While traversing the battle-torn hills of Iraq and exploring maternal mortality risks at the hospitals of Sierra Leone, photojournalist Lynsey Addario has weathered everything from two kidnappings to the murder of colleagues in her quest to shine a light on civilians in war zones. Her new book, Of Love and War, features a collection of the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s photos from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. See what develops when Addario discusses her life and career at the Museum of Science on Oct. 28.
What are your interactions with your subjects before you photograph them like? I always start with a detailed introduction of myself: Who I am, which publication, if any, I am photographing for, and why I think it’s important to document a particular topic—and what I hope to achieve. I am often asking to enter into and document people’s very personal lives, and I think it’s important to explain why I am asking for this access. Many people around the world respect journalists and journalism, and understand and appreciate our work, and how journalism can help lead to change. And if given permission, I often work slowly and methodically. I return over and over again over days to the same women and families, checking on them, talking with them and, sometimes, not photographing.
Are there positive aspects of being a woman in a male-dominated profession? I often work on women’s
issues—sensitive ones, like rape as a weapon of war, maternal health, etc., and I also often work in societies where men and women are segregated by gender because of their religions and cultures. So as a foreign journalist, I often have access to men and women, whereas my male colleagues can often only access the men.
Do you find that you have to balance the human desire to want to help with a journalistic mindset to not interfere? I think anyone who does this work inevitably comes across moments where we want to help. But the reality is twofold. Very few of us are also trained medically. We aren’t doctors or nurses, and don’t really have the tools to help, and we are often working alongside aid workers who actually do have the tools to help. Most people don’t realize this—that journalists often aren’t working in a vacuum. Sometimes the most effective thing we can do is offer a woman or family a ride to a medical facility nearby—but we have to be very careful to not to help or get involved with combatants, because that could jeopardize our own safety and that of our drivers and translators.
Have your photojournalistic drives or subject matter changed since starting a family? Are you drawn to less dangerous subjects? It’s a difficult question, because the reason why I decided to start a family when I did was because I had been through and survived so much—I had been kidnapped twice, had been in a fatal car accident, where my driver was killed, and I was thrown out of a car on a highway in Pakistan, I had been in numerous ambushes by the Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked insurgents and most importantly, had lost several friends. I felt like it was time to start pulling back a bit from the frontline, and to start doing what I initially had set out to cover, which were the civilians impacted by war and its aftermath and the humanitarian stories. So when I got pregnant and had my son, I was naturally pulling back from war. I think something many people don’t understand, as well, is that I never set out to be a war photographer, per se. I started because when 9/11 happened, I was a young American woman who was learning the potential impact and importance of journalism, and I wanted to contribute to what I felt was the most important story of our generation: the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So I set out to cover them, to document our troops and the effects of those wars. Now that the U.S. has pulled out most combat troops in those countries, I don’t feel as compelled to cover those wars. Though I am still working frequently in war zones. I was just in Yemen, and earlier this year was in Central African Republic. I was also working in Somaliland, but it is quite safe there.
What is the one photo of yours that you feel has had the biggest impact? I guess the series on the death of Mamma Sessay—a young Sierra Leonean woman who died in childbirth while I was photographing her. I was photographing a young woman named Mama Sessay giving birth at the Magburaka Government Hospital. She was delivering the second twin in a hospital after hours and hours of labor in her village and en route, which included an arduous journey from her village to the hospital where I met her, a canoe across a river, to an ambulance and a six-hour ride to the Magburaka Government Hospital. I spoke with Mamma Sessay at length while she was resting before delivering the second twin, and we discussed how she had preferred to continue studying to marriage at a young age, but her father pressured her into an early marriage. When she finally delivered the second baby, she started bleeding post-partum. I am not a doctor and have to defer to the trained medical professionals around me, but the amount of blood pouring out of her seemed terrifying. I didn’t know then that it only takes 15-20 minutes to hemorrhage—and die. I was shooting video and stills of Mamma Sessay both during delivery and after and on the video, one can hear my voice saying, “She is bleeding a lot.” Yet the midwives kept mopping up the blood and talking amongst themselves. I eventually went to go try to find the doctor to see if someone could help, and the doctor was in surgery. By the time the doctor was available, Mamma Sessay had died. I just couldn’t believe how unnecessary her death seemed, and it inspired me to continue documenting maternal health and death to try to turn these statistics around. Time magazine ended up publishing an eight-page spread on the death of Mamma Sessay in 2010, and posted the video I shot of her online. At the same time, one of the board members from Merck, the pharmaceutical company, saw those images, and was helping build their corporate responsibility program. The story so impacted the board that they ultimately decided to start Merck for Mothers, and put $500 million aside to try to fight maternal death.
What do you think is the most grievous humanitarian crisis that you have covered that didn’t get enough attention in America? Probably Yemen. I actually just returned from Yemen, and the story hasn’t been published yet, but I have been trying to get in there for over a year. The visas, internal permits, traveling from south to north Yemen is very dangerous, and requires a great deal of logistics and good contacts and so many journalists haven’t been able to get in. The ongoing war and the humanitarian crisis there is heartbreaking and extraordinary and is simply not getting coverage. Of course, as a photojournalist who believes that photography can help change policy, I think if more of us could cover Yemen, more Americans might be against the U.S. involvement in such a senseless war.