Ron Haviv is an Emmy nominated, award-winning photojournalist and co-founder of the photo-agency VII, dedicated to documenting conflict and raising awareness about human rights issues around the globe.
Talking to Ron Haviv, I was expecting a level of gravitas I'd not encountered in previous interviews. And was not wrong. But what I also realized is that he's remarkably centered and present for having spent the better part of three decades in an extremely stressful career. Balancing not just commercial concerns with the life of a photojournalist, but also finding space in his life for mentoring the next generation of photographers, I found him to be a deep well of both experience and insight.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Well, I think that there are a couple of different factors. One is an economic factor, in that this kind of work is not easy to support, the full set of adulthood, family, mortgage, etc. The other is that, especially in terms of conflict photography, as time goes by and hopefully the individual is unscathed, at least physically, you start to realize that it’s a dangerous profession, can be a dangerous profession, and you start to want to minimize your risks, you become a little bit less willing to take chances. So it’s a combination of those two things, but especially the economic realization that it’s easier to do this kind of work when you’re sort of just responsible for yourself, rather than a family, and it obviously pertains to both men and women. It starts becoming a hindering factor.
I am still doing it. I’ve learned also to diversify my photography, and my income streams, and I also don’t have a family, so that makes it a little bit easier, economically, for myself.
It was a combination of conscious, unconscious and the reality of my own personal situations at the time.
Yes, I definitely do. I think that, from the beginning of my career I was realistic about the dangers, and I still am, and in that sense I basically am fearful from the time I leave New York to the time I return. And I use that fear to ensure that I am trying to be as judicious as possible in my risk-taking. Probably the one thing that has changed over the course of my career is that, aside from things that have happened to me personally, I’ve also been an unfortunate witness to colleagues being wounded or killed and of course, more importantly, witnessing the devastation and impact of conflict on civilian life.
It’s a combination, I think it would be dishonest to say that there aren’t times where you certainly doubt whether there’s a reason for you to be in these places, are people paying attention, is your work being seen above the noise of everything else that’s being produced. I have…given that I’ve been doing this for so long, and also given that early on in my career my work had a variety of impacts, I’ve seen when things go well, what the photography can do, and I’ve also seen what the photography can’t do. And it’s sort of the understanding of those reasons are the continued motivating factors for me to go forward.
That being said, I’m not running off as I once was when the world of photography or the world of photojournalism was a very different place, i’m not running off to every conflict in every place, because you have to…there’s not nearly enough support to do the kind of work I did in the first 20 years or so of my career, so I have to be a little bit more careful now about what I choose to focus on.
Support being, support from editorial publications, grants, basically financial support needed to do this kind of work, which can be, depending on the story, quite expensive.
Based on those economic factors, as well as certainly based on trying to keep it within the frame of what I’m trying to document, which is often human rights abuses and so on.
To a degree. I mean, part of it’s determined by myself, part of it is market-driven as well, which is, having been doing this for 25 years, there’s the understanding, of course, that this is also a business, and the business aspect of this as an independent contractor/freelancer/founder of a photo agency, these are, unfortunately, mitigating factors in determining coverage of different events.
No, not specifically. Nothing recent. But it’s always there, trying to figure out what I…if I go to Gaza, can I…how much support is there to go to Gaza, will I lose a lot of money, and so on…not that this is all about money, but there is a realism of being able to survive as a photographer.
I wouldn’t say more interested, I’m certainly interested in having my camera be able to take me to places that I normally wouldn’t be able to go or have experiences I wouldn’t normally be able to have, and of course not all of it has to be related to a guy with a gun.
But also getting to the realism of the business of photography, anybody working today or starting to work today as a working photojournalist has to understand that you must be able to diversify your income streams within whatever parameters you want, and understand that it’s very difficult for any photographer to survive solely on editorial news photography, unless you’re a staff photographer, and those jobs are obviously decreasing, rather than increasing, at the moment.
