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Ron Haviv Photographer Interview

©Ron Haviv

Protester shows ‘Red Badge of Courage’ during anti-Mubarak demonstration in Cairo


Ron Haviv is a soft-spoken, low-key, highly principled photojournalist who has spent the last two decades documenting some of the most hellish conditions that human beings are capable of enduring or inflicting upon each other.  Somalia during the famine, Yugoslavia during the ethnic cleansing, Haiti during the earthquake, Rwanda in the aftermath of genocide, Darfur, Afghanistan, Congo, even the mean streets of the good old USA--  where humanity is in extremis and injustice runs rampant, Ron Haviv is likely to be on the front lines with his camera.  


Ron is a co-founder of the renowned photo agency VII.  Published in virtually every major news outlet, he has won most major prizes for photojournalism multiple times.  He has been a central character in three films, including National Geographic Explorers: Freelance in a World of Risk.  He has been interviewed on ABC World News, BBC, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, Good Morning America and The Charlie Rose Show.   Ron has several published critically acclaimed collections of photography including Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal; Afghanistan: On the Road to Kabul, and Haiti, 12 January 2010.  He also teaches workshops in photojournalism, with three planned for June, July and October, 2011. 


At best, Ron hopes his images will influence world opinion and ameliorate human suffering.  Failing that, his work stands as an enduring accusation of those who commit and/or permit atrocities.  ‘My life as a photographer has been pretty much devoted to issues revolving around conflict,’ he said recently, ‘both social conflict and conflict resulting from war, and most importantly the effect on the civilian population, the non-combatants.’ 


Ron Haviv Egypt Photos

©Ron Haviv


People-power revolution


Recently, Ron spent two weeks in Cairo, documenting the ‘people-power revolution’ that brought down the despotic Mubarak regime.  Although the Arab Spring was a more hopeful phenomenon than most he has covered, Ron and his colleagues in Egypt faced many of the same risks that haunt photojournalists in hotspots around the world. ‘Violence between  pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators was still going on,’ he said.  ‘In Tharir Square, secret police were confiscating cameras and identity cards.  There were rumors of heavy violence and worries about being attacked by pro-government forces.  There were also a lot of army checkpoints to cross, and that led to a lot of logistical worries about when and how to file photos.’


Because photojournalists were prime targets for secret police and pro-Mubarak mobs, Ron kept a low profile on the Cairo streets and worked with a trusted colleague for mutual backup.  Instead of the typical pro outfit of two camera bodies and an assortment of lens, he used a single body (a Canon 5D, Mark II) for both stills and video, and made do with one zoom lens (a 24 – 70mm, f2.8).  His working days started at seven in the morning and ended around midnight.  Even that wasn’t long enough to keep up with what he called ‘a 24-hour-a-day story with lots of emotional ups and downs.’ 


Ron Haviv Egypt Conflict Photos

©Ron Haviv

Most of the pitched battles in the streets between anti- and pro-Mubarak forces were waged with rocks and sticks


Epic events with a medieval quality


It’s tough to impress a guy who’s seen as much as Ron Haviv, but the words epic and amazing kept recurring in his account of events in Tharir Square.  ‘I was amazed by the masses of people, tens and hundreds of thousands,’ he said.  ‘The battles between the pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators were amazing.  They had this real medieval, epic feeling.  The anti-Mubarak forces built wooden catapults.  They made pulley systems to carry rocks up from the streets. People carried shields made of corrugated metal.  It was amazing to watch the bravery of the people, to see how quickly they learned and their commitment to hold their ground and not accept anything less than what they wanted.  It was amazing to watch the story from the midst of these battles, then leave to shoot from higher viewpoints.’


Ron Haviv Egypt Photographs

©Ron Haviv


Asked to recall a few of his favorite images from the uprising in Cairo, Ron mentioned, ‘some of the rock-throwing images, the arm of a wounded protestor being treated in a clinic, men with their heads bandaged, celebratory images from the night Mubarak resigned, the emotion that people had as they sang and chanted against Mubarak, as they became more and more confident they could speak their minds.’


Ron Haviv Egyptian Conflict Photos

©Ron Haviv


Although he saw many hopeful signs in Egypt, Ron is cautious about the long-term future of the revolt.  ‘Now is the difficult time,’ he said, ‘when people are no longer united against one cause.  It was a people-power-type revolution but you have to acknowledge that the people who had the real power, the military, were the ones who finally realized they had to switch gears and basically staged a coup to get rid of Mubarak.  Hopefully, the leaders will allow democratic systems to build but this has never really worked in Egypt.  The greatest fear is that a strong man, either  military or religious, will take advantage of this power vacuum and lead people to a place they don’t want to go.’


Ron Haviv Photographer Interview

©Ron Haviv




Read the Full Interview


Ron Haviv speaks about the work, motivations and mind-set of war photographers...


Ron Haviv hit the covers of Time and Newsweek at the age of 23 on his first foreign assignment.  The year was 1989, and his photo of a bloodied opposition candidate during supposedly free and fair elections in Panama helped influence U.S. foreign policy.  More than 20 years later, Ron has become one of the foremost ‘conflict’ photographers of our time.  He has been a central character in three films, and has spoken about his work on ABC World News, BBC, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, Good Morning America and The Charlie Rose Show.  


