AJDABIYA, LIBYA, MARCH 2011
In the perfect light of a crystal-clear morning, I stood outside a putty-colored cement hospital near Ajdabiya, a small city on Libya’s northern coast, more than five hundred miles east of Tripoli. Several other journalists and I were looking at a car that had been hit during a morning air strike. Its back window had been blown out, and human remains were splattered all over the backseat. There was part of a brain on the passenger seat; shards of skull were embedded in the rear parcel shelf. Hospital employees in white medical uniforms carefully picked up the pieces and placed them in a bag. I picked up my camera to shoot what I had shot so many times before, then put it back down, stepping aside to let the other photographers have their turn. I couldn’t do it that day.
It was March 2011, the beginning of the Arab Spring. After Tunisia and Egypt erupted into unexpectedly euphoric and triumphant revolutions against their longtime dictators—millions of ordinary people shouting and dancing in the streets in celebration of their newfound freedom—Libyans revolted against their own homegrown tyrant, Muammar el-Qaddafi. He had been in power for more than forty years, funding terrorist groups across the world while he tortured, killed, and disappeared his fellow Libyans. Qaddafi was a maniac.
I hadn’t covered Tunisia and Egypt, because I was on assignment in Afghanistan, and it had pained me to miss such important moments in history. I wasn’t going to miss Libya. This revolution, however, had quickly become a war. Qaddafi’s famously thuggish foot soldiers invaded rebel cities, and his air force pounded fighters in skeletal trucks. We journalists had come without flak jackets. We hadn’t expected to need our helmets.
My husband, Paul, called. We tried to talk once a day while I was away, but my Libyan cell phone rarely had a signal, and it had been a few days since we’d spoken.
“Hi, my love. How are you doing?” He was calling from New Delhi.
“I’m tired,” I said. “I spoke with David Furst”—my editor at the New York Times—“and asked if I could start rotating out in about a week. I’ll head back to the hotel in Benghazi this afternoon and try to stick around there until I pull out. I’m ready to come home.” I tried to steady my voice. “I’m exhausted. I have a bad feeling that something is going to happen.”
I didn’t tell him that the last few mornings I had woken up reluctant to get out of bed, lingered too long over my instant coffee as my colleagues and I prepared our cameras and loaded our bags into our cars. While covering war, there were days when I had boundless courage and there were days, like these in Libya, when I was terrified from the moment I woke up. Two days earlier I had given a hard drive of images to another photographer to give to my photo agency in case I didn’t survive. If nothing else, at least my work could be salvaged.
“You should go back to Benghazi,” Paul said. “You always listen to your instincts.”
When I arrived in Benghazi two weeks earlier, it was a newly liberated city, a familiar scene to me, like Kirkuk after Saddam or Kandahar after the Taliban. Buildings had been torched, prisons emptied, a parallel government installed. The mood was happy. One day I visited some men who had gathered in town for a military training exercise. It resembled a Monty Python skit: Libyans stood at attention in strict configurations or practiced walking like soldiers or gaped at a pile of weapons in bewilderment. The rebels were just ordinary men—doctors, engineers, electricians—who had thrown on whatever green clothes or leather jackets or Converse sneakers they had in their closet and jumped in the backs of trucks loaded with Katyusha rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades. Some men lugged rusty Kalashnikovs; others gripped hunting knives. Some had no weapons at all. When they took off down the coastal road toward Tripoli, the capital city, still ruled by Qaddafi, journalists jumped into their boxy four-door sedans and followed them to what would become the front line.
We traveled alongside them, watched them load ammunition, and waited. Then one morning, one of the first days on that lonely strip of highway, a helicopter gunship suddenly swooped down low over our heads and unleashed a barrage of bullets, spitting at us indiscriminately. The gaggle of fighters shot up the air with Kalashnikovs. One boy threw a rock; another, his eyes wild with terror, ran for a sand berm. I ducked beside the front of a tin-can car and took a picture of him and knew this would be a different kind of war.
