Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Lynsey Addario


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American photojournalist Lynsey Addario never formally studied photography, but it became her passion and led to a life on the road. The bulk of her assignments have been covering conflict zones, including Darfur, Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan, where she documented life under the Taliban. She was held captive in Libya in 2011 and in Iraq in 2004. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times and Time magazine. Ms. Addario will be in Pittsburgh Jan. 29 to talk to PNC Bank executives. PNC teamed with National Geographic to sponsor a traveling exhibition, "Women of Vision: On Assignment with National Geographic Photographers," which opened in Washington, D.C., and will travel to five cities over three years.

You are self-taught as a photographer?

I am. I never went to school for photography and started when I was pretty young. I was somewhere around 12 or 13. I started photographing as a hobby and carried that hobby through high school and university. After I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, I wanted to photograph.

I didn't really have any direction as to how to go about that. So I went to a local newspaper in Buenos Aires, where I was living to learn Spanish after college. I went in and asked them for a job, basically. They laughed at me and sort of shooed me away. I was so persistent and they were so annoyed they just started giving me assignments -- made-up assignments basically, like go to this address and take a picture of the house. I always came back with something. Eventually they gave me a job.

Madonna was filming "Evita" in Argentina, and they said: "If you can sneak on the set and get a picture of her, we'll give you a job." I talked my way onto the set. I was very young and very ambitious. I convinced the bouncers that my whole life, my career, depended upon it [laughs]. They let me in.

When I got onto the press riser, I only had a 50mm lens. I was very, very far from the balcony where Madonna was supposed to appear. I raised my camera to my eye, and I was so crestfallen because I couldn't even see Madonna. A guy with basically a Hubbell telescope was standing next to me, and he tapped me on the back and said, "Hey kid, give me your camera." I was so green I didn't realize because they were both Nikons, he could put his lens on my camera.

I looked through the viewfinder, and there was Madonna in the center of the frame. I was so excited I was sort of squealing, and everyone around me was just rolling their eyes. When I got back to the newsroom, I was so nervous I couldn't even spool my film. My hands were shaking so much. The picture came out, and I had the front page and I got a job.

How long did you stay?

I stayed there about six months, and then I moved back to New York. New York is where I really got my training. I started freelancing for the Associated Press. I had a great mentor there who sort of taught me everything.

Are you more comfortable looking at the world through a lens?

No. I think in certain situations where it is a very devastating scene or very tense, looking through the lens gives me a reason to be there, a purpose. If I am in a very intimate setting or very emotional setting, no one is looking at me and questioning why I'm there. So in that sense I am more comfortable. I have spent the better part of the last two decades walking in and out of so many different worlds.

Were there awkward moments when you felt uneasy using the camera yet you had to?

That happens quite a bit. The first thing that comes to mind was in 2009. I was on an embed with the U.S. military, and I was with the medevacs -- the team that goes in and rescues the injured and brings them back to the forward operating base. I was in Helmand province [in Afghanistan], and there was a lot of fighting going on at that time.

We went to pick up a young Marine who had stepped on an IED. He had lost eight pints of blood by the time we picked him up. We got there very quickly. We brought him back to this tiny little operating room, and it was all soldiers. They were all in the room, and it was filling up as they realized there was a very critically injured soldier. In that situation, no journalist is usually welcome. It is very uncomfortable to photograph.

I was trying to shoot a few frames and then be quiet and put my camera down. At one point, a Marine walked up to me and said, "Hey, stop taking pictures." I put my camera down and several other soldiers came to my defense and said, "She needs to be here. It's very important that she's here." It was pretty surprising. It was one of the first times other soldiers recognized the importance of the media to document what was becoming a generation of war.

So were you an adrenaline junkie before you started going into conflicts or did doing it become addictive?

[Laughing] So let's get one thing straight: I am not an adrenaline junkie. Just because you cover conflict doesn't mean you thrive on adrenaline. It means you have a purpose, and you feel it is very important for people back home to see what is happening on the front line, especially if we are sending American soldiers there.

If we are talking about adrenaline, yes, it is something that happens when you are being shot at. But I do not run off to war because I can't wait for that adrenaline rush. I didn't become a conflict photographer to get sort of a thrill. It was something that happened over time because there were issues happening in war zones that I thought needed to be covered.

I read that you were held captive and wondered how you controlled your fear in that situation.

I think the mind is a lot stronger than anyone gives it credit for. When you are in a situation where you have absolutely no control over what is going to happen to you, like being tied up and blindfolded and having guns to your head, your body -- my body, actually -- goes into a very meditative state. I sort of surrender all attempts at trying to control anything. The fear just becomes part of that moment. It is present and it never goes away, and it is always sort of sitting there and you are wondering if it is going to throw you over the edge.

At the same time, because there is nothing you can do, it just becomes one of many different emotions you have. Both times I have been held captive, I was terrified and I was sure I was going to die. But at the same time I didn't freak out and start yelling and screaming. I was very calm, thinking, "Well, this is the end of my life, and this was my decision to be here, and it is my fault I am in this position."

Have you ever been attacked for taking a picture?

I have, in 2001, in Pakistan right after Sept. 11. We jumped on the back of a truck. I was with another female photographer and we had snuck into an Afghan refugee camp possibly right after the U.S. started doing air strikes in Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks. Some of the people on the truck intervened. That often happens when the situation gets very tense. Usually there is someone who stands up and defends me. That's just lucky, I think. Maybe because I'm a woman. Maybe people feel like they have to defend me, especially in the Middle East [laughing]. I usually welcome that.

It's a double-edged sword in the Middle East. On one hand, you are a woman and should be protected. On the other, you are a woman and have no rights.

I think it is hard to understand unless you are in those countries. Back at home we only see one side of the Muslim world. But as a Western woman in the Middle East, I am often put in a different category. I am sort of like the third sex. I am not treated like a man. I am not treated like a woman. I am just treated like a journalist. That is usually really helpful. I am given access to women, and I am given access to scenes where my male colleagues are. They understand we come from a different culture.

Has the role of the photojournalist changed or been impacted by the cell phone and civilian photographers?

There are a lot of people who call themselves photojournalists or call themselves photographers who I would not. I just don't -- just because you have an iPhone you are a photographer? The photojournalist is still someone who understands the sort of ethics behind being a photographer. You understand you have a role to document something without getting involved in it.

You don't take sides, for example. You have to be honest with your representation. Citizen journalism is incredible in a place like Syria, where Western journalists can't go without getting kidnapped. We need citizen journalists, but we can't necessarily take every image we get at face value. We have to understand that the people who are taking those pictures might be the brother of a rebel fighter, or they have their own sympathies. It is very important to differentiate between a professional photojournalist, a citizen journalist and someone who just has an iPhone.


Patricia Sheridan: psheridan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.

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