Photojournalist Lynsey Addario was at home in Turkey last September when she received a call that she had been awarded a 2009 MacArthur Fellowship “genius” award for her work recording conflicts and humanitarian crises in the 21st century. Here she talks about the freedom the award will bring and why she continues to work in some of the most dangerous places on Earth.
AP: $500,000 with no strings attached! How will the award change things for you?
LA: I don’t think I’ll work any less! I am already doing exactly the type of photojournalism I set out to do — covering humanitarian and women’s issues, and the toll conflicts take on civilians and soldiers alike, but the MacArthur grant will enable me to be a bit more selective with my assignments and focus more on long-term stories rather than daily news stories. I’d also like to finally try to do a book.
AP: Your work in conflict zones like Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur takes you into places that would be terrifying to most people. What drives you to work in such difficult environments?
LA: The desire to document what’s happening. While working in the Congo, I spent 10 hours a day for two weeks talking with women who were victims of sexual assault and unimaginable violence. Each woman’s story was more violent and raw than her predecessor’s. On the final day of that assignment I was a complete basket case, crying all the time and so sad. And I thought, my life is great compared with these poor people. What right do I have to cry?
AP: How do you manage to get so close to your subjects?
LA: It takes some perseverance. While on assignment for The New York Times Magazine in Afghanistan with Dexter Filkins, I accompanied him to a meeting with a Taliban commander. The translators kept saying, no women, no women, no women, but Dex introduced me as his wife and said that he didn’t want to leave me alone at the hotel in Peshawar. I sat in a corner, totally veiled, and after a while, Dex asked if I could take some pictures. I was terrified. There is a fine line when photographing in these delicate, dangerous situations — I always try not to look too professional (it probably helped that I was shooting through my veil at this point!). I really calculate my shots and shoot sparingly.
AP: Some of your photographs are in black and white, while others are in color. How do you decide which to use?
LA: Although I work primarily in color, sometimes I can’t control what time I go out shooting. If I have to shoot at high noon, the colors are likely to be washed out, so I’ll sometimes convert to black and white, which offers more tonal latitude. There are some stories that I have to shoot in all fluorescent light or offices, which would also inspire me to convert to black and white. Also, I don’t Photoshop my images much, so I try to shoot at dawn or dusk when the light is rich.