I think they’re absolutely important considerations. If you are a new photographer and you want to do this for the rest of your life, you have to treat this also as a business, not just as a noble effort to go out and change the world. I mean, that’s the motivating factor, to have some sort of impact with your photography, to help people to raise awareness, but there’s also the realistic backbone of it and that’s also something that, as a freelancer, is very important.
There are times when you spend…well, depending on your experiences, anywhere from an hour to a couple of months, there’re going to be points where it becomes overwhelming and you have the luxury to be able to walk out of it and take a break but, like, fatigue in the overall sense of, “am I tired of witnessing basically the same things repeating themselves but with the nationalities and geographic locations changing”…it is tiring in the frustrating way that not enough is chancing for the better, but not fatigue in a way of “I’m tired of this, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
The first thing of course is doing as much research as possible, understanding the different sides and the reasons why things are happening, which will only make you a better journalist and then a better photographer, as a result. And when you get into that pattern and immerse yourself in the stories, that’s part of the preparation for it. I mean, as I said earlier, things are quite similar from conflict to conflict, so some of that stuff, your own protective elements come into play, you’re sort of understanding of the way people work and think and move in those situations, it becomes easier to deal with due to experience, so it’s almost like sort of changing or flipping a button and re-entering that kind of world, where human behavior is very similar, whether in Africa, Europe, or Latin America.
Well the work itself has all the range of human emotions. so there are times when people are very happy, people are sad, people are frustrated people are in fear. I mean, you see it all in these extreme situations, and it’s not images of dead bodies after dead body, there’s a range of human emotion, so as I document that I’m also experiencing what I’m witnessing, to a certain degree.
What mitigates the harsher aspects of being there and witnessing this is understanding that, and again this goes back to the fact that I’ve been doing this a for a number of years, so, it’s understanding that there can be an impact with this work. There’s a reason why I’m in these places, and I think that for myself and my fellow photographers, certainly those at the VII photo agency, we take that responsibility very seriously, to be the eyes of people that cannot be there. And we understand that when the work goes out into the world, that, hopefully, and I think it does to some degree, it does affect people, even if it just affects people to think a little bit differently about a certain issue or maybe they do a little bit more and they reach into their pocket and give a donation to an NGO or when they’re walking into a voting booth and they’re able to make a decision on who represents them with a little bit more knowledge. Those are very powerful results of what this work can do. And that’s, for me, that is a true justification of putting myself in these places.
Well, I basically taught myself photography at university, I studied to be a writer, so I didn’t have a real grand history of photojournalism or wanting to be a photographer since I was a kid. So I was kind of impacted more by, almost immediately, who and what was around me. A lot of my early lessons were from photographers like Christopher Morris and Jill Perez and Jim Nachtwey, all people I worked with very early on in my career, and I learned a lot from them, not only about photography, but about work ethic and about what photography can do, and about what they were trying to do. Then after that, hopefully aesthetically, I’m hoping that it becomes apparent that I kind of found my own eye with a real…where I really concentrated very heavily on aesthetics with color and composition and all that.
Yes, I make a real attempt to use color and composition and light, almost…when my work is critiqued, the negative is that it’s too beautiful for such a harsh subject. And that’s actually a very intentional attempt by myself to do that, I want to create a relationship with the viewer through the aesthetics, so the viewer is drawn into the photograph more on the beauty and then the content comes in second, because if the viewer has no interest in looking at the image, the content becomes irrelevant, because they’ve already turned the page. So I really try to basically seduce the viewer into the photograph, through the aesthetics, so the content becomes that much more powerful and connected to them.
I think that it’s second nature at this point, in terms of composing the shot, but as we move forward, both as photographers and creators of content, and the viewers, as the consumers, the bar continues to be pushed higher and it’s a continuous process to try to find ways to keep the viewer engaged, and to visually challenge them. So I think that as you look at my work and other people’s work, you see this evolution, which is trying to stay kind of a step ahead of the viewer, to make sure you’re finding ways to engage them, and not in a gimmicky way, but in a way that is respectful and adheres to the idea of what you’re trying to do with your photography, and making sure that you’re trying to engage the audience.
