(this article was published in the Chapel Hill Herald, April, 25, 2015)
In her memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War (Blackstone Audio, 9 hours), Lynsey Addario creates an immediate and horrifying snapshot of her life as a conflict photographer. It’s March 2011 in Ajdabiya, Libya. She and other colleagues ready themselves to capture images of a bombed out car “with human remains splattered all over the back seat.” She pans out, sets the scene succinctly by describing the beginning of Egyptian Spring,” the revolution that has become a war.”
Then Addario turns to inner feelings. She speaks to her husband who is tender and concerned when she tells of her fatigue and an uncomfortable feeling. He urges her to trust herself. She doesn’t tell him, but reveals to listeners that she’s given her photos to an agency so that they make it to the “New York Times,” surviving if she doesn’t. It’s not one of those days where she has “boundless courage,” but one in which she’s “terrified from the moment I woke up.”
And yet, though frightened, Addario feels exhilaration at “…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.”
Descriptive imagery, tense situations, context setting and insightful reflections continue throughout this fast-moving memoir. Each transports listeners to a visceral experience of Addario’s coverage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Occasionally, lighter moments relieve the intensity as, for example, she orders a colleague to unsnap her bra to get beyond cultural mores so that Muslim doctors in Pakistan can treat her after a car accident.
Tavia Gilbert narrates with a balance of authority and anxiety, her expressions represent Addario’s rainbowed reactions — surprise at winning a MacArthur fellowship, terror when kidnapped by pro-Qaddafi forces in the Libyan civil war, anger at the sexist abuse of Israeli soldiers outside the Gaza Strip. Gilbert takes on musing tones throughout as Addario pauses for reflections, noting for example, the cultural dissonance as a room of Muslim men worry how she’ll drink tea with her burqa on.
Addario stresses the human aspects of each situation and this strain is aided by vignettes that define her more fully and root listeners in more recognizable realities. She begins with her unique background — her parents who operate a beauty salon come to care for a man who later becomes her father’s mate. Addario takes on private battles as she fights for gender equality and struggles with relationships that are less than ideal. She writes of failed liaisons with the same candor she uses when describing intimacies built with colleagues during battles and witnessing genocides. Poignancy is equally clear at conveying the irony of first feeling her son move in utero while viewing the suffering of infants in Somalia as her fears at being surrounded by Taliban fighters in the Korengal Valley.