Shooting for the Truth

In the spring of 2004 Iraq was falling to pieces at a terrifying rate. The starkest evidence of this came on March 31, in the famously hostile city of Falluja, when four American private security contractors were ambushed, mutilated and torched, and two of their charred corpses hung from a bridge. The insurgency was quite clearly entering a new phase.

Seven days later, freelance photojournalist Lynsey Addario, a thirty-two- year-old Westport native, went on assignment for the New York Times in the Sunni Triangle. By then the American military had responded by sealing off all roads into Falluja and pounding the city with bombs. Lynsey and Times reporter Jeffrey Gittelman aimed to bypass the Falluja roadblocks en route to the city of Ramadi, a bit farther down the road, where they had heard that an American helicopter had been shot down. They were traveling along a quiet road through the sunken green farmland outside Falluja when they rounded a bend and saw a man toting a Kalashnikov rifle. They knew instantly that it was already too late. A blue minivan cut them off and dozens of men with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades swarmed their car.

A crowd gathered, and one of the insurgents fired bullets into the air. The men led Jeffrey away to the minivan. Lynsey stood up and announced, “That is my husband, I am not leaving him,” hoping to appeal to the Arabs’ sense of family. The men hustled Lynsey to the minivan and sat her down next to Jeffrey. Three insurgents sat with guns pointed at them over their seats. The questioning began. Lynsey watched the Times car start to pull away with all her photographic gear, including pictures she had taken that morning in the Sadr City section of Baghdad, a stronghold of the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. 

Jeffrey did the talking, never losing his calm. “We are journalists, here to tell your side of the story,” he explained. “We want to document the civilian deaths.”

To prove themselves, the journalists needed their car back. It arrived presently, and Lynsey was sent to fetch the appropriate bags. The commander examined the contents of Lynsey’s digital cards and noted with approval the armed men of Sadr City, some of them guarding the funeral processions of civilians allegedly killed by American troops. A dented metal bowl was pushed through the window. “Drink,” they were told.

Lynsey understood this offer of hospitality to mean they had convinced their captors that they were journalists after all, and not workers for the occupation. Otherwise they probably would have been shot.

A series of explosions sounded on the horizon. Excited men on the road set off rockets and fired bullets at the sky. Lynsey and Jeffrey, instead of being released, were shuttled from house to house, having been told they would bear the blame for any “counterattack.” At one house they were held in a pillow-lined room, where they were offered tea and cookies while a captor struggled to explain the difference between insurgents and Ali Babas, or thieves, whom the man said were giving insurgents a bad name. After several tense hours Lynsey and Jeffrey were turned loose, and they sped back to Baghdad as the sun disappeared into the sand behind them.

That month thirteen journalists — not counting their drivers, security and interpreters — were kidnapped in Iraq, though the killing of journalists did not begin in earnest until the summer. Still, there were many ways to die. Lynsey recalls, wearily, the close calls of that single week. “Right after those contractors were hung in Falluja, the whole country just sort of went into a demise,” she says by phone from Istanbul, where she is living for now. “It happened overnight, really. There were gun battles everywhere between the Americans and the insurgents. There was a fight between the Americans and the Shias in Sadr City, and I went in there and ended up with two American tanks rolling at me, opening fire, and I was on the ground with the Iraqis. The next day I got kidnapped. A few days later I embedded with the Americans so as not to be kidnapped again, and we ended up getting ambushed by the insurgents and got a rocket fired at us.” There’s momentary quiet on the line. “That week in Iraq, there were four or five times when I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna die right now, there’s no question.’ ”

The Westport Mafia

Coincidentally, Lynsey Addario is not the only Westporter risking her hide to bring us photographs from the world’s danger zones. Tyler Hicks and Spencer Platt also covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Back in the late eighties, at Staples High School, Lynsey was three years behind Tyler and two behind Spencer. Lynsey knew both Tyler and Spencer pretty well, since her crowd intersected with theirs at local parties, on occasion at her own house. Tyler and Spencer, who had been bitter enemies in junior high school, became best friends at Staples, linked by a passion for skateboarding. But photography was hardly a common denominator among the three; not until college did any of them begin to seriously entertain careers in photojournalism.

Today Tyler, Spencer and Lynsey are among America’s best young photojournalists. When they run into each other, they’re more likely to be in Baghdad or Kabul than on American shores. “People are always kind of blown away by that,” Spencer says. “ ‘The Westport Mafia’ they call us, or something like that.”

