Photographing the Reality of War

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Last week, Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist on assignment for The New York Times in Ukraine, stood on a rooftop in Kyiv, which is currently under siege, to capture images of smoke wafting across the skyline. Then, an air raid siren went off.

She moved behind a wall “just so I don’t get blown out with chunks of glass if it does hit,” she said by phone as she took shelter. Despite the threat of an attack, she still wanted to share more about her experiences covering the war in an interview.

Ms. Addario, has been in Ukraine since February, capturing the devastation of war. She is the photographer behind one of the most recognizable images of the conflict: one that shows four people — a woman, a man and two children — lying on the ground, their suitcases beside them. They had been trying to evacuate across a bridge in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, and were killed by Russian mortar fire. (Learn the story behind that photo on a recent episode of “The Daily.”)

Below, Ms. Addario, who has covered conflicts around the world, shares her experiences covering the war. This interview has been edited.

What do you want to express most through your photos in Ukraine?

It’s mostly the reality of war. I often focus on civilians and women and children because for me, those are the victims of war because they’re not participating in the fight, they’re just the innocent victims who end up losing their homes and losing their belongings and losing family members only because of decisions that are made on their behalf. So I think that for me, civilians have always been the more interesting focus of war rather than just pure combat.

It’s what I get access to and it’s what I’m drawn to; as a person, as a human being, as a mother, as a woman, as someone who’s been doing this a long time. I think I’ve evolved as a journalist and as a person — I’m not the same as I was 20 years ago. I do look at the work of my colleagues and think, Oh, I really don’t have enough smoke and fire and bombs, and I’m not taking enough risks; I’m not going all the way to the frontline of the Russian positions. I’m constantly, sort of, beating myself up over what I don’t have.

How do you communicate with your subjects when photographing chaotic moments?

I always try to be very respectful of people. I always try to ask permission by holding up my camera; if I don’t speak the language, I make eye contact and make sure it’s OK with them. Some people just don’t want to be photographed; they’re too emotional, they’re going through too much. And of course, I respect that.

If I have a translator or a partner I’m working with, I always try to ask them to introduce me and explain I’m working with The New York Times and that it’s really important for the international community to see what’s happening.

Do you try to contextualize the moment when capturing images?

Every day, when I map out what I’m going to shoot, I’m trying to think about: Where is the narrative? Where are we at in this war? What do I need to include? That’s all really important. My job, first and foremost, is a journalist and then a photographer. I’m trying to tell stories with every picture I take.

I’m mapping out in my head what information needs to go into the photographs, like how to frame the photograph so the reader or the viewer gets a sense of what’s going on. I try to include information as well as emotion in the frame. I think it’s important to make evocative pictures, but also pictures that convey a situation and tell a story.

Have any photos you’ve taken in Ukraine changed how you set out to capture the realities of the war?

I’ve been doing this for over 20 years — documenting war, the victims of war and civilian casualties, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Darfur to Yemen to Syria to Libya and Lebanon. Every situation is so different. Generally, as a photographer in a conflict zone, we hear an explosion and rush toward it to document the aftermath. In Irpin, the real difference was that I was present for the attack, and so I was in a bit of shock and also survival mode. I had just narrowly escaped death myself.

In those moments, I try to stay focused, but I also have to remind myself what I need to be doing. It’s partly instinctual, but it’s also partly that you have to snap back into the present. I have to also remember to be respectful of my subjects, particularly when I’m photographing the dead.

I always try to photograph and then make the decisions of what to edit, how to edit and what to publish with my editor later. I know psychologically, in that moment, I’m not in the position to be making any editorial decisions because I’m very emotional. But I also think it’s important to take the pictures because you only have a few seconds to do that, often when it’s very dangerous. It’s better to have them and make those decisions later than to just not shoot.

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