Photojournalism from dangerous conflict zones like Ukraine is a necessary risk in order to ascertain truth, change perspective and impact the world — and despite or because of the harrowing brutalities of war, women are uniquely situated to photograph it, Pulitzer Prize photojournalist Lynsey Addario told Utah students.

Addario spoke via Zoom Tuesday to an audience at Weber State University as a keynote speaker of the school’s Women’s History Month celebration.

“I want to be a role model to other women. I want to usher more women into this field because I think we have different access, and different interest in the stories we tell,” she said. “I don’t think most people understand what goes into journalism and telling these stories. Journalists make a lot of sacrifices to tell stories and give perspective, and document the realities on the ground.”

For Addario the threat is all too close, as she gave the address remotely from a hotel room in Ukraine where she was woken hours earlier by the jarring sound of mortars landing nearby, a stark reminder of the risks of reporting from a war zone, where Addario is on assignment for The New York Times.

Addario’s keynote to the Weber audience comes just days after the publication of her heart-wrenching photo seen around the world, which documented the demise of a civilian mother and her two children, along with a family friend, who were killed by Russian shells as they fled the city of Irpen. The image provided irrefutable evidence that Russian war tactics are killing innocent civilians and violating the international rules of war, laying bare the horrifying truth of the European conflict that might otherwise go undocumented without the work of journalists like Addario.

In an episode of the New York Times podcast “The Daily” she described the wrenching feeling of bearing witness to the death of a mother and her two children killed by Russian shelling while fleeing for safety just 30 meters from Addario.

“I remember sort of gasping, and thinking, ‘It’s a family!’ Because there was a woman, a man, and two children. The mother looked almost like a child, she was very young. Everyone looked kind of like they were sleeping,” Addario told host Michael Barbaro on the podcast, which aired the same day as her address to Utah students.

While photographing deceased persons is a sensitive undertaking, she believes that documenting the realities of conflict can help bring it to an end.

“I knew that I had documented a war crime, and that the image had to be seen across the board. So I’m grateful the Times took a risk and published it,” Addario told the Weber audience, going on to express amazement with people caught up in the conflict.

“Women in Ukraine are unbelievable. Ukrainians are so resilient and so tough and they never complain about anything. They are devoted to their family and their country, and they are direct and admirable in their commitment to what’s happening here.”

The power of an image

Students in attendance described being emotionally moved by the photos, and agreed that the poignancy of the tragedy should be shared to build awareness that can help bring an end to the conflict.

Adam Rubin, a Weber State University senior studying multimedia journalism, asks photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who is currently covering the war in Ukraine for The New York Times, how to email editors when starting out a journalism career during a virtual meeting between Addario and students and staff in the university’s Elizabeth Hall in Ogden on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“That photo made me want to cry — just seeing that humans are willing to do that to other humans,” said Jordan Wise, a communications student at Weber State who attended the keynote watch party on campus. “I have a friend who lives in Kyiv, and it made me think that it could have been my friend, or her family members, or people she knew who were dead laying on the ground. It hurts, and it makes things real.”

Weber student Tim Costello said the experience of seeing the image was hard to put into words.

“It’s sobering. A lot of people will hear of what’s going on in the Ukraine and say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t concern me.’ But what if it were your family that was in that photo? Would it concern you then? Because that’s somebody’s family. So those kind of photos can really put it in perspective for other people,” said Costello, who studies creative writing at the university.

Ezra Striley, a student reporter with the university newspaper The Signpost, said images like those shown by Addario do more than words can alone.

“When you see actual photographs of families dying, innocent civilians being targeted, you can feel on a humanity level the impact that this war is having. It’s a non-partisan issue. It’s about human lives and they’re being lost,” Striley said.

Kidnapped, begging for life

Addario understands the grim realities of conflict, but rather than being desensitized, her experience has only fueled her motivation to document the truth that is often hidden from view.

She described the feeling of being caught in firefights when embedded with Marines in Iraq, where she traveled to capture the dynamics of the country’s post-Saddam Hussein insurgency, which found her under ambush at 3 in the morning, or dangling out the back of a convoy truck.

