Lynsey Addario always thought her career as a photojournalist covering conflicts around the world ruled out motherhood. Even holding down relationships with a job that required constant travel and a great deal of risk was a "disaster," she tells Yahoo Life.
"I just assumed at some point in my early 30s, like, OK, here's the deal. I have this amazing job and life that I'm so grateful [for], that I believe in so much and I have so much passion for — that will be my true love," the Pulitzer Prize winner says. "I didn't actually think I would ever end up with a family and with a loving husband and a job that I loved. It just was something that I assumed I would have to sacrifice."
But life has a way of surprising us all. Fast-forward to 2022, and the New York Times correspondent is now a happily married mother of two sons who continues to put her life on the line, most recently by traveling to war-torn Ukraine amid the Russian invasion. That assignment saw her capturing an image that's been burned into countless brains: a graphic, gut-wrenching shot of four dead Ukrainians who had been killed by mortar as they tried to flee Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. The deceased were later identified as Tetiana Perebyinis, 43, and her two children, 18-year-old Mykyta and 9-year-old Alisa, and the church volunteer who was aiding them, Anatoly Berezhny, 26.
Addario recalls the moment as "chaotic" and "traumatic." Having expected a relatively straightforward day of documenting a civilian evacuation route, she and her team were stunned to encounter incoming rounds that kicked up dust and made it difficult to see or even determine if she herself had been injured. She describes herself as being still in "some sort of shock because obviously I had just narrowly escaped death myself" when she encountered the slain family.
"For me as a photographer, I'm thinking many different things because I'm also a mother, I'm a sister, I'm a daughter," Addario, who shares sons Lukas, 10, and Alfred, almost 3, with husband Paul de Bendern. "I have children, and I have a child almost the age of Alisa, the young girl who was killed, who was 9 years old. And I remember seeing their bodies and trying to sort of process everything. ... Seeing the little moon boots on Alisa [and] registering, Oh my God, that's a child."
Even in the most devastating circumstances, Addario knows her priority is to grab her camera.
"My instinct is to photograph because that's my purpose there," the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War says. "And I think it helps me deal with trauma, also. It helps me deal with fear — to sort of pick up my camera and say, OK, I have a purpose here. I can't just sit here and say, 'Wow, that reminds me of my family,' because I would fall apart."
Compartmentalizing is an important coping mechanism that helps her focus on the task at hand, whether she's at home with her family or on the job.
"It's ironically harder for me to compartmentalize the work part when I'm home because I'm always kind of watching the news and wondering, What am I missing? I should be there. It's really important that I'm there," she explains. "But I think also when I'm in the field, it's important for me to not dwell too much on my family and the fact that I'm not there for my children right then."
Addario credits her husband, who is a journalist with Reuters, with being an "amazing" and "hands-on" dad. That's important given that the unpredictability of her work — and the often treacherous conditions she's in — make it unrealistic to keep in close constant contact from, say, Ukraine or South Sudan. Service may be spotty at best, and what's more, her toddler struggles to make sense of Mom speaking to him via FaceTime.
"My husband knows I'll check in when I can, but it's not totally necessary that I FaceTime every day with my kids or whatever," Addario says. "Actually I feel the more I FaceTime with them when I'm away, the more confusing it is for my younger son. I think it's distracting for them because I'm not physically there. ... I do what feels right and what I can do. If I have connection and if I have cell service, I'll check in with my husband in the morning and evening. But if not, he knows that I'll check in when I can."
When her boys are older, Addario hopes that her memoir will help them understand what it is she does and why she's so devoted to a photojournalism career that has, at times, put her life at risk. Being vigilant — looking for cover, tracking where incoming rounds are headed, getting hit with gravel — is "all part of the job," but her more than two decades on the job have also included being kidnapped twice. It was after surviving a kidnapping in Libya that she agreed when de Bendern insisted they start a family.
"My kids are probably too young to really understand what I do," she says. "My 10-year-old, he obviously knows I cover war. His school friend was like, 'Hey, your mom's been kidnapped,' but I don't think he really understands what that means. I don't think he knows on a day-to-day basis [what I do]. I'm definitely open to answering any questions he has, but I think his own protective mechanism is to not really ask too many questions because ... he probably feels like there's a limited amount that he wants to know."
After years of having her loved ones "on the receiving ends of calls from the New York Times," bracing themselves for the worst possible news, Addario says it takes more "calculation" these days to determine what stories she'll cover. She's certainly not shying away from assignments that'll take her to far-flung locations or in the middle of conflict. Along with the war in Ukraine, Addario's work has documented everything from the California wildfires to flooding in South Sudan in recent months.
"I feel like as I get older, I kind of get wiser in the choices I make," she says. "And I have more experience to cover these wars in a — not safer [way], because part of this is luck; it's not to say that something won't happen to me. But I feel like there are certain stories that I feel obliged to cover. I feel like it's what I need to be doing."
She adds, "I don't exclusively cover war, but if I believe I need to go cover something, I talk about it with my husband and I'll go."
—Video produced by Olivia Schneider.
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