The front line moved along a barren road surrounded by sand that stretched flat to the blue horizon. Unlike in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were no bunkers to jump into, no buildings to hide behind, no armored Humvees in which to crouch down on the floor. In Libya, when we heard the hum of a warplane, we went through the motions: We stopped, looked up, and cowered in anticipation of rounds of ammunition or bombs and tried to guess where they would land. Some people lay on their backs; some people covered their heads; some people prayed; and some people ran, just to run, even if it was to nowhere. We were always exposed to the massive Mediterranean sky.
I had been a conflict photographer for more than ten years and had covered war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Lebanon. I had never seen anything as scary as Libya. The photographer Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” In Libya, if you weren’t close enough, there was nothing to photograph. And once you got close enough, you were in the line of fire. That week I watched some of the best photojournalists in the business, veterans of Chechnya and Afghanistan and Bosnia, leave almost immediately after those first bombs fell. “It’s not worth it,” they said. There were several moments when I, too, thought to myself, This is insane. What am I doing? But there were other days when I felt that familiar exhilaration, when I thought, I am actually watching an uprising unfold. I am watching these people fighting to the death for their freedom. I am documenting the fate of a society that has been oppressed for decades. Until you get injured or shot or kidnapped, you believe you are invincible. And it had been a few years since anything had happened to me.
The other journalists were leaving the scene at the hospital. I knew it was time to return to the front line. The sounds of war echoed in the distance—shelling, antiaircraft fire, ambulance sirens. I didn’t want Paul to hear the noise. “Baby, I have to go. I’ll see you soon, my love. Love you.”
Long ago I learned that it is cruel to make loved ones worry about you. I tell them only what they need to know: where I am, where I am going, and when I am coming home.
• • •
I WAS THERE on assignment for the New York Times with three other award-winning journalists: Tyler Hicks, a photographer and a friend whom, oddly enough, I had grown up with in Connecticut; Anthony Shadid, arguably the best reporter working in the Middle East; and Stephen Farrell, a British-Irish journalist who had worked in war zones for years. Between us, we had about fifty years of experience working in awful places. We had entered the country illegally from Egypt, along with hordes of other journalists.
We left the suburban hospital together and headed toward the center of Ajdabiya to look for the front line. Anthony and Steve were in one car, and Tyler and I were in another with our driver, Mohammed. It had been difficult to find a good driver in Libya. Mohammed, a soft-spoken university student with a fresh face and a gap between his front teeth, drove us around long after most other drivers had quit. To him, the job was a contribution to the revolution. A driver like Mohammed, who was tapped into a network of other drivers and rebels, helped us decide where we could go and how long we could stay. His directions often determined our fate. His contribution was invaluable.
As we edged down an empty road in the center of town, artillery shells pierced the pavement nearby, sending shards of shrapnel in every direction. Anthony and Steve’s driver suddenly stopped his car and began off-loading their belongings onto the pavement. He was quitting. His brother had been shot at the front line. Without pausing, Mohammed pulled up our car and put their gear in our trunk, and Anthony and Steve piled into our car. I felt uneasy. In war zones journalists often travel in convoys of two vehicles, in case one vehicle fails. Two vehicles also ensure that if one is hit or attacked, fewer people will suffer the consequences.
Four journalists in one car also meant too many chefs in the kitchen: We each had a different idea of what we wanted to do. As we drove on, Anthony, Tyler, Steve, and I debated the level of danger. It is often this way in war zones for journalists and photographers: an endless negotiation of who needs what, who wants to stay, who wants to go. When do we have enough reporting and photographs to depict the story accurately? We want to see more fighting, to get the freshest, latest news, to keep reporting until that unknowable last second before injury, capture, death. We are greedy by nature: We always want more than what we have. The consensus in the car at that point was to keep working.