“Hot bullet casings were landing on my face, and I finally had to say to myself out loud, ‘You have to get out of the truck.’ It’s my first experience being under fire,” she said. It was not her last.

Addario also described covering the conflict in Darfur, where she and her team had to walk miles into the country from neighboring Chad and wade through water in order to circumvent the government’s outlaw of journalism.

She retold the story of being kidnapped in Libya while covering the fall of dictator Muammar Gadhafi 11 years ago when she and her team were caught at a checkpoint, taken at gunpoint and tied up.

“Each one of us had an AK put to our foreheads, and we begged and pleaded for them to not shoot us.”

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who is currently covering the war in Ukraine for The New York Times, smiles as she is thanked for taking the time to talk about her work during a video call with Weber State students and staff in the university’s Elizabeth Hall in Ogden on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Women in a war zone

As a woman in war zones, Addario said she’s often underestimated. Although, misguided stereotypes and cultural differences in gender expectations have at times allowed her access to prime material, like she found in Persian Gulf countries.

“As a woman in some of these places, you become almost like this third sex — as a non-Muslim foreign journalist working in a Sharia law society — they don’t know what to do with you. That ambiguity allows more access sometimes. In countries where women don’t share the same rights, I’m often underestimated, especially with military things. I love that and I use it to my advantage, because if they underestimate you, you can work under the radar and get a lot more done,” Addario said.  

She said over the years many have been surprised by her alacrity for following conflict and a willingness to pursue stories in gritty, dangerous areas, like the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, where Addario went to cover reports of inordinate civilian casualties.

“We asked to go to the most dangerous place in the valley, and they said, ‘It's not a place that’s fit for women, because there’s no place to sleep and no place to go to the bathroom.’” she said. “So I asked, ‘Well, where do the men sleep and where do the men go to the bathroom?’”

She ended up embedded with the 173 Airborne division in Korangal, where for two months she experienced constant exchanges of fire with the Taliban, many daylong patrols through hostile land, and even jumped from a helicopter in the dark using night vision goggles.

The Weber State audience asked Addario where she finds the courage and how she copes with the fear.

Addario responded by saying she drew courage from the importance of the work, a deep sense of humility, and from the people she covers, especially women.

“Women in Afghanistan have been dealt one of the toughest hands in the world. They’re often beholden to the men in their family, and then they’re married off to people they might not have a choice in. There is so much domestic violence against women, and there’s no exit because women who ask for a divorce are killed or thrown in jail,” she said, explaining how the courage she saw in those women remains a source of inspiration. “So the women I profiled after the fall of the Taliban who had the courage to become more independent and become educated, they are incredibly courageous because every single odd is stacked against them.”

‘Its not all dark’

Female journalists in attendance at the Weber keynote found Addario’s experience insightful and inspiring.

“The most awesome thing is her taking the perspective of other women and bringing it here and showing everybody what it is like. As a female that wants to be in a position that she’s in in the future, this is incredibly inspiring,” said Striley, a student journalist, who admires Addario’s willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good. “I don’t think a life is worth living if we don’t put everything on the line to make the world a better place, so I think it's so good that she’s there.”

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Kennedy Robins, who works as a photojournalist at The Signpost, believes Addario’s work is evidence that women should be taken more seriously in wartime photojournalism.

“I feel like this woke me up to my future in photojournalism. I’m really into photography and this really showed me what my future can look like, but also helped me consider the fear it involves, and it was interesting to see how she handles it.” said Robins. “I feel women can go into the same situations and get even better pictures, because as she talked about, we sometimes have better access, and that’s so important because stories and pictures are really strong and it’s one of the only ways to touch people and make a change in the world.”

After taking questions from the group, Addario ended by reiterating the importance of her work, the power it has to create humility, and how her experiences have inspired her to keep going.

“Most people around the world don’t have the privileges, freedom, shelter and food many of us take for granted. And it’s important to have that perspective,” she said. “Of all the horrible things you see in the world, you also see the beautiful things, and you see the most unique and incredible moments of generosity and resilience and love. It’s not all dark. What gives me hope are the people I cover.”

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