Lynsey Addario’s autobiography, recommended

by Chris Bertram on September 28, 2015

I spent a good chunk of yesterday reading the second half of Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. I’d been reading it a few pages at a time for the previous week, but then I just got carried away and had to read right to the end. As CT readers know, I’m keenly interested in photography, but it is also the case that reading accounts from war photographers (and seeing their pictures) has changed the way I think about war and conflict.

After September 11th 2001, the blogosphere erupted into being a thing, and several hundred part-time pundits spent a good period of their time arguing with one another about Afghanistan, Iraq, the Islamic world, military tactics and a thousand other things they knew virtually nothing about. Some of them are typing still. I penned what I now regard as an unfortunate essay on just war theory and Afghanistan, unfortunate because there I was applying abstract principles to conflicts where I hadn’t a clue about the human reality. I hope I’d be more careful and less reductive today, and that’s partly as a result of people like the photographer Don McCullin, and his autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour. I’d heard of Addario’s book a few months ago, but then I saw some of her pictures at a festival of documentary photography in Perpignan, France, and decided I had to read it.

It’s What I Do is framed by a terrifying story of being kidnapped in Libya by forces loyal to Gaddhafi. Libya, it seems, was even more dangerous than previous conflicts (though Syria is more still). That’s chronologically near the end of the story, though, which starts with an unconventional family life in Connecticut and then proceeds though early work with transgender prostitutes in New York to Addario’s big break: she was in Afghanistan under the Taliban, talking and photographing ordinary Afghans before 9/11. As one of the few Westerners to have been there at the time, she was instantly in demand as soon as the twin towers fell. The book then takes us to a series of conflicts, Sudan, Somalia, the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan again, the tribal areas of Pakistan and Libya. There is nothing partisan in Addario’s writing, there’s no spin. She just tells of her life and the people she meets, tries to give their perspective on the world and to make it comprehensible to the reader, recounts her dealings in the Islamic world with both incredibly kind and hospitably people and angry and lecherous ones. This humanizing of ordinary people in circumstances of war, famine and disaster is one of the strengths of the book and incredibly important: the people fleeing Syria, Sudan, Somalia today are people like us.

Addario is very good at making vivid her experience of very scary situations. Near kidnap in Iraq, kidnap in Libya, serious injury in Pakistan and being under fire up a mountain in a remote valley in Afghanistan whilst people die around her and they can hear the chatter on the Taliban radio of their attackers getting closer and closer. Intertwined with all this is a personal story of serial relationships, finding, eventually, the right man for her, and dealing with the emotional and ethical conflicts of family and pregnancy whilst working in a war zone. Regular CT readers will know of Laurie Paul’s work on Transformative Experience and will know that two of Laurie’s key examples are the experience of war and having a baby. Addario deals with both, and both at the same time.

Her photographs are great too. Worth a read.

{ 3 comments }

1

L. A. Paul 09.28.15 at 2:19 pm

This book looks fascinating, thanks for the tip (and the name-check). I am obsessed with these issues, and in the case of experience of war, with the changes in self this experience can bring about. Here are four more kinds of case: (1) Basic training and the changes in self that this can bring about. (2) Conscientious objection. (3) The changes in self wrought by experiencing the death and destruction, especially as an agent of that destruction. (4) PTSD for vets. There’s a lot here.

2

Niall McAuley 09.28.15 at 3:08 pm

Coming soon from director Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Lawrence is Lynsey Addario in It’s What I Do!

3

John Hayter 09.28.15 at 3:35 pm

Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure to pick this up. I can recommend the documentary McCullin. Alongside some pictures and newsreel that are very, very difficult to look at, there are some sobering observations about the job of photographing those about to die.

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