line in a war zone. … I think the important thing there is someone bearing witness and reporting what's going on. Obviously, for me, I believe in the power of photography. I believe in the power of an image, and the fact that things should be documented visually because it provides sort of proof of something that's happened.
T&G: A lot of Penn State undergrads read your book this year. For those looking to get into journalism and photography, what do you have to say to them in this environment where their work will be called "fake" and people are making up their own facts and narratives?
Addario: First of all, I think in any profession you have to really fight your way to become successful. I think photojournalism and journalism is definitely one of those professions where there are fewer outlets than when I started, for example, 23 years ago. That said, it's important not to get discouraged and to just keep working hard and doing what you believe in. I think that the whole idea, the whole notion of fake news to me, I don't pay attention to it. The only context in which I pay attention to fake news is the fact that it's become more dangerous for journalists on account of President Trump's claims that there is fake news because people are more hostile and very openly hostile towards journalists, which is a very dangerous thing, right down to endangering free speech. I think, for me, I think that people will always be negative in many different contexts and it's very important to not get sidetracked by that and to believe in the work and believe in the importance of journalism and to believe in the importance of giving people a voice and documenting what's happening and telling people stories. That, to me, is more important than any sort of negative comments about journalism strictly because he doesn't want the truth coming out.
T&G: You've been to all of these continents covering conflicts. What are some of the unifying themes that strike you about the people who live in war zones?
Addario: I think that the one thing that I've learned is that people are incredibly resilient and you do see the whole cliché of seeing the greatest beauty and the greatest hardship in war. There is some truth in that, and I think that I've met incredible people who have opened their homes to me and to my colleagues in extremely difficult times when they themselves have lost everything. I think that those moments are ones that will stay with me forever. Of course, there's the devastation, there's the evil of war. People do things that are unconscionable. People do things that I would never think a human being capable of. But at the same time, they also do incredibly beautiful, generous things.
T&G: What would be an example of some of those beautiful, generous things that you've seen?
Addario: First of all, there are women that I've photographed who have been assaulted sexually, physically, gang raped, they're in recovery. They take the time to talk, to tell their stories, to try and offer me tea, and to try and fix me a meal when they have nothing. I remember when I used to go to Afghanistan under the Taliban in 2000. I made three trips under the Taliban. I remember at the time in Afghanistan it was illegal to invite a foreigner into your home, and there weren't really many foreigners there because it was very hard to get a visa. But when I would drive around through the countryside ... Afghans would literally hang out their windows and say, “Come. Come eat lunch. Come to my home. Spend the night. Let us be hospitable.” It's their custom and it's their tradition to open their homes and to be very hospitable despite the fact that they could have gotten in trouble from the Taliban, and despite the fact that they had nothing, no money, no food. They would literally go into their garden and pick me lunch, pick me vegetables, and make bread.
T&G: As far as your book, I saw an interview you had done with CNN where you said you had written it as a means of therapy after the kidnapping ... did that help?
Addario: Yeah, of course it helped ... photography is a very extroverted profession. ... Anything I'm feeling, it influences the photos I take and the work I do. I think the whole process of sort of sitting at home and sitting in my office and writing every single day, and having that discipline of writing for X hours a day, and thinking about my thoughts, and downloading everything I had been through for many, many years, to me it was a real gift. It was something that was difficult but it was also therapeutic and it was also very important at that time in my life because I had essentially spent 15 years, at that point, sort of running around the world without ever pausing to think about what I had seen, or the interviews I had done, or what I personally had been through.
T&G: What will you be talking about when you come to Penn State?
Addario: I will be showing some work and telling some stories behind that work. It's sort of like the format of the book: behind the scenes ... for me the most interesting part will be taking questions from the students and engaging them as well on questions they have.
The signature Penn State Reads event and Lynsey Addario book signing will be held at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 in Schwab Auditorium. Free tickets are available at Center for the Performing Arts box office locations. Schlow Library in State College hosts “An Evening with Lynsey Addario” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17 in the Downsbrough Community Room. No registration is required for the Schlow event For more information, visit schlowlibrary.org.