Ajdabiya was a prosperous, low-slung North African city of peach, yellow, and tan cement buildings with thick-walled balconies and vibrant storefront signs in painted Arabic. The few civilians on the streets were fleeing. They ran with conviction, carrying their belongings atop their heads. An endless stream of cars sped past us in the opposite direction. Families had crammed into every inch of pickup trucks and four-door sedans; blankets and clothes packed haphazardly into rear windows spilled out the back. Some families crouched under tarps. It was the first time I actually saw women and children in the town of Ajdabiya. In a conservative society like Libya’s, women often stayed indoors. I was seeing them outside their homes now only because they were leaving, heading east as the fighting pushed into the city from the west.
I feared that it was our time to leave, too. The steady exodus of civilians out of the city meant the locals anticipated that Ajdabiya would fall into the hands of Qaddafi’s troops. Had they already arrived? We knew what might happen to us if Qaddafi’s men discovered four illegal Western journalists in rebel territory. He had declared in public speeches that all journalists in eastern Libya were spies and terrorists and that, if found, they would be killed or detained.
We returned to the hospital to check in with other journalists and gauge the casualties from the encroaching battle. Anthony, Steve, and Tyler went inside to get the phone numbers of a Libyan doctor so they could call him later that night from Benghazi and report the final casualty toll for the day. For reporters it was necessary to have sources inside the city in case power changed hands and we couldn’t get back in. I stayed on the side of the road across the street from the hospital to photograph fleeing Libyans.
On the sidewalk where I stood a French photographer I knew from Iraq and Afghanistan deliberated his next move with several French journalists. They spoke in low, serious voices tinged with the sarcasm journalists use to temper their nerves. French journalists, in general, are known for being fearless and crazy. The joke was that if the French left a combat zone before you, you were screwed. Laurent Van der Stockt, a notoriously gutsy conflict photographer, who had covered most of the major wars of the past two decades—he had been shot twice and hit once by shrapnel from a mortar round on the front line—was staring at the long line of cars draining out of the city.
He turned to me. “We’re leaving,” he said. “It’s time to go back to Benghazi.” This meant they had made the decision to retreat from the action to a city that was as much as one hundred miles, and two hours, away. They were calling it a day. Laurent had decided the pictures weren’t worth the risk. They thought the situation too dangerous.
I watched in horror as they scrambled into their cars, but I said nothing. I didn’t want to be the cowardly photographer or the terrified girl who prevented the men from doing their work. Tyler, Anthony, and Steve had each spent more than a decade working in war zones; they knew what they were doing. Maybe my judgment was off that day. As we continued the drive into Ajdabiya, I looked out the window and tried to retreat to a comforting place in my mind. The mosques around the city blasted the call to prayer.
Cars streamed past us. We were the only car going the other way.
“Guys, it’s time to go,” Steve said, and I sensed I had an ally in my fear.
“Yeah, I think so, too,” I said.
I was grateful for Steve’s voice of reason, but our suggestion went unanswered by Tyler and Anthony.
• • •
WHEN WE REACHED A ROUNDABOUT, Tyler and Anthony got out and walked off to interview some rebels. Some were watching the approaching action with nonchalance; others were scurrying around, shooting their weapons into the air. I was directionless. I didn’t want to be here or there, and could barely lift my camera to my eyes. Even the most experienced photographers have days like this: You can’t frame a shot, catch the moment. My fear was debilitating, like a physical handicap. Tyler, meanwhile, was in his element, focused and relentless. I imagined the images he was capturing while I was clumsy, scared, missing the scenes, clicking the shutter too late.
As I ran forward to follow him, I heard the familiar whoosh of a bullet. I looked up at the rooftops: Qaddafi snipers were in the city. I assumed that everyone realized the gravity of the situation, but back near the car Anthony was drinking tea with a handful of men beside an ammunition truck, chatting happily in Arabic. He looked older than his forty-something years, with his gray beard and soft stomach. His eyes sparkled, warm and friendly, as he listened to the Libyans, calmly smoking his cigarette and throwing his hands around as he spoke, as if hanging out with friends by a pool.