Yes, it’s important to understand what you’re colleagues are doing, and it also at times can be inspirational, specifically in the world of photojournalism, where we all have the same kind of motivation, I think that seeing how people approach it in different ways is fantastic, even if it’s not something or a way that I would want to emulate, it can certainly still be appreciated, especially looking at photographers whose primary language is black and white photography, which I do a little bit of but not as much as i do in color, and look at the ways they’re trying to communicate with their audiences.
Early on in my career, when I was working in the former Yugoslavia, during all those conflicts, it was very easy to switch to black and white and the photographs would almost look like they were from World War II, in fact a lot of times they were using WWII uniforms and equipment and so on. And after doing a little bit in black and white, I realized that I was doing a disservice to the reader, because I was allowing them to come, look at the photographs in a kind of historical context, the black and white gives the reader a little bit of an escape.
It’s timeless, but it’s also historical.
A distance. which, there are a lot of benefits to black and white, as well, but I thought that it was important to work in color to ensure that people understood that this was happening now, today.
No, it’s not a lot of fun to be in a conflict zone, it’s not a lot of fun to be shot at. It took me a number of years to understand that the acclimation process, the re-acclimation process coming back after a conflict was going to be a very important part of my ability to survive and thrive as a functioning human being. And in the beginning I would sort of come back…I’d come back from the war, and I’d expect everybody around me to kind of adjust to me and whatever I had been going through at that time, and once I understood that it was really my responsibility to re-acclimate myself to what really was my normal state, which is like everybody else’s, and war is more of an exception, my life became a lot easier to manage, it was a lot better. I think that if you’re more comfortable in conflict, in dramatic situations…it’s a very difficult way to live more than a certain period of time. It’s just too intense, and people break.
It’s nothing dramatic, it’s just very conscious effort, to say, “okay, I’ve landed in New York and that’s it, those experiences that you have remain in your images and in the borders with which you photographed them, and now it’s time to reenter ‘normal society’.”
Yeah, you have to make a very conscious effort, because things that are not life and death…that doesn’t mean that they’re not important. So, it’s important to pay your bills, it’s important to keep a dinner date, it’s important to maintain normal human relations, and work within the rules of what exist.
If you’re just like, “oh, if there’s no gun involved or gunfire or life & death, then forget it, it’s not that important,” it’s too extreme to live your life, and it was like that for a little while in the beginning, before I learned how not to do that. and I think had I not learned to do it there’s no way I’d still be functioning today.
Am I self-aware enough to realize I’m self-aware?
I think everything heightened in these experiences is going to be useful, you have to be able to survive, and more importantly, you have to be able to work and do your job well, so, being on top of everything that’s going on is crucial for your physical survival as well as your photographic survival.
Well, the workshops are very much within the tradition of photojournalism, and one of the things that happened to me when I started was, the older generation kind of put their arms around me and gave me tips and introductions and a lot of help, especially from Christopher Morris, who I worked with quite a lot in the beginning of my career, and it was this idea of helping the next generation be able to succeed in what can be a very difficult way of living, and because we have this acknowledgement of what we’re trying to do is really greater than ourselves, telling these stories, raising awareness, giving a voice to the voiceless and so on, it is a pretty important thing to do, so you want people to be able to do it well. So the workshop is a more formal aspect of that. So whether it’s down south with the Barefoot workshops, or even more with the Foundry workshop, where myself and Maggie Steber and Andrea Bruce, other very well-known photojournalists, we go and teach for free, and we do that primarily to give an opportunity for photographers from places like Latin America or Asia or Africa, who are unable to afford the more expensive workshops. It’s that kind of feeling that we want to make sure that this work will continue. And that’s very much the altruistic reason for doing it. Then there is the sort of…the selfish reason for doing it: it’s a great reminder to me, when you see young photographers, and you see them getting better and you see that work, and you can help them, it’s very inspiring, a great reminder of how great this can be, and I am always very re-energized after teaching these workshops. I mean, I don’t teach a lot, maybe 3 or 4 workshops a year, but I really do enjoy them.
