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Ron Haviv and the power of photography

June 30, 2023

From the Rwandan genocide to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, celebrated photojournalist Ron Haviv has long documented the horrors of war. Today he is also working to expose the threat of AI.

A young woman in 1993 looks at a photo of a Bosnian prisoner that is part of a photo exhibit on the war in the former Yugoslavia
Haviv's image of a desperate Bosnian prisoner during the war in Yugoslavia featured at the United Nations in New York in 1993Image: Kevin Larkin/AP Photo/picture alliance

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-winning 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.

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 Global 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.

Young children sitting down and watch a story being read to them in their shelter underground.
Children in a Kyiv subway station shelter during Russian missile attacks. From Ron Haviv's 'I once had a home' series, it was runner up in UNICEF's Photo of the Year, 2022Image: Ron Haviv, USA, VII for 1843/Economist/picture alliance

'Raising awareness and education'

Haviv 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 were people telling these stories to hold people accountable, not only for their action, but for their inaction," he explained.

Ron Haviv wearing a suit jacket and blue shirt poses for the camera
Ron Haviv: Photojournalism is vital 'to show the world what's happening'Image: Neilson Barnard/AFP/Getty Images

Photography 'becomes evidence'

"In my career I have documented three genocides — Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur."

With 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," Haviv said. "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 where the moral line should be drawn when photographers take such images.

5 years after Alan Kurdi's death: 'Nothing has changed'

'The power of photography'

Haviv is convinced of the importance of such photos: "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 told, 'Photograph my son, photograph my child, show the world.'"

Fending off the threat of AI

As it is becoming increasingly easy to manipulate images through artificial intelligence (AI), "we are moving more and more into this place where it will be very difficult to believe what you're seeing," Haviv said.

"What you should be expecting from people like myself is authorship of an idea," he said, referring to the threat of AI. "This is a story that I'm telling in depth, especially now," he explained, adding that works by real people have "integrity ... This is reality."

"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," added Haviv.

"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."

Among various efforts, he mentioned 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.

Interview conducted by Manasi Gopalakrishnan

John Silk Editor and writer for English news, as well as the Culture and Asia Desks.@JSilk