But Steve, who had been kidnapped twice—once in Iraq, once in Afghanistan—looked spooked. He stood by our car with Mohammed, as if this might inspire the others to finish their work. The locals around us were screaming, “Qanas! Qanas!” (Sniper! Sniper!)
Mohammed was getting frantic. “We have to go to Benghazi,” he pleaded. His brother had been calling, warning that Qaddafi’s men had entered the city from the west. He called us all back to the car, and we took off for the eastern gate of town.
On the road toward the exit Tyler asked Mohammed to stop the car one last time to check out a team of rebel fighters setting up rocket-propelled grenades. He reluctantly pulled off to the side of the road, and Tyler leapt out to shoot, buoyed by a rush of adrenaline I knew well—that feeling of satisfaction when doing reporting that few others would dare do. Mohammed immediately called his brother again to check in. I knew we were pushing the boundaries, lingering after we had been warned to leave, but my desire to pull back to safety felt like a terrible weakness. My colleagues would never have accused me of being wimpy or unprofessional; I was the one who was all too aware of being the only woman in the car.
A car pulled up alongside us: “They’re in the city! They’re in the city!”
“Tyler!” Mohammed shouted, his face wrecked with fear.
“Let’s go!” Steve screamed. Tyler clambered into the car and we took off.
The night before, my editor, David, and I agreed that I would call him at 9 a.m. in New York. I checked my watch and dialed his number. I couldn’t get a line out. I dialed again. Nothing. I kept redialing his extension, over and over and over, punching at the phone. When I looked up and squinted into the distance, I saw something I hadn’t seen in weeks: traffic.
“I think it’s Qaddafi’s men,” I said.Tyler and Anthony shook their heads.
“No way,” Tyler said.
Within seconds, the fuzzy horizon distilled into little olive figurines. I had been right.
Tyler realized it, too. “Don’t stop!” he screamed.
You have two options when you approach a hostile checkpoint, and both are a gamble. The first option is to stop and identify yourselves as journalists and hope that you are respected as neutral professionals. The second option is to blow past them and hope they don’t open fire on you.
“Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” Tyler was yelling.
But Mohammed was slowing down, sticking his head out of the window.
“Sahafi! Media!” he yelled to the soldiers. He opened the car door to get out, and Qaddafi’s soldiers swarmed around him. “Sahafi!”
In one fluid movement the doors flew open and Tyler, Steve, and Anthony were ripped out of the car. I immediately locked my door and buried my head in my lap. Gunshots shattered the air. When I looked up, I was alone. I knew I had to get out of the car to run for cover, but I couldn’t move. I spoke to myself out loud, a tactic I used when my inner voice wasn’t convincing enough: “Get out of the car. Get out. Run.” I crawled across the backseat with my head down and out the open car door, scrambled to my feet, and immediately felt the hands of a soldier pulling at my arms and tugging at my two cameras. The harder he pulled, the harder I pulled back. Bullets whipped by us. Dirt kicked up all around my feet. The rebels were barraging the army’s checkpoint from behind us, from the place we had just fled. The soldier pulled at my camera with one hand and pointed his gun at me with the other.
We stood like that for ten interminable seconds. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tyler running toward a one-story cement building up ahead. I trusted his instincts. We needed to get out of the line of fire before we could negotiate our fate with these soldiers.
I surrendered my waist pack and one camera and clutched the other, pulling the memory cards out as I ran after my colleagues, who, in the chaos of bullets, had also escaped their captors. My legs felt slow as my eyes stayed trained on Anthony ahead of me. “Anthony! . . . Anthony, help me!”
But Anthony had tripped and fallen to his knees. When he looked up, his normally peaceful face was wrenched with panic, oblivious to my screams. His face looked so unnatural that it terrified me more than anything else. We had to reach Tyler, who had sprinted ahead and seemed likeliest to escape.
