Ron Haviv and the ‘power of photography’


In the time it takes to read this article, around 10 million photographs will be taken. Most will come from the smartphones of users who are compelled to constantly document their lives. By contrast, award-wining US photojournalist Ron Haviv has mostly taken photos to document conflict. He has photographed more than 25 wars, from the US-led invasion of Iraq to conflicts in Afghanistan, Panama, Haiti, and most recently, Ukraine

Pictures shared by Ron Haviv on their Instagram page. (Instagram/@Ron Haviv)
Pictures shared by Ron Haviv on their Instagram page. (Instagram/@Ron Haviv)

Born in 1965, he is co-founder of the photo agency VII and works with UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross, in addition to numerous publications.

While his thought-provoking images have become a way to raise awareness about the horrors of war and violence, this was not initially by design.

“I wouldn’t say that I chose it,” he told DW at the Globadetl Media Forum in Bonn in June. “My first foreign assignment was in Central America covering elections in Panama that turned violent.”

Then everything changed.

“I took a photograph that became very famous. Seven months after I took the photograph, the United States invaded Panama. And the president of the United States spoke about the photograph as one of the justifications for the invasion,” he explained.

‘Raising awareness and education’

Haviv soon gained “an understanding at that moment that the photography that I could do, especially around conflict, could play a very serious role in conversation, in raising awareness and education.”

This sparked an interest in documenting historical events with his lens, including the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall or Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

But it wasn’t long before Haviv was dragged back into conflict zones, including the never-ending war in Iraq.

It was a steep learning curve for Haviv, and not just in terms of photography techniques. He also had to discover that “it was imperative that there we’re people telling these stories to hold people accountable, not only for their action, but for their inaction,” he explained.

Photography ‘becomes evidence’

“In my career I have documented three genocides – Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.”

Within some of the cruelest of human acts, taking photos becomes ever more important.

“The photography moves past this idea of just being journalism, it becomes evidence. Photography can’t stop a war. Photography can’t start a war, but it can play a very important role in the dissemination of information and the way that decisions are made.”

In 2015, Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir took an image that was to prompt responses from European leaders regarding a “human catastrophe.” The image of Alan Kurdi, the two-year old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea en route to Europe, lying face down in the sand, led many to ask the question of where the moral line should be drawn when photographers take such images.

‘The power of photography’

Haviv is in little doubt just how important these photos are. “I believe in the power of photography,” he said.

“I’m of the belief that the greater good overrides, that the story is important enough to be seen. Even if somebody’s crying or suffering, the photograph needs to be taken to show the world what’s happening.”

But what about the sensitivities, the intrusion? Haviv is unequivocal. “Having done this for more than 30 years,” he said, “I have never gone to a funeral of somebody that’s died through politics, war, famine, and been told, ‘No, don’t take any photographs.'”

People have instead demanded that he document the plight of their loved ones. “I have been physically dragged by a family member and said, ‘Photograph my son, photograph my child, show the world.'”

Fending off the threat of AI

But is the whole photography craft under threat from transformational technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI)?

“What you should be expecting from people like myself is authorship of an idea,” he said in response to the threat of AI. “This is a story that I’m telling in depth, especially now. There is integrity, that this is not an AI production: This is reality.”

He continued: “I’m showing you a true representation of the way that I saw things. And you have to trust me because I am a valued person or I’m doing it with The Economist and you trust The Economist and therefore you believe what you’re seeing.”

With AI able to easily manipulate images, “we are moving more and more into this place where it will be very difficult to believe what you’re seeing,” Haviv said.

But there is a chance that such dystopian misrepresentations can be avoided.

“There is no place for AI in my world,” the photographer continued. “The goal is to keep AI out and it has to be done in partnership with the publications, in partnership with the camera companies, and most importantly, in partnership with the audience.”

He describes a new initiative led by Adobe called Content Authenticity Initiative, whereby photo files will be given a blue check to confirm they have not been manipulated.

Haviv has been in the photojournalism business for over three decades. Though many things have remained the same, technology now threatens the authenticity of the craft, meaning the way we see the world needs to be questioned more than ever.


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