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Can a Photograph Change History? Sitting Down with Ron Haviv

Ron Haviv

A photograph Ron Haviv took at age 23 would be cited by George H.W. Bush when the President called for the American invasion of Panama. Since then, Mr. Haviv has traveled from conflict to conflict zone, producing photographs of some of the late-twentieth century’s most difficult periods of violence.

Ron Haviv has photographed some of the most traumatic conflicts of the past three decades. Since his picture of Manuel Noriega’s bloodied opponent appeared on the cover of Time, Mr. Haviv has worked in twenty-five conflict zones in more than a hundred countries, most notably the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Haiti. In 2001, Mr. Haviv founded VII Photo Agency in New York, where he is currently based. On June 22nd, Mr. Haviv joined Merion West’s Erich Prince to discuss the psychology and impact of conflict photojournalism.

To begin, you started your career photographing some of the 1989 events in Panama. What initially drove you to want to photograph conflict, and how did you set out in your career path, deciding to photograph these sorts of events?

I started off working as an intern in New York City and eventually started freelancing for various publications in New York, like the New York Post, for example. I was starting to think about traveling overseas, but I was not really sure how to do it or what the real reason was to do it. I met a photographer in New York named Christopher Morris, who was a very experienced photographer and had just come back from the Philippines where he was on assignment for Newsweek. We were talking, and I asked him where he was going next: What was the next foreign story that he was going to do? Chris said that he was going to Panama, and I just said, “Oh that’s great. I’m also going to Panama,” but I didn’t really understand what the story was or what was happening.

I did some quick research, and the story was pretty simple. The dictator at the time, General Manuel Noriega, was going to hold elections to prove that he and his party were not dictators and actually loved by the people, who had been protesting him off and on. He had [also] been well-supported by the U.S. government. That support was weakening, however, and so I pitched the story to the New York Post, who loved Noriega as a character because he did very crazy things, and he had really bad skin. They had a nickname for him; they called him pineapple face.

The New York Post gave me my first assignment to go and cover the election. Just before I was about to go, they fired the editors, and the assignment was canceled. In the end, Chris Morris wound up giving me a plane ticket. He had a buy one, get one free, so I was able to go with Chris acting somewhat as a mentor [to me]. I wound up covering the election that exposed me to my first protest, my first tear gas, my first violence and so on.

The dictator lost the election, and when the results came out, he nullified the election. The would-be victors came out onto the streets and basically started an uprising. I wound up in a position where just a few other journalists and I were there when the vice president-elect was being beaten up. He was covered in blood from his bodyguard, who was killed trying to protect him by a group of paramilitary fighters. I was able to take a photograph that wound up on the front pages of many publications around the world, including the covers of Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News, all in the same week.

You mentioned photographing this tear gas, blood, and violence. What are some of the psychological effects or mechanisms you use to process what you’re seeing?

At that point, I had no training in this whatsoever. I was sort of experiencing everything for the first time, and it was all very eye-opening. I was just trying to survive and take pictures. Of course, I was trying to sell my pictures and trying to understand the business side, while all of this was going on. [I was] not really understanding the journalistic part of it to a great degree and certainly not the impact. So, when the covers and everything came out, I was twenty-three years old, and nobody had ever heard of me before. It was all very much a celebration of me.

Very much a baptism by fire in many respects.

Absolutely. It was a very exciting time, and I was like, well this journalism thing doesn’t seem that difficult. You go places, you take pictures, you get on covers of magazines and so on, not reallyagainunderstanding the impact of what I was doing. It wasn’t until 7 months laterwhen the United States invaded Panama—that President George Bush spoke about the reasons for the invasion and used the photographs as one of the justifications. When I heard that speechI didn’t hear it until later because I actually was with the U.S. troops in the invasionI had a very different understanding of the role of journalism and the role of photography.