Somehow the four of us reunited at the cinder-block building set back from the road, sheltered from the gun battle that continued to rage behind us. A Libyan woman holding an infant stood nearby, crying, while a soldier tried to console them. He didn’t bother with us, because he knew we had nowhere to go.
“I’m thinking about making a run for it,” Tyler said.
We looked into the distance. The open desert stretched out in every direction.
Within seconds, five government soldiers were upon us, pointing their guns and yelling in Arabic, their voices full of hate and adrenaline, their faces contorted into masks of rage. They ordered us facedown into the dirt, motioning to us with their hands. We all paused, assuming this was the moment of our execution. And then we slowly crouched down and begged for our lives.
I pressed my face into the soil, sucking in a mouthful of fine dirt as a soldier pulled my hands behind my back and kicked open my legs. The soldiers were all screaming at us, at one another, pointing their weapons at our heads as the four of us sank into silent submission, waiting to be shot.
I looked over at Anthony, Steve, and Tyler to make sure we were all still there, together and alive, and then quickly looked back down at the sand.
“Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. Please, God. Save us.”
I raised my eyes from the ground and looked up into a gun barrel and directly into the soldier’s eyes. The only thing I could think to do was beg, but my mouth was so dry, as if my saliva had been replaced with dirt. I could barely utter a word.
“Please,” I whispered. “Please.”
I waited for the crack of the gun, for the end of my life. I thought of Paul, my parents, my sisters, and my two grandmothers, well into their nineties. Each second felt like its own space in the universe. The soldiers continued barking at one another, with their guns leveled at our heads.
“Jawaz!” one of them suddenly yelled. They wanted our passports, and we surrendered them. The soldier leaned down and started searching my body for my belongings, pulling things out of my jacket pockets: my BlackBerry, my memory cards, some loose bills. His hands moved quickly, skipping over my second passport, which was secretly tucked into a money belt inside my jeans, until they reached my breasts. He stopped. And then he squeezed them, like a child honking a rubber horn.
“Please, God. I just don’t want to be raped.” I curled as tightly as I could into a fetal position.
But the soldier was preoccupied with something else. He removed my gray Nikes with fluorescent yellow soles, and I heard the whipping sound of the laces being pulled out. I felt air on my feet. He tied my ankles together. With a piece of fabric he pulled my wrists behind my back and tied them together so tightly they went numb. Then he pushed my face down into the filthy earth.
Will I see my parents again? Will I see Paul again? How could I do this to them? Will I get my cameras back? How did I get to this place?
The soldiers picked me up by my hands and feet and carried me away.
• • •
THAT DAY IN LIBYA I asked myself the questions that still haunt me: Why do you do this work? Why do you risk your life for a photograph? After ten years as a war correspondent, it remains a difficult question to answer. The truth is that few of us are born into this work. It is something we discover accidentally, something that happens gradually. We get a glimpse of this unusual life and this extraordinary profession, and we want to keep doing it, no matter how exhausting, stressful, or dangerous it becomes. It is the way we make a living, but it feels more like a responsibility, or a calling. It makes us happy, because it gives us a sense of purpose. We bear witness to history, and influence policy. And yet we also pay a steep price for this commitment. When a journalist gets killed in a firefight, or steps on a land mine and loses his legs, or tears his friends and family apart by getting kidnapped, I ask myself why I chose this life.
I had no idea that I would become a conflict photographer. I wanted to travel, to learn about the world beyond the United States. I found that the camera was a comforting companion. It opened up new worlds, and gave me access to people’s most intimate moments. I discovered the privilege of seeing life in all its complexity, the thrill of learning something new every day. When I was behind a camera, it was the only place in the world I wanted to be.
It was in Argentina, at age twenty-two, that I discovered I could make a living—at first, $10 a photograph—from this hobby that I loved. Once I began to work, a career in photojournalism didn’t seem like such a distant dream. The question was how to move forward in such a competitive industry. I got a job as a stringer for the Associated Press in New York, and once I had experience, I took a risk and began to travel, first to Cuba, then India, Afghanistan, Mexico City. I became comfortable in places most people found frightening, and as I saw more of the world, my courage and curiosity grew.
