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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

'Of Love & War' is one woman’s record of stark, unvarnished truth 

In her new book, 'Of Love & War', Lynsey Addario tells of the brutal effects of human conflict she has encountered throughout her 23-year career

The Sudan Liberation Movement that has been battling President Omar al-Bashir’s regime since 2003. Getty
The Sudan Liberation Movement that has been battling President Omar al-Bashir’s regime since 2003. Getty

In her up-close-and-personal 2015 memoir It’s What I Do, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario describes her origins, her struggle to break into a man’s world of a profession, and her career-defining, character-shaping experiences in the many war zones she has visited on assignment. Despite having been shot at, kidnapped, and verbally threatened with death, Addario keeps returning to the front lines. “For me,” she says, “the conundrum is never whether or not to go to Egypt or Iraq or ­Afghanistan; the problem is that I can’t be in two of those places at once.”

In her new book, Of Love & War, Addario showcases the brutal effects of human conflict she has encountered throughout her 23-year career, this time using more than 200 of her photographs. Her subjects incorporate soldiers in the line of fire and civilians battling or succumbing to hardships on various home fronts. The result is a stunning record of bravery and futility, resilience and oppression, hope and despair.

The book’s first section, “Life Under the Taliban”, gathers together photos from one shoot in 2000 and another in 2001. We see Kabul women at home posing for the camera with and without their blue burkas. Elsewhere, and in gritty black and white, boys play in a cemetery or around a destroyed plane left behind from the Soviet-Afghan war. The women’s colourful floor is bedecked with welcoming tea and cookies; the boys’ rubble-strewn playgrounds are monochrome lunar landscapes.

A follow-up section made up of scenes from Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in 2007 tells a different story. Here Addario captures the blood, sweat and tears of American soldiers as they patrol, fight and ultimately evacuate after a bloody Taliban ambush.

A substantial chapter on Iraq opens with a series of images of life in the country in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s downfall. Some provide glimpses of a new, relaxed state of affairs – a defaced poster of the dictator, US Marines shaving in front of a presidential palace, a police clerk at work in one of the old Baath party headquarters. Eventually, though, a grimmer reality snuffs out that initial optimism. Distraught Iraqi women look for loved ones in rows of body bags unearthed in a mass grave. A man wraps the body of his only son after he was killed in a car bomb. Baathist party members are rounded up, hooded, and detained in cells.

Of Love & War by Lynsey Addario published by Penguin Press Courtesy Penguin Random House
Of Love & War by Lynsey Addario published by Penguin Press Courtesy Penguin Random House

The two standout sections are those devoted to women. In the first, “Women in the Military”, we are given unique access to the “female engagement teams” attached to all-male infantry patrols in Afghanistan, and view their efforts to engage with and win over Afghan women.

Complementing this is “Women’s Issues”, a chronicle of Addario’s return visits to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. This chapter includes some of her most uncompromising photos. Once again she lulls us into a false sense of security by beginning happily, even hopefully, in this case with pictures of brides, young girls in makeup, female police and female parliamentarians.

But then in the turn of a page a shadow descends and we find ourselves among women incarcerated for trumped-up “moral crimes”, women mutilated by their violent husbands as punishment for trying to leave them, and other maltreated women who have attempted – and failed at – self-immolation as a more drastic means of escape. A hackneyed yet necessary word of warning: once seen, these pictures cannot be unseen.

Of Love & War is not all photographs. Scattered throughout the book are chunks of illuminating text, from essays to profiles to personal letters or journal entries. In one note Addario reveals how she was molested while photographing a demonstration in Pakistan. In another she expands on an occupational hazard: “I almost died yesterday, and the day before.” In the preface to a section on Libya she quotes the photographer Robert Capra – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” – and then recounts what happened when she got too close: her terrifying kidnap in 2011 by pro-Qaddafi forces.

Such accounts make for sobering reading, but they are nothing compared with the ordeals endured by Addario’s subjects. Her closing sections on sub-Saharan Africa and the plight of displaced and dispossessed persons around the world show no let-up in the suffering. One of the last photos, a double-spread shot of exhausted refugees standing in a line under a long dark cloud, constitutes a final, forceful plea for empathy.

It is hard not to be moved and angered by pictures of torched villages, malnourished children and under-equipped maternity wards. In places it feels as if we are trawling through a catalogue of unremitting horror and trauma. And yet it is vital that Addario presents stark facts. In an interview at the end, she says that she does not chase explosions and cheat death for the adrenalin rush; rather, she risks her life to bear witness in the hope of opening people’s eyes and changing government policy. Only by exposing injustice and sharing pain can she achieve that.

The book’s title is not a complete misnomer. A handful of heart-gladdening photos are a welcome tonic, whether of secret girls’ schools or covert women’s work training programmes in Afghanistan, or an Iraqi audience entranced by a 3D film. Again and again abused women are portrayed not as victims but survivors.

We close this important collection with many of the photos imprinted on our minds and Addario’s words ringing true: “Point the camera and wonders appear.”

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