The comments below were culled from two particularly in-depth interviews—Charlie Rose in 2001 and National Geographic Explorers in 1998.  Although the interviews are more than a decade old, Ron’s insights into the work, motivation and mid-set of war photographers are timeless.


Selected comments from the National Geographic Explorers film: Freelance in a World of Risk (1998) 


About seeing people die

I’ve seen people die in front of me, whether by execution or starvation and disease.  Perhaps with starvation and disease, there’s not much you can do as a human being.  But when people are executed in front of you it’s often… You have these questions.  Was there something I could have done?  Could I have prevented that?  Why wasn’t I able to help that person?  And everybody has to make their own decisions about when it’s viable to interfere and whether your interference will actually save these people, or just put your own life in danger to the point you’ll also be killed.

Myself and other journalists have saved the lives of people.  In Somali, we picked up people in villages and took them to hospitals.  In Haiti, we’ve saved people from being killed by police.  In Yugoslavia, we’ve dressed the wounds of soldiers wounded next to us.  We put the cameras down and lives have been saved.  


About working with a trusted companion

I really always try to travel with someone else, someone that I know and trust.  In case I’m wounded, this person will forget about the photographs and make sure that I’m taken care of.


There’s a small group of us that travels from place to place, and we usually work together.  You need to work with somebody that’s experienced.  When you’re stopped at a checkpoint, you need to be with people that are not going to get nervous, not make a stupid mistake and do something that’s going to get you killed.  You always have to give respect to somebody with a gun.


When you come back from that kind of experience, it’s very difficult to re-emerge into a normal working life.  This is when you have conflicts with people you left behind, friends or boyfriends or girlfriends.  The first week or so is always very intense coming back from these situations.


About luck and life expectancy as a war photographer

There’s very few people over the age of 35 doing war photography.  You can probably count them on one hand.  I think that everybody has a certain point where they say, ‘Well, that’s enough.  I can’t do it anymore, I have to move on.’


The feeling of luck is something that I need, and I think other people do as well, to continue to do the work. Sometimes, during the war (in Bosnia) I would spend weeks on weeks on weeks, and there would be numerous upon numerous close calls.  And then it would reach a point where you think, ‘Well, my luck has run out for this trip.  I just can’t take it anymore.’  And when you feel that, you pack your bags and head for the nearest airport, and you go.


(Editor’s note: Ron offered the above observation almost 13 years ago.  He is still actively working as a conflict photographer, and has become a legend in an elite profession.)


About comparing one disaster to another

In the end, I realized that what happened in Kurdistan was hell.  What happened in Somalia was the same.  You can’t compare disasters with each other.  What is happening is that the world is becoming saturated with all these problems.  It’s known as ‘Donor Fatigue.’  Everybody says, ‘Well, the Kurds aren’t as bad as the Somlians, and the Somalis are not as bad as Rwanda.




Nuggets from Ron Haviv’s interview with Charlie Rose in 2001



Charlie Rose: What does it do to you? (ed: In the context of the interview,‘it’ means watching horrors unfold before your eyes.) 


Ron Haviv: As a human being, it’s incredibly difficult to watch someone die or get hurt or ask for help and you’re not able to help them.  And there have been situations in my career where I have been able to help someone, in Haiti or South Africa or Somalia, where it made sense for me to intervene, where I would be able to help someone and I also wouldn’t lose my life.  But these are all situations we have to decide on a case by case basis.  Because when you’re around people who are killing, the tension is so high.  It’s like a drug.  Anything can happen.  It’s a very, very dangerous, precarious situation for a photojournalist.


Charlie Rose: Which was the hardest photograph to take?


Ron Haviv: I think they’ve all been difficult.  Each one has its own story behind it.  All these photographs, there’s a lot of legwork behind it.  You’re always pushing commanders, driving through dangerous roads for hours trying to reach places where refugees exist.


Charlie Rose: Taking all your experiences, what does it make you want to do?  Does it make you want to document war and the horror of war?


Ron Haviv: Initially, these were taken as news photographs.  My goal was to inform the world in the hope that people were going to act.  I really believed that photography and journalism could really play a part in international politics.  But after Bosnia, after so many years of myself and my colleagues telling the world what was happening and being ignored, and the war still happening, I feel that the photographs have a better life as documents, as bodies of evidence.  They will always exist as an archive to tell the world what happened.  But more importantly, always to accuse everybody who had the power to do something but didn’t.  That accusation should always be there in the hopes that the next generation of leadership might want to try to act differently.


Charlie Rose: Do you think that it changes anything?


Ron Haviv: I think it does.  The conflict in Kosovo was a good example.  It was relatively low-key.  I think that the fact of myself and my colleagues showing the same kind of images we’d seen since 1991, I think that the tolerance for this was very low, and the world leaders said: ‘Enough is enough.  We’re going to act much faster now.’


Charlie Rose: Why do you photograph conflict?


Ron Haviv: History is being made primarily in places of conflict.  I find that incredibly interesting and also incredibly important to document it.  The world should know, and there’s still time to act.


Charlie Rose: Do you have a particular style?


Ron Haviv: A photographer tries to find a style that will connect with his audience.  For me, color is very important.  Light is very important.

I try (for lack of a better term) to seduce the reader into the photograph using aesthetics.  So the content will be that much more hard-hitting once they have an emotional connection to the photograph.  Light, the refraction of different colors, things that will really make the reader pay attention to the photograph… And as they look at it, and understand what the photograph is about, it’s a much more powerful thing.


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