Photojournalist Lynsey Addario visits University Park for Penn State Reads

Alison Kuznitz
October 18, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario has journeyed to remote corners of the world, capturing scenes of devastation in the Korengal Valley among rebel forces and jubilation in Iraqi streets after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

And everywhere Addario goes, she tries to speak to both civilians and military personnel in documenting tragedy. The tactic, she said, has exposed that even the most “evil” of groups are comprised of “young kids fighting for what they’ve been told to fight for.”

Her camera lens has offered a deeper perspective into humanity, one she shared with the University community during her hallmark visit for the Penn State Reads program.

“That’s one of the privileges of being a journalist,” Addario said. "We’re able to cover different sides of a story.”

Her memoir, "It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War," was selected as the Penn State Reads common text for 2017-18. First-year students will immerse themselves in Addario’s writing, engaging in a shared experience as they decipher war-torn countries plagued by humanitarian crises.  

“I hope the program fosters in you a deeper connection to this institution and our core values,” Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nicholas P. Jones told the audience in Schwab Auditorium Monday night. “Lynsey’s book chronicles her often harrowing work and explains what drives her to keep going back. Almost nothing can stop Lynsey when she is working on a story.”

Even before landing her first newspaper gig, Addario could not be deterred. When editors at the Buenos Aires Herald created fake assignments for the budding photographer, Addario would always come back with an image.

Her big break came after snapping a shot of Madonna on the set of "Evita.” Addario had only a 50mm lens for her Nikon and was too far away to get a shot, when a fellow Nikon photographer offered to attach his 500mm lens to her “miniscule” camera. The pop star, who was several miles away, came into focus — as did Addario’s career.

She worked her way up from the local English-language paper to the Associated Press in New York City. Since then, she’s trekked the globe on assignments for The New York Times, National Geographic and Time, among other major publications.

On one of her first major adventures, she traveled to Afghanistan.

“I learned very quickly that as a woman, I had access to women,” Addario said. “This was a country where men and women were separated by gender.”

At times, Addario has pretended to be a male journalist’s wife for the sole purpose of gaining photo access. Once, in the home of “fidgety” Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, Addario — fully veiled and wearing traditional garb — thought her death was imminent.

These fierce fighters, as it turned out, were also “some of the most hospitable people in the world.” They had only wanted to serve Addario tea, but her gender posed an issue.

She mimicked one host, laughing at the absurdity of the moment: “Can you stand in the corner and raise your veil and drink your tea? Then we will be happy.’”

Among other stories, Addario recounted her kidnapping in Libya by Muammar Gadhafi’s troops. She, along with a cohort of reporters and photographers, were stationed on the front lines, amidst bombings, for weeks.

When the situation grew perilous, Addario and others decided to evacuate. Yet, her team ended up driving right into a Gadhafi checkpoint — and “literally into a wall of bullets.”

“I saw that I had to get out of the car because it wasn’t armored,” Addario said. “When I went out, I was so terrified that my legs would barely move, and there was a solider on me. He’s pulling on my camera and I’m pulling back — I realized that was incredibly stupid.”

Enduring psychological and physical torture, Addario and colleagues were later released from a special prison in Tripoli.

In 2009, she received the MacArthur Genius Grant and decided to devote her efforts to the subject of maternal death. She followed the lives of women in places like Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, where many lack access to basic medical care.

She’s focused on the subject of rape as a weapon of war, as well. In one of Addario’s series for Time, nude victims graced the cover of the magazine.

“It sparked a conversation. To me, I did my job because I want people to talk about the issues,” she said. “I want to make them mad. I want to make them interested in what’s going on here and why it’s happening.”

A question-and-answer session followed Addario’s lecture, with individuals from across the Commonwealth participating via livestream. In response to one query, Addario admitted she carries difficult, burdensome stories with her, but she does so as a sign of respect for sources.

“It’s important to talk about these things, and it’s important to keep talking about these stories so people don’t forget,” Addario said.

Barry Bram, the Penn State Reads Committee co-chair, said he was struck by the integrity and commitment of Addario’s photojournalism.

“I’m happy so many students were here in attendance,” Bram said. “I think she had a lot of lessons, not only from her professional perspective, but also from life. She chose what her passion was and really pursued it.”

Addario’s campus visit is part of programming sponsored by Penn State Reads throughout the academic year. To learn more, visit pennstatereads.psu.edu.

Penn State Reads is run jointly by Penn State Student Affairs and Penn State Undergraduate Education.

Last Updated November 21, 2017