It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
(Penguin Press, 2015)
In this remarkably compelling memoir, Lynsey Addario chronicles over 10 years of experience as a war photojournalist. The Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur “genius” fellow has photographed, it seems, every major conflict since 2000 and tells the story of a dangerous, intense, and unlikely profession. Yet, perhaps the most compelling part of the book comes down to the fact of Addario’s gender. It’s What I Do effectively illustrates the uncomfortable and at times dangerous dynamic of being a woman in the male-dominated world of conflict journalism, a dynamic that is often accompanied by the question: Can women have it all? But while Addario briefly engages with this question early in her career—when she says that she “tried to […] be the complete woman”—this struggle disappears from the narrative once her career takes flight. Addario’s identity takes full shape through her work. She is at once reflected in her subjects and in the very act of portraying them.
Throughout the pages of It’s What I Do, we follow Addario as she risks her life for images that tell a story, all for the slim chance that they may have some impact on public policy. We follow her on a military embed as she runs into Taliban fighters in the Korengal Valley. We read about her kidnapping by Gadhafi loyalists who imprisoned her in Libya alongside three male colleagues, who she had to watch as they “took turns urinating into the bottle in the corner, and I [Addario] longed for a funnel, or a penis.” We are with her as Israeli soldiers outside the Gaza Strip mistreat her, and as she feels culpable in the death of a colleague after a deadly car accident in Pakistan.
But it isn’t the intense action alone that makes this book a success. As an object, It’s What I Do (despite, and I have to say it, its terrible title) is remarkably beautiful. Addario’s thrilling and compulsively readable story is structured around her stunning—at times heartbreaking—photos, images so striking that it makes me wish that I could reproduce them here in lieu of quotations. Each image relates to the particular scene that Addario is describing, some interspersed amongst the text itself, others in small collections spanning several pages. These photographs alongside the carefully considered narrative make the book utterly compelling. It’s What I Do opens with a kidnapping—a high-action, tense situation that draws the reader into the story. Right away, we feel the intensity of this profession, and that paired with the thread of her gender—the notion that Addario was always all too aware of not wanting to be “the terrified girl who prevented the men from doing their work”—is the perfect combination to not only pique but also sustain readers’ interest.
The success of every memoir depends more on what the author chooses to leave out than what she includes. Addario’s brief, yet relevant family history is a prime example of how carefully and brilliantly this book is put together. Addario compresses her childhood into a few pages, but this biography becomes crucial to the emotional efficacy later on, when Addario has to call her father to tell him that she has just barely made it through yet another life-threatening situation, for example. While this is her profession, it reaches every aspect of Addario’s life. By the end, one comes to the realization that the line between a personal and professional life as a conflict photojournalist is blurry at best.
In the thick of her career, Addario doesn’t consider whether she can have it all because the nature of her work reveals the crudeness of that question. During her time in Darfur, Addario interviewed and photographed several women who were sexual victims of war. She says, “[I] was unable to process this violence and hatred toward women I was witnessing.” And it becomes clear that those parts of life that we’re told women innately desire—marriage, family, a fulfilling career—are a luxury, a chance at a life most women could never even imagine. As one of the book’s chapter titles points out, and Addario’s images boldly illustrate, “Women are casualties of their birthplace.” It would be incongruous for Addario to pine for a family while she explores some of the most unjust places on the planet.
Rather than pondering the challenges of balancing work, love, and family, the book examines the idea that “Women have it differently.” This is familiar feminist territory, but Addario treads through it with a bracing tenacity. Despite the fact that she is often “all too aware of being the only woman in the car,” she is never willing to let her gender define her professional life. She certainly isn’t going to let it ruin her chances of taking a powerful, potentially policy-changing image. Even in some of the most religiously strict regions of the world, where Addario constantly has to “dress up as someone’s wife,” she never lets her gender deter her. In the end, Addario does get married and she does have a child, and she doesn’t sacrifice her career. To this day she is still working, capturing images, acutely aware of her “male colleagues [who are] completely oblivious to what I [go] through to compose even one frame.”
It’s What I Do is the story of a woman who was self-assured enough to know that photojournalism was a career she wanted to pursue and self-aware enough to know, in her early 20s, that she would always want to put her career first. She is unapologetic about “trespassing in a man’s world,” yet she is direct about the limitations her gender presents in her work. This is a memoir about a successful, talented woman who pursued a career and subverted societal expectations. Her marriage and her child came later in life. But her photographs exceed expectations. These images are a gift, a window into some of the most brutal places in the world where still, Lynsey Addario found beauty and life and light.
JILL DEHNERT is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.