I was just finding my way as a reporter when the September 11 attacks changed the world. Along with hundreds of other journalists, I was there to witness the invasion of Afghanistan; it would be the first time many of us would participate in a story that involved our own troops and our own bombs. The War on Terror created a new generation of war journalists, and as the wars became more unjust, our commitment deepened. We had an obligation to show the world the truth, and our sense of mission consumed our lives. On the front lines we became a family. We’ve seen one another through affairs, through marriages, divorces, and deaths. Now that combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have mostly ceased, we meet most often at weddings and funerals.
When I was first starting out, I raced to cover the biggest stories, but over time my choices have become more personal. I see images in newspapers, magazines, on the Internet—refugee camps in Darfur, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wounded veterans—and my heart leaps. I am suddenly overcome with this quiet angst—a restlessness that means I know I will go. The work takes on a rhythm all its own. I may spend two weeks photographing women dying of breast cancer in Uganda, and on the plane home I am already sketching out my next assignment, on the Maoist rebels in the jungles of India. When I return home to London—to my husband, Paul, and my son, Lukas—I’ll edit some eight thousand Uganda photos, break to take Lukas to the park, and perhaps discuss with an editor a future assignment in southern Turkey. When people ask me why I go to these places, they are asking the wrong question. For me, 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.
With my subjects—the thousands of people I have photographed—I have shared the joy of survival, the courage to resist oppression, the anguish of loss, the resilience of the oppressed, the brutality of the worst of men and the tenderness of the best. I maintain relationships with drivers and fixers, the trusted locals I relied on for setting up meetings, translating interviews, and navigating a foreign culture, for years. An interpreter I worked with thirteen years ago in Afghanistan can unexpectedly pop up in a meeting at a United Nations office today. They are as much a part of my circle of humanity as anyone else, and when a new tragedy is visited upon their country, I feel a sense of responsibility to see how it is affecting them. Often they write to me, “Are you coming, Miss Lynsey?”
Of course, there are dangers, and I have been lucky. I have been kidnapped twice. I have gotten in one serious car accident. Two of my drivers have died while working for me—two tragedies that I will always feel responsible for. I have missed the births of my sisters’ children, the weddings of friends, the funerals of loved ones. I have disappeared on countless boyfriends and had just as many disappear on me. I put off, for years, marriage and children. Somehow, though, I am healthy. I have maintained warm and wonderful relationships; I even found a husband who puts up with it all. Like many women, once I started a family, I had to make tough choices. I struggle to find the imperfect balance between my role as a mother and my role as a photojournalist. But I have faith, as I’ve always had, that if I work hard enough, care enough, and love enough in all areas of my life, I can create and enjoy a full life. Photography has shaped the way I look at the world; it has taught me to look beyond myself and capture the world outside. It’s also taught me to cherish the life I return to when I put the camera down. My work makes me better able to love my family and laugh with my friends.
Journalists can sound grandiose when they talk about their profession. Some of us are adrenaline junkies; some of us are escapists; some of us do wreck our personal lives and hurt those who love us most. This work can destroy people. I have seen so many friends and colleagues become unrecognizable from trauma: short-tempered, sleepless, and alienated from friends. But after years of witnessing so much suffering in the world, we find it hard to acknowledge that lucky, free, prosperous people like us might be suffering, too. We feel more comfortable in the darkest places than we do back home, where life seems too simple and too easy. We don’t listen to that inner voice that says it is time to take a break from documenting other people’s lives and start building our own.
Under it all, however, are the things that sustain us and bring us together: the privilege of witnessing things that others do not; an idealistic belief that a photograph might affect people’s souls; the thrill of creating art and contributing to the world’s database of knowledge. When I return home and rationally consider the risks, the choices are difficult. But when I am doing my work, I am alive and I am me. It’s what I do. I am sure there are other versions of happiness, but this one is mine.
. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.