Lynsey Addario

It’s What I Do

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It’s What I Do Summary

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In her memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War (2015), Lynsey Addario, an American photojournalist and activist, draws from her wealth of experience covering war in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Africa to provide a personal account of life in the war-torn and politically fraught regions she has covered. Punctuating her story with images taken from sites of conflict, Addario provides an inside look at places that ordinary Americans, even through mass media, rarely see. She also recalls several key traumatic events in her life, from seeing violent rebel uprisings, to deadly car bombs, to terrorist incursions. Despite the serious, often morose, subject matter, Addario depicts her life in the Middle East and her profession as a love affair, affirming the necessary social role of the photojournalist.

Addario begins with a brief summary of her childhood, which was unusual by any standards. When she was a young girl, her father gifted her a Nikon camera. Addario recalls this formative moment as the point where she started to think in images, wondering how the process of creating the image could be mastered to accurately reflect the riches of her lived experience. She describes a bitter divorce between her parents that affected her greatly, inaugurating a coming-of-age characterized by depression, anxiety, and poverty, as her mother struggled with being a single parent. When Addario went to study abroad in Bologna, she realized that photography is a universal art form, applicable to any object, and in any social context. After her schooling was finished, she decided to become a freelance photojournalist.

Addario’s foray into photojournalism was quickly met with turbulence as she entered zones of conflict that produced images she could never have imagined, even with her global education. She was ambushed by kidnappers not once, but twice, and survived situations where bullets were flying from the air. She recalls one particular experience where a Taliban cohort tried to kill her on the job. Each of these events only briefly instilled doubt and fear in Addario, as she learned more of the necessary political function of photography in conflict zones. She witnessed instances where her work had a clear emotional effect on American policymakers, galvanizing them to legislate for peace rather than perpetuate armed conflict and, by extension, political atrocities.

Addario’s memoir contains nearly a hundred images she took in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Many of them are haunting, comprising snapshots of the experiences of death, disease, refugeeism, and social alienation. She provides brief character sketches of the people she met, from a young Kurdish taxi driver who expressed feeling cloistered in his nation, to conservative Afghan women who wait at the hospital for the prognosis of an injured loved one. These sketches are left incomplete, making clear that Addario conceives of the image as always insufficient in transmitting experience, but always aspiring to transmit it as well as possible.

Though Addario is experienced in photographing moments of intensity, she also conveys the value of photographing the emotions, beauties, and horrors of “ordinary” life. She speaks about people traveling through war-torn regions to document its interior who lack the support of a powerful government or news syndicate and are thrown into danger without the consent a photojournalist gives. In one difficult moment, Addario recounts being forced by Israeli soldiers to go through an X-ray scanner three times in a row in the midst of pregnancy, and then strip-searched anyway, just because she was Palestinian. Addario uses her personal humiliation to speak to the injustices she constantly sees being committed to innocent people around her.

In the latter part of the book, Addario recounts moving from the Middle East to cover Africa around 2004. She moved throughout the Congo, capturing images of brutal Rwandan soldiers who instigated cultures of rape and formed small, terroristic, fascist regimes. Most of her images depict the women who fell at their mercy. For example, she recalls experiences with Rwandan women who were raped by Rwandan soldiers only to face rejection from their husbands for being ravaged. The moral stigma against women, who are routinely turned into scapegoats for the consequences of strife, is, to Addario, the most powerful takeaway from her life as a photojournalist.

At the end of her memoir, Addario writes in exhortation to American political leaders to look at more images from the sites where they exert power. She believes photojournalism is unique in showing how images refer to experiences that are made possible by seemingly remote regimes of power. Moreover, she shows that photography always suggests possibilities of peace and happiness that these same regimes have foreclosed or foregone. Addario exhorts her audience to examine their own livelihoods and decide for themselves whether the images they see are the best ones they can envision and make real.