Tyler says he lost touch with Lynsey when he went off to college. “It wasn’t until much later, when Lynsey and I were working photographers, that we started to see each other around,” he says by phone from India. “Now I see Lynsey quite often — a lot in Iraq and in different places around the world. It’s pretty strange to be running into Spencer and Lynsey in all these hostile environments.”

Their careers were speeded up and then braided together by 9/11. But while it’s true that dire events often make the careers of journalists, these three had already demonstrated uncommon initiative, marking out bold paths for themselves where the vast majority are content to make the slow climb from community newspapers. Actually, Tyler got his start at just such a paper, the Troy Daily News in rural Ohio, and hired Spencer as soon as he got the chance. In time Tyler advanced to a bigger daily in Wilmington, North Carolina. But he grew restless watching vivid, important pictures come in over the wire from distant conflicts. Finally he could no longer bear to wait on the sideline of world events. Using his vacation time at first, he traveled to Kosovo in 1997 to cover the bloody ethnic strife unfolding there. Later, once the New York Times began using his pictures, Tyler settled in Kosovo. Then the Times put him under contract and sent him to Africa, where he spent the next couple of years photographing the child soldiers of Congo, Sudan and Sierra Leone.

Spencer’s story is similar. He worked for a few years at small newspapers before braving New York City as a freelancer. “I quickly realized there was a niche at the Times, which was trying to revamp its Metro section to cover more of New York’s underbelly,” he says from the Westport home of his parents, Bernerd and Lea, during a brief respite. “There weren’t a lot of people doing the late night shift. Who the hell wanted to run out to the Bronx or Brooklyn to cover a triple homicide at three in the morning?”

This lonely work kept Spencer afloat, but not satisfied. Like Tyler, Spencer had always been attracted to global hot spots. “Whenever I saved money, I’d go over to Kosovo and Albania for maybe a month.” It was a struggle, but he had found his element. “Certain photographers love Washington and politics, but I’m never happier than when I’m in some remote outpost that you can hardly find on an atlas, where you’ve got to forage for everything. When you’re out in these war zones, you’ve got to use all your intelligence just to get the most basic amenities. People are like, ‘Jeez, why?’ But I love it. I’m never as excited as when I’m told that in two days I’m leaving for some exotic location to cover some little conflict somewhere.”

From studying international relations at the University of Wisconsin, Lynsey had developed an acute sense of troubled peoples, especially women in places like Afghanistan. After graduation she moved to Buenos Aires with the primary goal of learning Spanish; photography, for her, was still just a hobby. Yet one senses with Lynsey that even hobbies cannot be practiced in any manner but top gear. Day after day she visited the English language newspaper in Buenos Aires, and day after day she was turned away. Finally, she was told she could try to sneak shots from the set of Evita, starring Madonna, then being filmed nearby. She talked her way onto the set and waited on a riser with other press, her dinky 50 millimeter lens conspicuously inadequate to the task. Another photographer took pity and leant Lynsey his powerful telephoto lens. “I ended up getting the front page of the paper the next day,” she says with her habitual easy laugh. “Ever since then I’ve said, ‘All right, this is something I can do the rest of my life.’ ”

Lynsey moved to India in 2000, and made journalistic forays into Pakistan and Afghanistan well before the world was compelled to turn its attention to those countries. (Shooting photographs in Afghanistan was essentially illegal, since under the Sharia, or strict Islamic law, photographing living things is forbidden. Lynsey was caught on the street on her last day of her last trip before the war, but managed to hand over a blank roll of film.)

After 9/11 the importance of her work suddenly became recognized at home. Five weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, the New York Times Magazine published Lynsey’s four-page photo-essay “Jihad’s Women,” about religious schools for females along the remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border. These were women who named their sons Osama and said, “If they get killed, it is nothing. The world is very short.”

Days after Lynsey took these pictures the United States began raining bombs on Afghanistan. The so-called War on Terror had arrived in all its terrible splendor, and Lynsey had been there from the beginning.

Fateful Fireball

So, too, was Spencer, though from a different vantage point. Spencer is thirty-five years old and lives in Brooklyn. On the morning of 9/11, after hearing news of the first strike, he dashed through the streets to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge and tightened his focus on the twin towers; at that point one tower was burning and the other still standing, sparkling under a cloudless blue sky. Spencer was clicking away when the second jetliner struck, engulfing the south tower in an enormous fireball. “The plane was going so fast that I didn’t see it,” says Spencer, who works for the Getty Images photo agency. “I just happened to be lucky enough to have my lens focused on the two towers.” That series of images, published in Time magazine and around the world, rank among the most dramatic still shots taken of the attacks.