It doesn’t so much allow me to sort of sit there and pontificate but it’s…there is the opportunity where I do show my work and I’m able to talk one on one with people, which is a reasonably rare thing to be able to do, especially now, given that your work kind of goes off into the ether, I mean, if you put it on Instagram, or Facebook, you get some likes and stuff like that, but often there’s not, aside from a couple of comments, a lot of interaction. So it’s always a pleasure, and this is probably more so when I do lectures at universities or other places where you get to interact with the audience, and understand how your work is coming across to them. That is also inspiring, and a reminder of what the work can do.
I think…yeah, it really does depend, and actually we have a recent example with the New York Times contractor Mauricio Lima who’s working in Ukraine, who photographed a woman who was taken prisoner by pro-Russian rebels and sort of strung up on a street and put a sign around her neck, and people were coming up and abusing her, and she was tortured. And the photograph was printed in the New York Times and produced quite an uproar, and the journalists were able to follow up afterwards with the photograph and the story with one of the leaders of the pro-Russian rebels and were able to get her released and freed.
The photograph was a huge component of that, it was such a horrific image, and it was a great example of what imagery can do. Yes, it’s also the power of the New York Times, but it still was…you know, without that photograph it was just text, probably wouldn’t have had the impact that it did. That’s just one of many examples where imagery can have a real impact. So, yes, we are in a world where, I think, 3 billion photographs a year are going to be produced, or probably more with Instagram, Facebook, etc. and there’s a lot of noise, not that they’re all bad pictures, but there’s a lot of noise, but at the same time, there’s a huge audience for photography, and when the work is good, and the work really can say something, and can rise above that, I think more now than ever, the work can be much more powerful, because it has the ability now to really travel the world, much more so than it could even five years ago.
Certainly the number of images that I took in the 90s or early 2000s before this sort of mechanism of social media existed, had I taken them today, the impact would’ve been ten-fold what it was. So I think it’s still going to be where the individual photographer, the author, somebody who can speak with a visual voice, will be able to have impact with their work. And so while many people are saying this is sort of the end of photojournalism, the end of the individual photographer, I think in some ways this is actually the new beginning, where the audience for photography is so much greater, photography is such a universal language, that once we start to figure out how to monetize this way of working, it’s very exciting.
Of course, they’re amazing outlets, there are…I mean, I hope I’m building my social media audience, there are photographers with larger audiences than I do that rival editions of magazines. This is amazing.
Well, with my phone, I choose to shoot in the square format. I actually really enjoy it, because I’ve been shooting in the 35mm format for so long, it’s quite refreshing to be able to look at the world in a slightly different way, and I do shoot a lot more black & white, as opposed to color with the phone. But that being said, it could be a phone, it could be a point & shoot, it’s not really relevant, it’s just convenient, it’s like, what’s in your hand at the time. Having the network and the ability to get your work out there, through Instagram or Facebook and Twitter, which are the three primary things that I am using now, as most people are, that’s what’s exciting about the distribution networks, but, whether I’m shooting with my phone, or the point & shoot, or my DSLR is becoming less and less relevant.
I’m not exactly sure what defines the Community, at this point. It used to be, to a large degree, certainly through the 90s – things started to change around the Iraq war, that the majority of work that you would see in magazines and newspapers were being produced by probably the same fifty photographers. We would see each other everywhere and one guy would be Newsweek, one guy would be Time, one guy would be Associated Press, one guy would be Reuters and so on. And we would continue to see each other. Then as the economic model started to collapse, the photojournalism community started to expand, and, to a degree, for very good reasons.
One of the first things that started to happen was that more and more local photographers, photographers that would live in these areas, started to become better and be able to compete and produce work that, while in some ways similar, were also very different because they were documenting their own world around them. So, for instance, after the fall of Baghdad, a lot of work that started to come from Iraq was being created by Iraqi photographers which had never been seen before. So things like that started to happen, the photojournalistic community started to expand greatly and that’s been happening continuously. And I think that, while probably not great for the 50 photographers of which I was included, not great for us in terms of our ability to sort of roam around the world, great for the community, and even much more importantly, great for the audience, to be able to see so much more of the world than they were before.