That was my sort of “birth” of understanding of what we can do. It wasn’t whether I agreed with the invasion or not; I certainly didn’t think the invasion was happening just because of the photographs, but the photographs definitely played a part in the conversation. There was a photograph of the secretary holding up the cover of Time magazine during a meeting with other countries, trying to convince them that Noriega needed to be overthrown. [It was] understanding that my work was being part of the conversation and part of the communication of information. That was incredibly interesting to me.

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I realized at the same time, however, that it’s most important at places of violence where voices need to be amplified, where history is often being made, where countries would be born or die in conflict. That really pushed me towards making sure that one of my goals as a photographer was to be able to document and raise awareness about what was happening to people on the ground. That was basically the beginningand of course, the world changed dramatically: the Berlin Wall fell, Mandela came out of prison, Kuwait City and so on.

At this time, you were 23 years old. What is it like at that age to walk into a newsstand and see a photo you took on the cover of various newspapers and magazines?

I was still in Panama, so I didn’t get to have that experience. But I did get to see the magazines and newspapers later. It was very exciting to see my name there. At that point, I was freelancing, but I was still driving an ice cream truck. I was a bike messenger. I wasn’t surviving financially as a photographer, so I thought for myself that this was kind of the beginning of an establishment of a career. In the beginning, it really wasn’t about the bigger picture. It was just about me.

Going back to the bigger picture, you mentioned how your photographs could help spark these military interventions. Can you talk about how photographs have been used in the context of traditional proceedings against people for potential war crimes, crimes against humanity, or things of a similar nature?

A few years after the Panama photograph was taken, I covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which was made up of a series of different wars. Right before the first war began, the world was trying to decide what to do diplomatically to stop it from happening. I managed to embed myself with a group of Serbian paramilitaries who were going in to help Serbian civilians in their fight against their Muslim neighbors.

I was able to document what later became known as ethnic cleansing, and I was able to photograph the execution of three middle-aged unarmed civilians by well-armed Serbian paramilitary. The photograph was, again, published widely in Time and in other magazines around the world. I thought, at that point, given my experience a few years earlier in Panama, that there would be some sort of international reaction. That this photograph was basically putting into reality what everybody was talking about. Unless the West intervened, this was going to be a very brutal war towards civilians.

There was no reaction to the photographs, and they completely failed in their attempt to have any impact on the ground immediately. The war began and lasted for 4 years or so with thousands being killed and millions more becoming refugees. [It] led to another war and left Bosnia today as a very dysfunctional country. The photograph really started to have an impact when it was used in the Hague war crimes [proceedings] to convict a variety of different people involved, primarily on the Serbian side of the conflict.

I know that there’s a group in the Washington D.C. area called the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and it tries to go in and document instances of human rights violations. I guess similar things are happening with the Syrian conflict. Can we get specific records of these potential crimes against humanity through photography? Maybe this is also something one might want to do also in North Korea?

I think a lot of it depends on timing. I don’t believe photographs on their own can stop or start a war, but they can have a serious impact. Instead of North Korea, let’s look at the refugee migration problem at the border. John Moore’s photograph of the child crying, given that he was one of the only photographers working on the border during this time, was a really dramatic photograph. That became the perfect symbol of all the children there. Numbers are powerful, and when you have a visual like John’s picture, it changes things dramatically. Let’s go back a little bit further. In the last few years, when you look at the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the child on the beach, that came to represent the refugee crisis and what refugees are going through to reach safety in Greece and beyond.

Of course, the photographs also have to be good. They have to have some visual impact. They can’t just be some sort of snapshot with resonance as an actual image.

You mentioned embedding yourself in some of these squads and groups in former Yugoslavia. I was interviewing Jay Bahadur a couple weeks ago, who is writing about the Somali pirate situation, and he talked about the various strategies he used to build rapport and gain acceptance in order to have a first-row seat to things. What are some of the various strategies that you’re using to get this very close access?

