Portraits of female courage

As a photojournalist in Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere, I have seen how women face extreme adversity with bravery, grit and humour, writes Lynsey Addario.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 3 February 2023 3 minute READ

Lynsey Addario

Photojournalist

I am sitting in a hotel room at the end of a long day, on assignment for the New York Times in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city only 30km from the Russian border. The city suffered relentless shelling, missile and airstrikes over the past 11 months, but mostly in the first six months of the war. The days are long, dark and very cold, and I am dressed like an onion, wearing six layers. Sirens sound often throughout the day warning us to take shelter.

This is my fifth trip to Ukraine in the past 12 months. On February 25 last year, the day after Russia launched its invasion, it was a real frenzy, chaotic and scary. There was constant artillery fire, and you could hear the sound of strikes on the outskirts of Kyiv where I was based then. It was a dramatic time.

I didn’t realize how unbelievably tough and brave Ukrainian women are

People were volunteering in droves, and my colleagues and I were reporting from a centre for volunteer soldiers in Kyiv. I noticed a group of five or six women, ranging in age from 22 to 60, who had gone there to volunteer. Each had a gun, and I was fascinated by them.

They were climbing into a van, so I jumped in with them, and started photographing. In the centre of my frame was a woman called Yulya, a teacher who had signed up to volunteer the day before the invasion. Weirdly, there was red fabric hanging behind them in the van almost like a theatre set, and Yulya was sitting in the middle, holding her gun and just crying.

I asked her why she was crying and she said that she was crying for her country and 
because she was scared. I asked her why she had volunteered and if she had ever fired a gun. She replied that she hadn’t and that she was doing it for her country.

Armed female Ukrainian volunteers in the back of a van on February 25, 2022

Female Ukrainian volunteer soldiers in Kyiv on February 25, 2022. Photo: Lynsey Addario. 

The New York Times printed the photograph of her crying on its front page, an image that would go far and wide. I didn’t realize at this point just how unbelievably tough and brave Ukrainian women are.

A woman’s voice for a woman’s story

I have been going into war zones for more than 20 years and am often only one of a handful of women covering the fighting. Because there are so few female war photographers, I am often drawn to the women I encounter and seek to lend a woman’s voice to a woman’s story.

The first time I realized my gender was an asset was in Afghanistan when I went there to work under the Taliban 23 years ago before the September 11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers. Everywhere I went I had to be accompanied by a male escort, but because I was female, and Afghanistan is a culture largely separated by gender, I was allowed to meet women in their homes. People feel less threatened by a woman, so they are more likely to let you in to their intimate spaces.

Lynsey Addario embedded with US Marines in Helmand, southern Afghanistan in 2009

Lynsey Addario embedded with US Marines in Helmand, southern Afghanistan in 2009.

You can put me in a room of women, anywhere from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and while our religions and beliefs might be a little different, our concerns are the same. Whether it is safety, security for our families, shelter, food, or if we simply want to laugh or share a meal, there is not a lot of difference. I find humour is something we all share.

I got a lot of criticism for working while pregnant

I continued to work through my pregnancy. I didn’t do any frontline assignments, mostly gathering women’s stories in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or covering the drought in the Horn of Africa, or a prisoner exchange in Gaza.

But I met with a lot of criticism about working while pregnant. Ironically, most of the time I am working I am surrounded by pregnant women. It is hypocritical of people to focus on me – a relatively privileged white woman from Connecticut with unabridged access to medical and advice which helped me decide whether to work while pregnant or not – instead of on the women in need of proper pre and post-natal care. The focus should be on them.

When I questioned whether I was strong enough to carry my camera equipment on assignment I would think of the women I had seen in Sudan and the DRC, visibly pregnant and carrying large branches for firewood on their heads as they trudged back from an hour-long trek in the forest.

I see an unbelievable strength in the women that I have photographed around the world in incredibly difficult situations. They persevere and rarely complain. They just get on with it.

In many of the conflicts, it is the women who are holding families together. It is the women who go in search of food, who go get water, who tend to the children and who are often pregnant while doing all of these things. They work non-stop while their husbands are working or fighting elsewhere.

I find these women an incredible inspiration, even in my darkest moments.

I thought, ‘I’m just being punched and groped; I’m not being raped. I can deal with this.’

When I was kidnapped in Libya, and held captive for a week, I was punched, tied up, blindfolded and groped by soldiers. Every second I wondered whether I would survive.

Then I thought of the women in the DRC, Darfur and South Sudan, women I had interviewed at length about being raped – gang raped – and how they survived and somehow continued to live. ‘These women I’ve met have been through worse than this,’ I thought. ‘I’m just being punched in the face and groped; I’m not being raped. I can deal with this.’

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In Ukraine during this time of crisis, women’s needs are constant. They need help getting themselves and their children out of danger and to a place of safety. They need shelter and food. They need to be able to find their family members – communication is important.

The strength of mothers

And they need help in looking after their children. I have seen mothers having to drag their children, hungry and confused, through a war zone. Mothers must hold everyone and everything together in the worst possible circumstances. Beyond basic logistical support, women need moral support and psychological support as well.

The crisis in Ukraine is so fresh, and there is so much need each day that support for trauma is often overlooked. People haven’t had the time or space to begin to process what they have witnessed.

In these situations, everyone is traumatized. People are starting to talk, but a long road lies ahead of them.