it’s what i do

reflections on war photography and finding your path

Earlier this year, Lynsey Addario released her memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, which details her experiences as a female war photojournalist in the 21st century. The book came to my attention for several reasons; key among them was a powerful excerpt in The New York Times Magazine and the news that after a major auction, Warner Bros had bought the movie rights with Steven Spielberg attached to direct and Jennifer Lawrence attached to star. But what truly compelled me to read this book was the implicit question posed by her memoir and by every commentary or review of it: Why would anyone, particularly a woman, willingly choose such a dangerous career?

Throughout her career, Addario has worked everywhere from South America to the Middle East to Africa, documenting human experiences and gaining specific credibility such as a position at The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius Grant along the way. All of this she presents in her memoir as well as the numerous uncomfortable or horrifying situations in which she has found herself. For example, she has been kidnapped twice, in Libya and in Iraq, harassed by security officers at the Gaza border, and groped by men in Pakistan.

While it seems that her courage and bravery know no bounds, some may call this a glorified recklessness. For even after she is married and pregnant, she travels to Senegal, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Gaza and Somalia. And after her son is born, she continues to travel extensively, never sacrificing her highly demanding career for any semblance of a traditional family life. Undoubtedly, her choices and trajectory may confound many, even or especially, other women and mothers.

But Addario builds a solid case for why she does this work. Her photographs help to convey to a wider audience both the wonders and atrocities of today’s world. And it is this chance for widespread dissemination, the fact that so many people will see her photos, that drives Addario to such lengths to capture them. Yet in one particularly noteworthy instance, due to a small caption mistake on Addario’s part, The New York Times Magazine refuses to publish her images from the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Her images reveal civilian injuries from a NATO bombing, which a Military Affairs Officer denies happened. Addario laments the magazine’s decision because she spent months in one of the most dangerous places on earth and if her images don’t reach the public, it would all be for naught. Eventually they concede and grant her an online slideshow, but they exclude the one of an injured civilian, a young boy (Luckily for us, the powerful photo is included in the book). But the fact that Addario sometimes had to fight with the media to have her work published, to deliver the truth to the public, is slightly terrifying and certainly thought-provoking.

While Addario successfully conveys the significance of her photographs, her memoir proves its importance in and of itself. As Scott Anderson explains eloquently in his New York Times review, “In [Addario’s] acutely observed account of her negotiations with a young Taliban visa clerk, for example — a complex dance requiring her to shift constantly between submission, flirtation and defiance — the reader is likely to learn more about the capricious nature of Islamic fundamentalism than from a dozen essays or position papers.” The fact that one properly recounted personal experience can prove more enlightening than an academic essay or report is perhaps the greatest possible argument for the power of memoir and literature in general. Through her depictions of various cultures, I felt I was gaining an education in the reality of the world around me.

When I finished It’s What I Do, I came back to that same original question: Why would anyone, particularly a woman, willingly choose such a dangerous career? I had approached my reading with a particular mindset: would she be able to justify her choices? And as I read on, I kept asking myself: would I be willing to and/or capable of doing what she does?

Yet even though Addario could provide countless examples of how her photographs were important and crucial to our understanding of the world, I was never going to agree with her decision to put her unborn child at risk, and I was never going to desire her dangerous career. But I don’t believe Addario wrote her memoir to solicit my approval or convince me to be a war photographer.

Rather, while Addario has chronicled her life experiences for our enjoyment and education, she justifies and explains her choices according to her own moral reasoning. She has assessed and sorted what matters to her, and bringing these photographs to the public sits at the very top of that hierarchy. In the absence of committing any tangible sort of crime, we as readers can respect her moral code for what it is, her code alone. Her memoir is not entitled: It’s What We Do.

The way I see it, Addario has provided a blueprint for everything I think we as Brown students should aim to accomplish, starting with our time on campus and continuing as we embark into the ‘real world’ after graduation. Like Addario, I want to find a career path that challenges me, that feels important and that I enjoy. Like her, I want to continue to establish and refine my own moral philosophy, my limits, and my identity, all of which I hope will be mine alone, and remain separate from any societal expectations of what it means to be a working woman in today’s world.

In David Brooks’ recent Op-Ed for The New York Times, “The Moral Bucket List,” adapted from his book The Road to Character, Brooks opines that we need to do more to achieve moral successes and virtue. He argues that “our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” After reading his piece I was struck by the truth of his words, and inspired by them.

One of the steps on his ‘moral bucket list’ is ‘The Call Within the Call’: that we find something in our profession that is worthwhile and devote ourselves to achieving it. Brooks contends that while we may choose a certain career for various reasons like money, status, or security, we all have the opportunity to turn our career into a calling, to excel at it and do something good with it; this will ‘quiet the self.’

After I graduate I plan to work in publishing because I want to be involved with shepherding new books into this world. To some, this may seem unenjoyable, unimportant, or like a waste of time. The fact that my career path may lead me into the depths of what some call a dying industry (I like to think of it as evolving) is just another card that unpleasant people love to play against me in conversation.

But books are my passion. And not only do I derive my utmost enjoyment from reading them, I also strongly believe that they are a valuable part of our society and can be tools of real education and change (Addario’s memoir is the perfect example of this). Because of that, I have faith that I will find Brooks’ ‘Call Within the Call’ and like Addario, I’m not concerned with convincing someone else that I have chosen a worthy career path. Reading is my calling, and it’s what I do.

Not everyone in this world is lucky enough to choose their own career, and as Brooks points out, even those of us who are may not be choosing for reasons that reflect our truest desires. But it seems more than clear that it is possible to gain the conviction of Addario and the inner character described by Brooks, no matter your station in life. But to answer for my privilege, I promise that if in the future someone wants to submit a well-written account of how they have used their career to make themselves and this world a better place, I will gladly try to publish it.