AJDABIYA, LIBYA, MARCH 2011
In the perfect light of a crystal-clear morning, I stood outside a putty-colored cement hospital near Ajdabiya, a small city on Libya’s northern coast, more than five hundred miles east of Tripoli. Several other journalists and I were looking at a car that had been hit during a morning air strike. Its back window had been blown out, and human remains were splattered all over the backseat. There was part of a brain on the passenger seat; shards of skull were embedded in the rear parcel shelf. Hospital employees in white medical uniforms carefully picked up the pieces and placed them in a bag. I picked up my camera to shoot what I had shot so many times before, then put it back down, stepping aside to let the other photographers have their turn. I couldn’t do it that day.
It was March 2011, the beginning of the Arab Spring. After Tunisia and Egypt erupted into unexpectedly euphoric and triumphant revolutions against their longtime dictators—millions of ordinary people shouting and dancing in the streets in celebration of their newfound freedom—Libyans revolted against their own homegrown tyrant, Muammar el-Qaddafi. He had been in power for more than forty years, funding terrorist groups across the world while he tortured, killed, and disappeared his fellow Libyans. Qaddafi was a maniac.
I hadn’t covered Tunisia and Egypt, because I was on assignment in Afghanistan, and it had pained me to miss such important moments in history. I wasn’t going to miss Libya. This revolution, however, had quickly become a war. Qaddafi’s famously thuggish foot soldiers invaded rebel cities, and his air force pounded fighters in skeletal trucks. We journalists had come without flak jackets. We hadn’t expected to need our helmets.
My husband, Paul, called. We tried to talk once a day while I was away, but my Libyan cell phone rarely had a signal, and it had been a few days since we’d spoken.
“Hi, my love. How are you doing?” He was calling from New Delhi.
“I’m tired,” I said. “I spoke with David Furst”—my editor at the New York Times—“and asked if I could start rotating out in about a week. I’ll head back to the hotel in Benghazi this afternoon and try to stick around there until I pull out. I’m ready to come home.” I tried to steady my voice. “I’m exhausted. I have a bad feeling that something is going to happen.”
I didn’t tell him that the last few mornings I had woken up reluctant to get out of bed, lingered too long over my instant coffee as my colleagues and I prepared our cameras and loaded our bags into our cars. While covering war, there were days when I had boundless courage and there were days, like these in Libya, when I was terrified from the moment I woke up. Two days earlier I had given a hard drive of images to another photographer to give to my photo agency in case I didn’t survive. If nothing else, at least my work could be salvaged.
“You should go back to Benghazi,” Paul said. “You always listen to your instincts.”
When I arrived in Benghazi two weeks earlier, it was a newly liberated city, a familiar scene to me, like Kirkuk after Saddam or Kandahar after the Taliban. Buildings had been torched, prisons emptied, a parallel government installed. The mood was happy. One day I visited some men who had gathered in town for a military training exercise. It resembled a Monty Python skit: Libyans stood at attention in strict configurations or practiced walking like soldiers or gaped at a pile of weapons in bewilderment. The rebels were just ordinary men—doctors, engineers, electricians—who had thrown on whatever green clothes or leather jackets or Converse sneakers they had in their closet and jumped in the backs of trucks loaded with Katyusha rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades. Some men lugged rusty Kalashnikovs; others gripped hunting knives. Some had no weapons at all. When they took off down the coastal road toward Tripoli, the capital city, still ruled by Qaddafi, journalists jumped into their boxy four-door sedans and followed them to what would become the front line.
We traveled alongside them, watched them load ammunition, and waited. Then one morning, one of the first days on that lonely strip of highway, a helicopter gunship suddenly swooped down low over our heads and unleashed a barrage of bullets, spitting at us indiscriminately. The gaggle of fighters shot up the air with Kalashnikovs. One boy threw a rock; another, his eyes wild with terror, ran for a sand berm. I ducked beside the front of a tin-can car and took a picture of him and knew this would be a different kind of war.
The front line moved along a barren road surrounded by sand that stretched flat to the blue horizon. Unlike in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were no bunkers to jump into, no buildings to hide behind, no armored Humvees in which to crouch down on the floor. In Libya, when we heard the hum of a warplane, we went through the motions: We stopped, looked up, and cowered in anticipation of rounds of ammunition or bombs and tried to guess where they would land. Some people lay on their backs; some people covered their heads; some people prayed; and some people ran, just to run, even if it was to nowhere. We were always exposed to the massive Mediterranean sky.
I had been a conflict photographer for more than ten years and had covered war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Lebanon. I had never seen anything as scary as Libya. The photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” In Libya, if you weren’t close enough, there was nothing to photograph. And once you got close enough, you were in the line of fire. That week I watched some of the best photojournalists in the business, veterans of Chechnya and Afghanistan and Bosnia, leave almost immediately after those first bombs fell. “It’s not worth it,” they said. There were several moments when I, too, thought to myself, This is insane. What am I doing? But there were other days when I felt that familiar exhilaration, when I thought, I am actually watching an uprising unfold. I am watching these people fighting to the death for their freedom. I am documenting the fate of a society that has been oppressed for decades. Until you get injured or shot or kidnapped, you believe you are invincible. And it had been a few years since anything had happened to me.
The other journalists were leaving the scene at the hospital. I knew it was time to return to the front line. The sounds of war echoed in the distance—shelling, antiaircraft fire, ambulance sirens. I didn’t want Paul to hear the noise. “Baby, I have to go. I’ll see you soon, my love. Love you.”
Long ago I learned that it is cruel to make loved ones worry about you. I tell them only what they need to know: where I am, where I am going, and when I am coming home.
• • •
I WAS THERE on assignment for the New York Times with three other award-winning journalists: Tyler Hicks, a photographer and a friend whom, oddly enough, I had grown up with in Connecticut; Anthony Shadid, arguably the best reporter working in the Middle East; and Stephen Farrell, a British-Irish journalist who had worked in war zones for years. Between us, we had about fifty years of experience working in awful places. We had entered the country illegally from Egypt, along with hordes of other journalists.
We left the suburban hospital together and headed toward the center of Ajdabiya to look for the front line. Anthony and Steve were in one car, and Tyler and I were in another with our driver, Mohammed. It had been difficult to find a good driver in Libya. Mohammed, a soft-spoken university student with a fresh face and a gap between his front teeth, drove us around long after most other drivers had quit. To him, the job was a contribution to the revolution. A driver like Mohammed, who was tapped into a network of other drivers and rebels, helped us decide where we could go and how long we could stay. His directions often determined our fate. His contribution was invaluable.
As we edged down an empty road in the center of town, artillery shells pierced the pavement nearby, sending shards of shrapnel in every direction. Anthony and Steve’s driver suddenly stopped his car and began off-loading their belongings onto the pavement. He was quitting. His brother had been shot at the front line. Without pausing, Mohammed pulled up our car and put their gear in our trunk, and Anthony and Steve piled into our car. I felt uneasy. In war zones journalists often travel in convoys of two vehicles, in case one vehicle fails. Two vehicles also ensure that if one is hit or attacked, fewer people will suffer the consequences.
Four journalists in one car also meant too many chefs in the kitchen: We each had a different idea of what we wanted to do. As we drove on, Anthony, Tyler, Steve, and I debated the level of danger. It is often this way in war zones for journalists and photographers: an endless negotiation of who needs what, who wants to stay, who wants to go. When do we have enough reporting and photographs to depict the story accurately? We want to see more fighting, to get the freshest, latest news, to keep reporting until that unknowable last second before injury, capture, death. We are greedy by nature: We always want more than what we have. The consensus in the car at that point was to keep working.
Ajdabiya was a prosperous, low-slung North African city of peach, yellow, and tan cement buildings with thick-walled balconies and vibrant storefront signs in painted Arabic. The few civilians on the streets were fleeing. They ran with conviction, carrying their belongings atop their heads. An endless stream of cars sped past us in the opposite direction. Families had crammed into every inch of pickup trucks and four-door sedans; blankets and clothes packed haphazardly into rear windows spilled out the back. Some families crouched under tarps. It was the first time I actually saw women and children in the town of Ajdabiya. In a conservative society like Libya’s, women often stayed indoors. I was seeing them outside their homes now only because they were leaving, heading east as the fighting pushed into the city from the west.