Well, the founders, we were all friends. And we became friends primarily through conflict experiences together. so that was really the basis of the founding of VII.
Being in business with friends or not friends is difficult no matter what. And photographers turning into businessmen is a great idea on paper, but…it definitely has a lot of caveats.
I think the best thing that came out of VII was, at that time, Getty and Corbis were buying up all the small agencies in an attempt to basically control all the image content they thought would be available on the internet. That was their strategy, and a lot of the agencies that they bought, they’re still producing great work and so on, but a lot of people thought they wanted to to be more in control of their own photographic careers and their work, and didn’t think that was going to be possible.
And so when VII launched people thought we would be dead in six months. And when we weren’t, we, I think, inspired a lot of other photographers to do something, to basically do the same thing that we did. And what we did was the same thing as what happened with Magnum, fifty years earlier, it’s not like we invented something new. So I think that’s probably been one of the greatest impacts of VII, all these other agencies said, “hey, you know, it IS possible to do this.” So you have agencies like Nor and Prime, a whole slew of others that basically modified it to their own desires, but realized while it’s totally fine to be a Getty or Corbis photographer, if you wanted to go on a different path, you could.
I think the profile, both for the individual photographers, and the profile of the agency became heightened, and that was a very conscious decision to do that, and to pursue that, and to utilize whatever benefits would come out of that.
It was definitely fun, it was adventurous, it was scary, but it was also…we were taken over by what was happening around us. We launched on September 9th, 2001, and two days later, the world changed. So we were in position to document that. And so there wasn’t a lot of time to be thinking about anything but the changing world around us. And that went on all the way through the fall of Baghdad, so for the next couple of years VII was in Afghanistan, New York, Washington, Pakistan, Iraq and other places.
Not as much in terms of being on the front line everywhere, given what I spoke about earlier, financial limitations. But, when you look at the work that’s being done by photographers, and sort of the different ways we’re approaching things, Ashley Gilbertson has just come out with a project called Bedrooms of the Fallen, which is a very unique way of looking at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie Sinclair has been incredibly successful in presenting her powerful story about child marriage, which has has policy impact from the US government to the United Nations and so on. We have several photographers covering the war in Ukraine in a very different way, several books about that. So while we’re not all immediately on the front lines, we are covering things, and I was in Cairo for the fall of Mubarak, I was in Tripoli for the fall of Quadaffi, so we are also covering some things in a very traditional way, and other things we’re doing things with a different approach.
I’m not an activist in terms of “I’m a rabid republican” or “I’m a rabid democrat”, or independent or whatever, but I’m more interested in the impact of political decisions on the ground. For me probably one of the most interesting things was, for a couple of years I was Newsweek’s White House photographer. So during the Bill Clinton administration, and I also did campaigns afterwards with Bush and so on, but certainly during the White House period I found it interesting to be photographing the President in meetings talking about the current events of the time, and then…it would be one month on, one month off, and the next month I would be in those places he was talking about. I found that really…sometimes it was fascinating, both in terms of how correct they were, and often how incorrect they were. And the disconnect, the political jargon and so on…I thought that was an interesting way to see how the world works.
I think it depended on the situation.
I sleep a lot! And aside from that, working nowadays is obviously not just going and taking photographs, there’s the whole post-production and there’s the ability that we all have now to multi-platform our work. So for instance, I’ve been working on a two year project on adoption in Haiti, and now I’m editing a short film from that. So there’s all sorts of different things, obviously, exhibitions, books, film, other types of ways to interact with the audience, so your responsibility doesn’t end when the trip is over, or when you stop taking pictures.
Not in any way? No. The way that I’ve chosen to do this, it’s not a job, it’s not a 9 to 5 job, it really is intertwined in my life, intertwined in my relationships, my friends, so on. It’s always there in some degree.