First Person: Photojournalist Killings Make My Work Dangerous

The death of a French photojournalist weighs on conflict photographer Lynsey Addario.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 70 people in my profession were murdered in 2013 "as a direct reprisal" for their work. Of those, nearly a quarter were photographers.

Being a conflict photographer seems more dangerous than ever right now—or maybe the longer I do this, the more I feel my odds of surviving are wearing thin.

On Tuesday as I sat in the transit lounge in the Nairobi airport following a two-week trip to South Sudan, where I was documenting the civil war, the world was learning of the murder of French photojournalist Camille Lepage, who was covering the civil war in the neighboring Central African Republic. Camille was 26 years old.

In South Sudan I photographed bodies littering the streets in varying states of decay, tiny children withering away in makeshift tent hospitals, their stunted bodies draped in loose pleats of skin peeling from malnutrition, and civilians hand-digging graves to bury their dead.

Nothing seemed more important to me than to make the world aware of the senseless death and starvation in South Sudan. I wanted people to see through the eyes of the suffering so my photos might motivate the international community to act.

It is what has driven me for years now, and what continues to drive me every day. Doesn't a photograph have the ability to change the world?

Tragic Reminder

I didn't know Camille Lepage. I learned about her life and her impressive body of work only upon her death. I wondered how her mother, father, and loved ones were coping with losing her to the Central African Republic, where Camille had dedicated the last few months of her short life to bringing the conflict to light.

Camille's work was powerful, intimate, and poignant, and I can only imagine how much enlightenment she'd have brought to the world with her images—if she'd lived beyond a mere 26 years.

Her passion and willingness to spend months on end in the world's darkest shadows reminded me of myself when I was 26. I went to Afghanistan with a few thousand dollars in the bank and the curiosity and desire to photograph the secret lives of women living under the oppression of the Taliban.

I was undeterred by the danger of traveling as a single American woman through Taliban-governed land. I believed in the stories I wanted to tell, the stories I felt were underreported, and I was convinced that that belief would keep me alive.

Fourteen years and the deaths and maiming of numerous friends, the loss of two drivers, and two kidnappings later, I'm more aware than ever of my mortality.

With each assignment, I weigh the looming possibility of being killed, and I chastise myself for allowing fear to hinder me. War photographers aren't supposed to get scared. Did Robert Capa ever become paralyzed by fear, or the great James Nachtwey? Did Don McCullin?

Growing Risks

The reality is that photographers and war correspondents working under repressive regimes are more at risk now than ever. Everyone seems to want to shoot the messenger, and the notion that journalists should be respected as neutral observers documenting the reality on the ground no longer exists.

From Pakistan to Colombia to Russia, journalists are deliberately targeted and, too often now, killed to silence the voice of their pictures and words.

Legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in Babr Amr, Syria, in 2012, when mortar rounds zeroed in on their position hours after Marie filed her final live report from a satellite phone, which betrayed their whereabouts. That tragedy could have been a coincidence, but it could also have been one more instance in a long line of journalists paying the price for their work.

Few had more experience in Afghanistan than the AP team of Kathy Gannon and Anja Niedringhaus. Kathy was my own initial window into the country, helping me procure three Taliban visas between 2000 and 2001, and schooling me in everything from the key players in Afghanistan to how to operate there and where to sleep.

Together, Kathy and Anja crisscrossed the country for years, illuminating the lives of Afghans. On April 4, as they waited in their vehicle while covering the presidential elections, an Afghan policeman—presumably on the scene in part to protect them—shot both women repeatedly, killing Anja and wounding Kathy.

Journalists for Ransom

Kidnappings are now rampant, making coverage nearly impossible for even the most experienced and intrepid war correspondents.

Last week the London Times's Anthony Loyd was taken hostage in Syria. Anthony and Times photographer Jack Hill and their fixer were a few miles from the border with Turkey when they were captured by a rebel gang.

Anthony (with whom I'm working on a story for National Geographic) was hooded, brutally beaten, and shot twice in the leg before being rescued by rebel fighters and ushered to safety in Turkey.

In so many countries, Western journalists are viewed simply as dollar signs. We're ransom objects. In Egypt, three Al Jazeera journalists, correspondent Peter Grest and producers Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, have been in prison since the end of December for doing their job: reporting.

The Egyptian government has accused them of joining the Muslim Brotherhood and working without credentials. They were repeatedly paraded around a courtroom in a Shakespeare-esque type of theater. Their trial was postponed numerous times, and the prosecutor demanded that they pay roughly $200,000 to see the video evidence against them.

In 2004 in Iraq I was taken hostage with a New York Times colleague in a village outside Fallujah named Gharma. And in 2011 I was kidnapped with three New York Times colleagues near a shifting front line in Ajdabiya, Libya.

In those initial, terrifying moments when it dawned on us that we were approaching a hostile checkpoint manned by troops loyal to the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi—troops whose adrenaline pumped through their veins like venom, their weapons raised high and trained on us as bullets from the continuing battle whizzed past our car—our driver, Mohammed Shalgouf, did something that might have worked 20 years ago. He stopped the car at the checkpoint, raised his hands high above his head, and screamed something to the effect of, "We are journalists!" as if there might be some sanctity in those very words.

In the ensuing chaos, we lost track of Mohammed. We never saw him alive again.

It is presumed that he was either killed in crossfire between the rebels and the Qaddafi troops who had seized us, or deliberately executed by Qaddafi soldiers.

We will never know the truth. More than three years later his body hasn't been recovered, and no plausible eyewitnesses have surfaced. But the last words I remember Mohammed saying are the very words I have used to plead for my own life: "We are journalists."

Sometimes people respect those words. And more often these days, they don't.

Lynsey Addario's memoir will be published in January 2015 by Penguin.

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