Impact: Interview with Ron Haviv
Andrea Blanch: You’ve just returned from the U.S.-Mexican border. What was the assignment there for?
Ron Haviv: The assignment to go in, explore, and understand the situation that's going on with immigration; specifically in regards to the migrant caravan that's traveling to the Tijuana border. The new Mexican government was just installed [on November 29] so people were waiting on what they're going to do next. The Trump Administration's coming out with mixed messages, so now it’s a waiting game. More people are arriving, some are leaving, some are trying to cross illegally, and most, if not all, are being arrested.
Andrea: How do you stay focused on your work while you’re in the midst of these heart-wrenching situations?
Ron: I disagree with the premise that the camera is a protection from emotion. In reality, the camera's magnifying the situation. For me, the key is the balance between finding emotion and not being overwhelmed by it. The emotions become overwhelming for me when I'm back home. There have been many times when I've been upset in the field; I've cried in the field, and I've cried at home. The key for my work is to make sure that it doesn't feel robotic. The viewer has to, at the very least, remember the image, react to it, and learn something from it for it to have some impact.
Andrea: Out of everything that you’ve covered did you feel that any one situation was more dangerous than others for you?
Ron: I think it's difficult to determine. Let's just say there have been many situations; whether full-out declared war, civil insurrection, or even just a riot where my life or others’ lives were in danger. There have been times when pieces of shrapnel landed so close to my head that if I had turned a different way I’d be gone.
Andrea: Are there any projects you are reluctant to pursue because of the risks involved?
Ron: I haven't been able to find a way, personally, in terms of security, to cover the Syrian crisis because of my passport and such. This is one of the things that everybody has to decide for themselves what their line is and what they're willing to do. It's always a very personal decision. It was very difficult to get permission from either the government or rebel side. Being American is not helpful in this conflict at all.
Andrea: Would you call yourself a war photographer, a conflict photographer, or a photojournalist?
Ron: No, I wouldn't call myself any of those. I'm documenting what I see. Many times it's involved with conflict, post-conflict, human rights, amplifying people's voices, and trying to have an impact. It's not always necessary for there to be somebody with a gun in the photograph to be able to do that.
Andrea: How did your career in photography begin?
Ron: By chance. I was studying to be a journalist at NYU. I was naive and just looking for a job that would allow me to travel and not have to work in an office. I graduated and took out the yellow pages and started doing cold calls to all the media organizations in New York asking for a job, and everybody laughed at me until one small newspaper said, "Come on in for an interview." They said, “We have no interest in working with you as a photographer but we certainly need somebody to mop the floors and mix chemicals.” So I took them up on that. I started learning about the newspaper business and photography that way. One day, there was breaking news at city hall and nobody else was around. My first assignment was crawling around the office of Ed Koch, and the next day my first picture was published, and I showed my parents who were like, "Oh, well, maybe you do know what you're doing." I started to get more assignments, still working for free, but I started to meet other photographers on the streets of New York and got welcomed into this community, which I still think is a unique one.
Andrea: Who was there at the time?
Ron: There were photographers from The Times, Daily News, AP, and so on. I was 21 or so, and people put their arm around me and said, "Oh, this is happening, you should do this with me” or “Let me introduce you to this editor.” I started getting actual work and getting published in magazines. One day I met this guy named Chris Morris and this guy looked like he'd walked off a movie set; super cool looking with the scarf, the long blond hair, and so on. We were talking and I asked him where he was going next, and he said, “I'm going to Panama next.” And I said, "That's amazing. I'm also going to Panama." So Chris said, "Great. I'll see you there." I had no idea where Panama even was, but I figured if Chris was going then that was a place that a photojournalist would go. I was working for The New York Post at that point. I pitched them the story; it was 1989, there was a dictator in Panama who had once been an American ally. He was going to hold elections to say that he wasn't a dictator. The guy was crazy and had really bad skin, called him Pineapple Face. Just before I was about to go, The New York Post was sold and my assignment was canceled. I still wasn't making enough money as a photographer; I was driving an ice cream truck and I was a bike messenger. I ran into Chris Morris on the street and told him what happened and he said, "I have an extra plane ticket. There's an extra bed and extra seat in the car." And off we went to Panama. Noriega, the dictator, lost the election. Then the would-be victors came on the streets and started an uprising. I took a photograph of the vice-president-elect covered in blood being beaten by a paramilitary. Seven months later, when the United States invaded Panama, the president spoke about the photograph as one of the reasons for the invasion. That [trip and photo] was the solidification of my desire to travel, to tell these stories, and to have the work be part of the conversation in order to have as much impact as possible.
Andrea: You want for your photographs to have an impact, but what if they don't?
Ron: I think that not every photograph will land but certainly a number of them can. Now I'm co-directing a documentary called Biography of a Photo, with a NYU professor. We're looking at the Bosnia and Panama photographs, and doing a biography of the photograph and seeing what impact it had. Both the photographs have appeared in art interpretations, been banned, used in education, been used in foreign policy, been used in propaganda, and had multiple effects on individuals who then saw that photograph and acted a certain way based on their experience.
Andrea: Can you give me an example of that?
Ron: With the Panama photograph, the people had been protesting for years but nobody cared. After the photo was on the cover of Time magazine, everyone was talking about Panama. The photograph was banned there. The vice-president in the photograph became representative of the fight for democracy. Then you have something on a very personal note. A lot of the blood that's on the vice-president is from his bodyguard, who was killed lying on top of him and saved his life. The brother of the bodyguard promised his dying mother to get his brother recognition from the government. So he's using the photograph to try to get justice for his family. He's still trying to fight to say, "Hey, my brother saved Panama." All based on that photograph.
Andrea: What did you enjoy about this experience making the documentary?
Ron: The most fascinating thing as the photographer was seeing the power of the work. Somebody did a series of 24 paintings on the Bosnia Photograph in the Venice Biennial. You see the power of what happens with photography. We've seen it recently with John Moore's picture of the child on the beach. You have these moments where photographs just transcend and become part of the conversation and have an impact. With the Bosnia photograph, the daughter of one of the women understood that the photograph had already been used to indict the general, the president, and so on. But she wants the three people in the photograph indicted for war crimes. She's now using the photograph today, she's going to the prosecutor and saying, "Look at this picture. I want this done." The film deals with these two individuals looking for justice based on the photograph as well as the bigger picture of how the photographs played within society itself and beyond.
This interview has been condensed and edited. To read the full interview with Ron Haviv, check out our latest issue RISK.