Sunday, October 30, 2016

A woman who wanted it all, despite knowing the terror

I've always had an eager interest in women who traveled in or reported from the places where history is obviously (usually violently) happening. I've written here about reporting from the wars of the '00s by some of these women, including Anne Garrels, Carlotta Gall, and Sarah Chayes. You see, I'm envious. I came up at time when it simply would have taken more audacity than I possessed (as well as probably a heterosexual orientation) to pursue the paths these people followed into danger zones. How did they manage to do something as unattached women that I couldn't even imagine?

Lynsey Addario sets out to answer that very question in It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War. I knew Addario's photographs from the New York Times and followed the drama of her capture and release by Qaddafi-supporters in Libya. How did she come to be in that terribly exposed -- for the photographers utterly beautiful -- place? Wasn't she afraid she'd be raped? Was she raped? (No, mauled.)

It's all here as well as the rest of the story of a (still youngish) life driven by something like a calling to create irresistible images of some of the planet's most violent horrors. She's not political, except being consistently on the side of her human subjects. That's enough to make her an instinctive critic of U.S. military enthusiasms, even as she sympathizes with U.S. soldiers caught up in the horror.

Addario, more or less by accident, traveled as a freelance photographer in Afghanistan when the Taliban still ruled in 2000. She struggled to navigate that culture.
The freedom, independence, and sexuality that I, as an American woman, held at the core of my being completely contradicted the Afghan way of life under the Taliban. I knew I had to shed my own views in order to work successfully here.

...From the start of my journey, I struggled with how to skirt the Taliban photography ban: images burned my eyes and my soul, but I was too nervous about the consequences to dare to sneak a picture as I looked out the car window ... I had to remind myself not to look men in the eye. There were so many rules and restrictions, especially against photographing women.
But she persisted, negotiated, and cajoled, shooting a portfolio of images -- and returned to India to discover that, in those pre-9/11 days, big media had little interest in photos from Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, that changed when the U.S. invaded in 2001. Addario rushed from New York to Pakistan, through an anti-American Peshawar and a hostile Quetta, and on to Kandahar soon after the Taliban were forced out. Everywhere she used her access as a woman photojournalist to shoot the pictures of women that a homosocial society denied to men, while also capturing male street life.

When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took the U.S. into Iraq, Addario came in through Kurdistan. It didn't take her any time at all to understand that something was very wrong. Though moved to weeping by the sight of Iraqis digging up mass graves of Saddam Hussein's victims, their kin, she immediately
... suspected that the American government was lying to us ... In the months after Saddam was deposed, Iraq fell apart. ... Nothing made sense. American troops allowed the looting of the National Museum but protected the caged lions at the house of Saddam's son Uday. To the media, the troops proudly displayed the Hussein brothers' sex dens ... while basic services like water, gas, and electricity failed to materialize. The superpower couldn't provide for a basic quality of life. ...
As the Iraqis recoiled from the U.S. troops, the troops took their mystification out on journalists -- even a short woman who by this time could identify herself as from the New York Times.
"Get the fuck out of here, you fucking bitch," he said again. ... The other soldiers still had their guns pointed at me. ... Americans wanted to bring democracy to Iraq, but a convenient form of democracy that allowed them to censor the media ...

.... something had changed in me after those months in Iraq. I was now a photojournalist willing to die for stories that had the potential to educate people. I wanted to make people think, to open their minds, to give them a full picture of what was happening in Iraq ...
Newly dedicated to stories of suffering and survival, Addario went on from Iraq to Sudan and the Congo, to Afghanistan again (this time embedded with an embattled U.S. platoon), and then to Libya. Her adventures are no less enthralling, but the theme shifts to her efforts to form an enduring relationship (she did, marrying fellow journalist Paul de Bendern), to mother a child of her own, and to continue to win conflict assignments while living a life somewhat more within conventional expectations for women. She wanted it all, and pretty much got it. She was not about to allow her new conformity to keep her from her work, risking travel in Libya, Mogadishu, and even Gaza under siege while pregnant with her son.

Wonder of wonders, Penguin Press printed this mostly text book on high quality paper which means the sprinkling of Addario's images appear more cleanly than one ever sees in a newspaper.

This is a heartening, even inspiring, auto-biography. Enjoy and marvel.

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