Visual Culture
War Photographer Lynsey Addario on the Challenges Women Photojournalists Face
By Molly Gottschalk
Nov 14, 2017 5:46 pm
Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

In 2007, photojournalist Lynsey Addario set out to cover the rise in civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the New York Times Magazine. On her way to the heart of the war—Korengal Valley, known to many as “the valley of death”—she was told by a public affairs officer in Afghanistan that it wasn’t really a place fit for women, using the excuse of ill-equipped sleeping and bathroom facilities.

At the time, she said in a recent discussion with journalist and author Katie Couric at the International Center of Photography’s (ICP) seventh annual Spotlights event, women in the military were not allowed on the front lines, but this rule did not apply to journalists. And so, as she’d done since she was in her twenties, she went, with journalist and friend Elizabeth Rubin, parachuting into the center of danger. Over the next two months, they embedded with U.S. troops; jumped from Black Hawk helicopters in the middle of the night; and walked for a week carrying everything they owned on their backs—into an ambush by the Taliban.

This is but one of the heart-racing stories Addario, a 44-year-old mother and Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer, shared with Couric last Tuesday at ICP Spotlights, an annual benefit hosted by the International Center of Photography to honor women working in photography, film, and visual arts. This year it celebrated Addario, whose images of conflicts in war-torn countries and of human rights issues across the globe have told some of the most important stories of our time.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

In her conversation with Couric, Addario reflected on her experience being kidnapped and held captive for six days in Libya, covering maternal health and maternal mortality in Afghanistan, and traveling with actor Jennifer Lawrence (the star of her forthcoming biopic) into the refugee crisis at the border of South Sudan and Uganda. But her comments on working as a woman in the field of photojournalism—a subject she touched on greatly in her 2015 memoir It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War—stood out.

Addario first traveled to Afghanistan under the Taliban in year 2000; at the time, she was one of very few female photojournalists covering the war and, she told Couric, “The sexism I faced when I started covering the war was more because I was 25 and so eager and so green…no one took me seriously.” But even as the years progressed, she said, little improved. “I kept thinking when I started out there would be more and more women in the field, and there just aren’t.”

While the number of female photojournalists has increased over the years, a 2015 study by World Press Photo Foundation, the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and the University of Stirling found that only 15% of professional news photographers that responded were women.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Part of the reason could be that her work unfolds in places and circumstances that are challenging circumstances for a person of any gender, including bullet-ridden front lines, multiple kidnappings, and threats of execution. But, as her stories reveal, women face the added burden of sexism and the threat of sexual assault.

While recounting a 2008 assignment covering the Taliban in Pakistan with journalist Dexter Filkins, Addario described having to pose as Filkins’s wife in order to meet Taliban commander Haji Namdar. “They said the one thing you can’t do is bring a woman,” she said. And so, accompanying Filkins into a room full of 15 to 20 armed fighters, she posed as a spouse who just “happens to have a camera.”

The social faux pas she made just by existing as a woman perversely enabled her to do her job. “The fact that there was a woman in the room was so awkward that it didn’t matter what I did,” she told Couric. The resulting images were printed in the New York Times Magazine in a 2008 story that helped win Addario and Filkins’s team the 2009 Pulitzer for International Reporting.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Her most chilling story, however, described the time Addario was kidnapped while covering the conflict between Muammar el-Qaddafi and rebel fighters in Ajdabiya, Libya, alongside New York Times journalists Anthony Shadid, Tyler Hicks, and Stephen Farrell. As el-Qaddafi’s troops moved in, Addario and her group gathered into a single car, each with varying ideas of how long it would be safe to keep working.

She later recalled this critical moment, telling an NPR reporter that in those circumstances, “I’m very aware of my gender, and I’m sure my colleagues were not. I’m sure the last thing they were thinking of is, ‘Oh, we’ve got a girl in the car,’ but I always was, because it’s such a man’s world that I work in.”

Just as the group finally decided to leave, they drove directly into one of el-Qaddafi’s military checkpoints, where they were taken captive. “For the next three days we were beaten up, blindfolded, remained tied up, threatened with execution,” she said to Couric. “As the only woman, I was groped repeatedly.” After six days, all four journalists were released.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Six weeks after this experience, she became pregnant—and she was terrified. “As a professional woman I was terrified of what that would do to my career moving forward,” she said, “and there were no role models. I didn’t know a single woman who did what I do who even had a boyfriend, much less had a child, and so I had no one to turn to.”

To compensate, she worked as much as she possibly could before giving birth, going to cover Somali Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, a war zone in Somalia, and a prisoner exchange in Gaza when she was eight months pregnant. She was criticized, often by other women, for taking these risks as a pregnant woman. She took on this criticism in a New York Times 2015 op-ed, “What Can a Pregnant Photojournalist Cover? Everything.”

“There are male journalists who get killed with children at home and no one says, ‘What were they doing in a warzone?’” Addario said, noting the sexist double standard for women and men in her profession. “It’s just as bad to lose a father as it is to lose a mother.” But just as important, she says, is the number of women who are pregnant and having children every day in the places she covers. “No one talks about the conditions for them, they only talk about, how can a girl from Connecticut go to Somalia when she’s pregnant?” she said. “For me it was very important to do what I felt I needed to do.”  

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Photo by Lynsey Addario. © Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

As a woman, doing what she needs to do has brought Addario into intimate spaces to which men often don’t have access.

“I think being a woman really gives me an access to this work that would be hard for a man to do,” she said. This includes a story she photographed for the New York Times on breast cancer in Uganda, which includes an out-of-focus picture of a little girl looking inside of a coffin to see her mother—who no one knew had cancer. “I was crying so hard that I couldn’t even take a picture,” she said. Addario used her 2009 MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” to focus on maternal health and maternal mortality.

Despite her gender-specific experiences, Addario said that as a woman, she doesn’t innately see the world differently, but does have a different perspective on what to photograph. “Men and women have different access, we relate to people on different levels, and people respond to us differently, so certainly that will create a different dynamic with a camera, but I don’t think that, for example, as a woman I see differently,” she said. “What I choose to capture is possibly different from what my male colleagues do.”

That’s exactly what makes the female perspective so important—and yet women are still largely outnumbered in the field. Even after years of considering this imbalance, she’s not sure she has a solution, citing the lifestyle, the difficulty in maintaining a personal life, and the emotional and physical strain.

Still, she said, “Editors need to start assigning more women and putting their faith in women,” she said.

“When I look around in the field it’s mostly white men and that to me is a problem. I think we need local people telling their own stories. I think we need people of color. I think we need women and it’s just not happening.”

Molly Gottschalk is Artsy’s Features Producer.