I feared that it was our time to leave, too. The steady exodus of civilians out of the city meant the locals anticipated that Ajdabiya would fall into the hands of Qaddafi’s troops. Had they already arrived? We knew what might happen to us if Qaddafi’s men discovered four illegal Western journalists in rebel territory. He had declared in public speeches that all journalists in eastern Libya were spies and terrorists and that, if found, they would be killed or detained.
We returned to the hospital to check in with other journalists and gauge the casualties from the encroaching battle. Anthony, Steve, and Tyler went inside to get the phone numbers of a Libyan doctor so they could call him later that night from Benghazi and report the final casualty toll for the day. For reporters it was necessary to have sources inside the city in case power changed hands and we couldn’t get back in. I stayed on the side of the road across the street from the hospital to photograph fleeing Libyans.
On the sidewalk where I stood a French photographer I knew from Iraq and Afghanistan deliberated his next move with several French journalists. They spoke in low, serious voices tinged with the sarcasm journalists use to temper their nerves. French journalists, in general, are known for being fearless and crazy. The joke was that if the French left a combat zone before you, you were screwed. Laurent Van der Stockt, a notoriously gutsy conflict photographer, who had covered most of the major wars of the past two decades—he had been shot twice and hit once by shrapnel from a mortar round on the front line—was staring at the long line of cars draining out of the city.
He turned to me. “We’re leaving,” he said. “It’s time to go back to Benghazi.” This meant they had made the decision to retreat from the action to a city that was as much as one hundred miles, and two hours, away. They were calling it a day. Laurent had decided the pictures weren’t worth the risk. They thought the situation too dangerous.
I watched in horror as they scrambled into their cars, but I said nothing. I didn’t want to be the cowardly photographer or the terrified girl who prevented the men from doing their work. Tyler, Anthony, and Steve had each spent more than a decade working in war zones; they knew what they were doing. Maybe my judgment was off that day. As we continued the drive into Ajdabiya, I looked out the window and tried to retreat to a comforting place in my mind. The mosques around the city blasted the call to prayer.
Cars streamed past us. We were the only car going the other way.
“Guys, it’s time to go,” Steve said, and I sensed I had an ally in my fear.
“Yeah, I think so, too,” I said.
I was grateful for Steve’s voice of reason, but our suggestion went unanswered by Tyler and Anthony.
• • •
WHEN WE REACHED A ROUNDABOUT, Tyler and Anthony got out and walked off to interview some rebels. Some were watching the approaching action with nonchalance; others were scurrying around, shooting their weapons into the air. I was directionless. I didn’t want to be here or there, and could barely lift my camera to my eyes. Even the most experienced photographers have days like this: You can’t frame a shot, catch the moment. My fear was debilitating, like a physical handicap. Tyler, meanwhile, was in his element, focused and relentless. I imagined the images he was capturing while I was clumsy, scared, missing the scenes, clicking the shutter too late.
As I ran forward to follow him, I heard the familiar whoosh of a bullet. I looked up at the rooftops: Qaddafi snipers were in the city. I assumed that everyone realized the gravity of the situation, but back near the car Anthony was drinking tea with a handful of men beside an ammunition truck, chatting happily in Arabic. He looked older than his forty-something years, with his gray beard and soft stomach. His eyes sparkled, warm and friendly, as he listened to the Libyans, calmly smoking his cigarette and throwing his hands around as he spoke, as if hanging out with friends by a pool.
But Steve, who had been kidnapped twice—once in Iraq, once in Afghanistan—looked spooked. He stood by our car with Mohammed, as if this might inspire the others to finish their work. The locals around us were screaming, “Qanas! Qanas!” (Sniper! Sniper!)
Mohammed was getting frantic. “We have to go to Benghazi,” he pleaded. His brother had been calling, warning that Qaddafi’s men had entered the city from the west. He called us all back to the car, and we took off for the eastern gate of town.
On the road toward the exit Tyler asked Mohammed to stop the car one last time to check out a team of rebel fighters setting up rocket-propelled grenades. He reluctantly pulled off to the side of the road, and Tyler leapt out to shoot, buoye...
“Beautifully written and vividly illustrated with her images — which are stunningly cinematic, often strange, always evocative — the book helps us understand not only what would lead a young woman to pursue such a dangerous and difficult profession, but why she is so good at it. Lens to her eye, Addario is an artist of empathy, a witness not to grand ideas about human sacrifice and suffering, but to human beings, simply being.”