Spencer ran over the Brooklyn Bridge against a tide of people desperate to leave Manhattan and worked his way down to Ground Zero. “It was just complete chaos. I photographed people coming out of the towers covered in soot. There was a bunch of media there by that time. We were trying to get into the towers for whatever reason, and the police, to their credit — the one time they actually helped, because usually there’s a lot of animosity between journalists and the NYPD — kept pushing us, pushing us back. Then that first tower came down, and you couldn’t believe what was happening before your eyes. I was able to take one or two images but then you really just had to run. It was just coming down so quickly, an avalanche. I ran into a store. The world was coming to an end, you thought. Then we watched the second tower come down.”

On 9/11 Tyler, who is thirty-six and a Times staff photographer, happened to be home in Westport on vacation, scheduled that morning for laser eye surgery in New Haven. Instead he went to New York. But his most memorable body of work came soon thereafter from Afghanistan and Iraq. In November 2001 Tyler was traveling with Northern Alliance troops as they swept into Taliban territory toward Kabul. Someone spied a wounded Taliban soldier lying in a ditch, hoping not to be noticed. “He had been shot in the hip, but it wasn’t a life-threatening wound,” Tyler says. “They dragged him to his feet, and the Northern Alliance soldiers I was with were harassing him and yelling at him and dragging him along the road. But they were doing so in the direction of the trench where their commander was. It seemed to me that he was going to be taken prisoner. But very quickly they just let go of him and three men with Kalashnikovs began shooting.”

Tyler’s pictures show him to have been nearly on top of the action, calling to mind the legendary war photographer Robert Capa’s axiom, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” (Capa was killed in 1954, when he stepped on a land mine in Indochina.) “Had I known exactly what was going to happen, I probably would not have been standing where I was when I took those pictures,” he says. Next day, the Times published Tyler’s pictures as a series: the soldier dragged from the ditch; pleading for his life; then lying blood-soaked in the dust, his pants around his ankles. The images proved deeply unsettling to readers, perhaps because they show at once the brutality and the humanity of war: Humanity in the sense that we witness the man’s terror in what we know will be his last moment of life. Susan Sontag cited Tyler’s series admiringly in one of her last major essays, “Looking at War,” later expanded into the book Regarding the Pain of Others. But a minority felt Tyler should have done something to prevent the slaughter — a reaction that took him aback. “Things are moving very quickly and it’s very confusing,” he explains. “In that situation I wasn’t with a translator, so I didn’t know what was being said by anyone around me. What happened was a great surprise to me.”

Actual war, all three Westporters learned, presents complications that defy simplistic notions of good and evil. Tyler writes in his book of images Histories Are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict Through Afghanistan and Iraq (written with Times reporters John F. Burns and Ian Fisher) that it’s not always clear who’s wearing the white hats and who’s wearing the black. “In the end, perhaps good and evil exist in a constant, fluid exchange.”

Lynsey has been frustrated by American press coverage, which she sees as excessively sanitized and, therefore, distorted. “There’s zero relation between what’s happening on the ground and what’s brought home [in the news],” she says. “From a distance everything looks like, ‘Oh, we’ve brought democracy, hurrah.’ That’s great, but there’s not a single family in Baghdad who hasn’t lost a son or a husband or a father or a mother or a daughter. They’re sad and they’re angry. So what is the price of democracy?”

Not long ago in Iraq, Lynsey photographed wounded American soldiers for Life magazine, a story that moved her above all others that she has covered. The magazine held the photo-essay for four months, then decided against publishing it, ostensibly because of space requirements. There was also a suggestion that the pictures were just too dark, which Lynsey suspects was the true reason for killing the piece. “That sums it up,” she says tartly. “That sums up the war in Iraq. Iraqis are dying, Americans are dying, and the American media is not printing what should be printed. If you look at European publications, they’re showing the reality of the situation, whereas we have decided that Americans can’t handle the death and devastation. For photojournalists who go there and risk their lives, that’s just heartbreaking.”

Shock and awe

None of the three Westporters went to Iraq as embedded photojournalists. “For embeds, images are very hard to come by,” Spencer observes. “They spend a lot of time sitting in the sand. My embedded friends at Getty, they all had one great image, but it cost them a month to get it.” The non-embeds, known as “unilateralists,” made their own decisions about where to go and came into frequent contact with the locals. “It’s much more dangerous being a unilateral,” continues Spencer, who followed a British tank into southern Iraq at the outset of the war. “There were nights when we were attacked. We tried to shelter with the Britons. If there were one or two of us, they were fine, but sometimes we were a convoy of twenty unilateral vehicles, and that was too much of a target. They didn’t want anything to do with us.  We’d go back out to the desert and look for a place to sleep. There were some dicey days, but it was just an incredible period.”