I try to be very limited in terms of material and certainly in terms of financial compensation. I’ve never paid anybody for photographs. Occasionally, it might be packs of cigarettes going back and forth or something like that. But, basically, the main idea in all these situations is to tell people that you’re there to hear their story, to give them the respect of listening to their opinions. You are a conduit for their story to come out. If they’re stupid enough to go around executing civilians in front of you, well, that’s their crime and also certainly not something I’m going avoid. Just like I was embedded with the Marines in the last war in the invasion of Iraq. The Marines I was with, at one point, opened fire on a civilian that was driving too fast at a checkpoint because they didn’t have a checkpoint set up properly. I documented that.

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In terms of the Tigers, which is the name of the paramilitary group that I was with, they were led by a guy named Arkan, a very well-known warlord who was responsible for killing thousands of people. It was also thought that he was very smart. He spoke several languages, and he thought he could control the media. I went up to him, and I said I’d taken a photograph of him that he’d like during the previous war. I said, “I took a photograph of you and your men, you really liked it and used it as a mascot for your group.” He sort of stole the picture from me and used it. I said, “You liked that picture, so can I go off?” And he goes, “Yes, sure, go off with those guys.”

He just thought, for whatever reason, that I was on his side with no real reasoning whatsoever. When the photograph came out, he was very upset and later gave an interview with somebody where he said, I think the quote was, “He looked forward to the day he could drink my blood.” I was going to be put on a list, and I had narrow escapes for the next three years covering and following wars in that area. People that physically-resembled me were often arrested by various groups as they were trying to find me.

You mentioned that when you were first in Panama that you were still young and perhaps not fully aware of the totality of the things going on. For example, I’m looking at your photographs of the Balkan crisis: the footprints, the blood in the snow. At this point, was the enormity of the human toll getting more and more apparent? In the interest of being able to function enough to get your work done, are you somehow distancing yourself from these tragedies going on?

No, there’s a very determined effort not to distance myself. I think there is a very fine line in [these] situations, especially when you’re seeing life and death. If there’s the opportunity for me to save somebody, that’s the first thing I’ll do. If I’m not able to save anybody, I’m going to try to make sure I come out with a photographic piece of evidence to hold people accountable for their actions. That being said, when we are witnessing these very emotional moments, I want my photograph to have emotion so that comes across to the viewer, and they feel the same thing.

At the same time, I can be so overly-emotional that I break down crying, and I’m not able to take the photographs. I have to find this “in between the lines.” There is obviously plenty of time for me to cry later when I get homewhich I dobut while I’m in the field, I have a responsibility to the audience to be a witness to what I’m seeing. I can bring that information to light for people to make decisions based on that. I take that very seriously.

If my photographs come out looking robotic, without emotion or just completely about making it into a fine art photographfor example, a black and white photo of a bird flying away from a massacre where everyone only sees a pretty bird—then that’s going in a direction that I don’t think is helpful in the world of journalism. That belongs in another world.

Some people can look at my work and say I moved them to tears, that it was very powerful: “What can I do to help? What can I learn from this?” Other people would say, “Oh, that’s war porn or poverty porn because it’s too beautiful. Look at the colors, look at the composition, the photographer is dismissing the severity of the situation and covering it up by making it into a pretty picture.”

I’m very conscious because I want the viewer to be seduced into the photograph by the aesthetic, so they can’t look away. So that once they’re attracted to the photograph by the color, composition and so on, the content becomes unavoidable; it becomes part of you, and you can’t forget it. If it’s just a photograph that is so horrible looking, people are just going to click to the next page or swipe to the next photograph or turn the page over, and then what’s the point? There’s no point of these even being there.

Thank you very much for your time today, Mr. Haviv.

Thanks, Erich.

Editor’s Note: For our Pennsylvania readers, Mr. Haviv will be speaking about his experiences as part of the Penn State Speaker Forum on December 5, 2018 at 11:30 am.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.