“The opening scene of Lynsey Addario’s memoir sucker punches you like a cold hard fist. She illuminates the daily frustrations of working within the confines of what the host culture expects from a member of her sex and her constant fight for respect from her male journalist peers and American soldiers. Always she leads with her chin, whether she’s on the ground in hostile territory or discussing politics.”
Los Angeles Times:
“[A] richly illustrated memoir. [Addario] conveys well her unstated mission to stir the emotions of people like herself, born into relative security and prosperity, nudging them out of their comfort zones with visual evidence of horrors they might do something about. It is a diary of an empathetic young woman who makes understanding the wider world around her a professional calling.”
San Francisco Chronicle:
“Addario’s narrative about growing up as one of four daughters born to hairdressers in Los Angeles and working her way up to being one of the world’s most accomplished photojournalists, male or female, is riveting. [She] thoughtfully shows how exhilarating and demanding it is to cover the most difficult assignments in the world. Addario is a shining example of someone who has been able to “have it all,” but she has worked hard and absolutely suffered to get where she is. My hope is that she continues to live the life less traveled with her family, as I will be waiting for her next book with great anticipation.”
“[An] unflinching memoir. [Addario’s] book, woven through with images from her travels, offers insight into international events and the challenges faced by the journalists who capture them.”
“[Addario’s] ability to capture… vulnerability in her subjects, often in extreme circumstances, has propelled Addario to the top of her competitive field.”
Dallas Morning News:
“A rare gift: an intimate look into the personal and professional life of a war correspondent… a powerful read… This memoir packs a punch because of Addario’s personal risks. But some of the power in this book comes from the humanity she holds on to despite the horrors she witnesses. [It’s What I Do] should be read, processed and mulled over in its entirety….in [Addario’s] words and photos, readers will see that war isn’t simply a matter of black and white, of who’s right and who’s wrong. There are as many shades of gray as there are sides to every story.”
Kirkus (starred review):
“A remarkable journalistic achievement from a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship winner that crystalizes the last 10 years of global war and strife while candidly portraying the intimate life of a female photojournalist. Told with unflinching candor, the award-winning photographer brings an incredible sense of humanity to all the battlefields of her life. Especially affecting is the way in which Addario conveys the role of gender and how being a woman has impacted every aspect of her personal and professional lives. Whether dealing with ultrareligious zealots or overly demanding editors, being a woman with a camera has never been an easy task. A brutally real and unrelentingly raw memoir that is as inspiring as it is horrific.”
“A highly readable and thoroughly engaging memoir…. Addario’s memoir brilliantly succeeds not only as a personal and professional narrative but also as an illuminating homage to photojournalism’s role in documenting suffering and injustice, and its potential to influence public opinion and official policy.”
“Addario has written a page-turner of a memoir describing her war coverage and why and how she fell into—and stayed in—such a dangerous job. This ‘extraordinary profession’—though exhilarating and frightening, it ‘feels more like a commitment, a responsibility, a calling’—is what she does, and the many photographs scattered throughout this riveting book prove that she does it magnificently.”
Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes and Enemies:
“It’s What I Do is as brilliant as Addario’s pictures—and she’s the greatest photographer of our war-torn time. She’s been kidnapped, nearly killed, while capturing truth and beauty in the world’s worst places. She’s a miracle. So is this book.”
Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War:
“Lynsey Addario’s book is like her life: big, beautiful, and utterly singular. With the whole world as her backdrop, Addario embarks on an extraordinary adventure whose overriding effect is to remind of us what unites us all.”
Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Fall of Baghdad:
“A gifted chronicler of her life and times, Lynsey Addario stands at the forefront of her generation of photojournalists, young men and women who have come of age during the brutal years of endless war since 9/11. A uniquely driven and courageous woman, Addario is also possessed of great quantities of humor and humanity. It’s What I Do is the riveting, unforgettable account of an extraordinary life lived at the very edge.”
John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project:
“A life as a war photographer has few parallels in terms of risk and reward, fear and courage, pain and promise. Lynsey Addario has seen, experienced, and photographed things that most of us cannot imagine. The brain and heart behind her extraordinary photographic eye pulls us inexorably closer to the center of each story she pursues, no matter what the cost or danger.”
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