Tyler Hicks was perfectly situated for the “shock and awe” campaign of March 2003, atop the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad. But even as cruise missiles whistled overhead, he had to sneak his pictures.

“You weren’t actually permitted to take photographs. You had members of the regime wandering around down on the street below, watching the balconies to make sure that no one was sneaking pictures. But a group of us did manage to get up on the roof that first major night of the bombing. At one point a bunch of thugs from the Muhabarat” — Saddam’s secret police — “stormed up in the roof and proceeded to smash people’s cameras. They sent us scrambling. I myself managed to get down into the hallway and down to my room, and I filed the photographs from a satellite phone.”

Around this time, the pace of events was furious: Tyler photographed Saddam’s release of prisoners from Abu Ghraib; families digging up the remains of relatives killed as political enemies; and the burning and looting that accompanied Saddam’s fall. Spencer and Lynsey captured scenes of disarray in the south before heading to Baghdad. “After the fall of the regime,” Lynsey says, “almost the whole country was on fire. At that point, no city was off-limits in terms of security, but you’d drive along the main highway and see these massive plumes of smoke on the horizon, because everything was being looted and set on fire.”

Spencer recalls the days after the regime fell as a period of chaotic euphoria. “Saddam had gone, his cronies were on the run, people had hope for the future. I wasn’t even sure if I would be back in Iraq. I naively assumed that peace and prosperity were on the way.”

Instead, as the insurgency began to crest, major news organizations called their photographers and reporters home. Tyler remembers the growing volatility of the Iraqi streets. “I’ve been harassed, punched, spit on — all kinds of unpleasant things,” he says. He felt most vulnerable when going to photograph a fresh bomb site, which always drew a tense, angry crowd. “As time went on, the gathering crowd became more and more hostile to the photographer, to the point where it became too dangerous to go to these places. You risked being kidnapped, but also being beaten up or worse. It’s human nature to look for an outlet for anger, and often, especially in Iraq, it’s the foreigner who ends up on the receiving end of it.”

Though Lynsey still traveled to parts of Iraq where security was tenuous, she finally stopped going to Baghdad. “The decisions I make as a photographer depend on the tradeoff,” she said last year. “Will I be able to get a good body of work? Will I be able to tell the story effectively? Right now I think it’s so dangerous in Baghdad that it’s just not worth it.”

“For every journalist you have two or three security people, a driver or a couple of drivers,” adds Spencer. “Pretty much everybody in Baghdad is secluded. Iraq is a dangerous, dangerous place. There’s no other place where there’s a bounty on your head.”

Days of the dead

Contrary to myth, most world-traveling photojournalists do not particularly like danger. They do, however, like being where important stories are unfolding, and that means coming face to face with all manner of tragedy, violence and death. From Iraq, Spencer went to war-ravaged Congo, where, until recently, the violence was confined to warring clans. “As a journalist, places like Congo have a lot more meaning for me,” he says, “because the numbers of dead people are just astounding, they’re staggering. And yet people don’t take any real notice.” The news from Congo had begun to darken even as Spencer talked: the week before, nine U.N. peacekeepers had been murdered, suggesting that outsiders would no longer be spared. Late in 2004, Spencer and Tyler rushed off to South East Asia to cover the tsunami devastation. “When we were there, they were pulling out three thousand bodies a day,” Spencer says. “You couldn’t walk down the street without seeing bodies.”

Which raises a question. Confronted again and again by the world’s brutality, isn’t there a danger of more than just physical harm? All three photojournalists admit there’s a certain mental steeling necessary to do their job. “I hate to sound callous about it,” Spencer says, “but I’m not waking up screaming at three in the morning. It’s not a lack of compassion by any means. It’s an acceptance of the reality of the situation. You have to have that. Especially in a place like [where] the tsunami [hit]. You’re there, you have to contend with it, it’s sad, but you can’t become terribly emotional about it. Every family you interview has lost twenty people. If you break down in tears, you’ll crumble within three hours.”

Tyler says the pace of work tends to defer his emotional response until later, when he has a chance to review his images and think back on the circumstances under which they were taken. “I do think about the people and places I’ve been. But often it’s not till you go home, during that period of adjustment, that you see things a bit more clearly. That’s an important time for me, when I’m back in New York or when I’m visiting home
in Westport — that time becomes so much more valuable to me than it ever was before.”

Lynsey sees the ease with which journalists descend into cynicism and tries her best to avoid doing the same. “But the reality is that you’re photographing death and tragedy all the time. The last four years, it’s just been funerals and funerals and funerals and funerals.”

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