When I was in my middle twenties, the same age as Lynsey Addario when she started her amazing journey as a conflict photojournalist, I was doing somewhat of the same thing.
I say “somewhat” deliberately.
I was covering the Long Hot Summer race riots and the growing anti-war demonstrations in late 60s America. Though sometimes harrowing, what I was doing was a mere cakewalk compared to Addario’s post 9/11 years of covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur and the Congo.
She has dodged bullets, bombs, near starvation and dehydration, and kidnapped twice, both times feeling that she was surely going to die. All the time she was trying to juggle some semblance of a love life as affair after affair ended because her work got in the way, until she finally found a kindred soul.
What I found most interesting in Addario’s book was not the very real drama of covering horrific violence. I might be a jaded reader, but I had already read much of that.
It was her deeply personal insights into the worlds that she covered that most intrigued me.
Here is one insight from the time she was trying to enter Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban rule. She had to apply for a visa to enter the country from Pakistan, and she was given this advice from a fellow journalist before she visited the Embassy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: “Do not look any Afghan man directly in the eye. Keep your head, your face, and your body covered. Don’t laugh, or joke under any circumstance. And most important, sit each day in the visa office and drink tea with the visa clerk, Mohammed, to ensure that your application will actually get sent to Kabul and processed.”
Later, after she was convinced that she would finally receive her visa, she has one last chat with Mohammed:
Mohammed suddenly leaned forward, glancing through the window to the inside of the main embassy, looking for anyone who might have been listening. There was no one.
“Can I ask you a question?” he whispered.
“Sure, ask me anything, sir,” I said, “as long as my answers do not inhibit my getting a visa.”
He smiled nervously. “Is it true…,” he started. “I mean…I hear that men and women in America go out in public together without being married.” He paused again, leaning in to look out the window until he was reassured no one was listening. “That men and women can live together without being married?”
I knew he was taking a chance with the question. The Taliban insists its members renounce sexual curiosity; his anxiety flooded the room.
“Are you sure my answers will not affect whether I get my visa?” I asked.
“I promise you they will not.”
“Unmarried men and woman in America spend a lot of time together,” I said. “They go on something called ‘dates’ to movies, to the theater, to restaurants. Men and women sometimes even live together before they marry, and” – unlike in Afghanistan, where most marriages were arranged by and among relatives—“Americans marry for love.”
Why was I saying this to a Talib at the Afghan Embassy? Given the cultural and language barriers between us, I felt certain that he understood no more than 10 percent of what I was saying. But he was enthralled.
“Do men and women…Is it true that men and women touch? And have children before they are married?”
“Yes,” I replied gently. “Men and women touch before they are married.”
“"You are married, right?" He asked.
I smiled, finally comfortable enough to tell him the truth. I don’t know why I felt comfortable enough to tell him anything. Maybe because he felt comfortable enough to ask such racy questions? To admit that his mind went to a place forbidden to an unmarried man by the Taliban’s severe interpretation of the Koran? “No, Mohammed. I am not married. I lived with a man for a long time—like we were married.”
He interrupted me. “What happened? Why did you leave? Why are you not married?”
Mohammed was no longer a Talib to me. We were simply two people in our twenties, getting to know each other.
“In America women work,” I said. “And right now I am traveling and working.”
He smiled. “America is a good place,’ he said.
Five days later I picked up my visa.
This tiny scene, captured brilliantly, better than anything Hollywood could write, and set in a dusty, run down office in Peshawar, Pakistani, spoke clearer to me than all the many books and articles I have read about the great gulf between the West and some of the Islamic world.
It was the novelist, not the photographer at work.
While Addario’s photos are first rate, and scattered throughout the book, it was also evident in It’s What I Do that she has an uncanny ability to communicate with her subjects, to meet them on a deeply personal level, despite whatever language and cultural barriers she may face, be it with tough Kurd fighters in the north during the invasion of Iraq, or African women dealing with unspeakable violence committed against them in Darfur or the Congo; or even charming some of the dastardly, women hating Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan before they were overthrown by the Americans after 9/11.
Interestingly, it was the American servicemen that gave her much grief as she tried to do the job she was paid to do, sometimes only smirking at her for being “a girl,” and sometimes calling her “fucking bitch.” She also makes it clear in the book that she did not like President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Still, her ability to relate to her subjects, seems to me, is part of the reason for the success of her award winning photography; not just her considerable bravery and technical skills under the direst of circumstances.
This is a must read book. It is easy to see why Lynsey Addario won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant and the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting.