Industry Insights: Ron Haviv on the changing landscape of conflict photography

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Photo: © Ron Haviv/VII Photo.

From cutting through the oversaturated image market to combating fake news, the renowned conflict photographer and Emmy-nominated filmmaker discusses how the role – and risks – of photojournalism continue to shift in the digital age

Ron Haviv was 23 years old when he first took an image that shook the world. He had travelled to Panama on a whim to cover the 1989 election, which then-dictator General Manuel Noriega’s candidate lost. When Noriega annulled the result, the rightful winners took to the streets of Panama City in an attempt to start a revolution. It is here that Haviv captured Guillermo Ford, who had been in the running for vice president (and would go on to be implemented as such), being beaten by a paramilitary soldier.

The photograph “essentially went viral before the word ‘viral’ even existed,” Haviv remembers. To his disbelief, it was cited in President George H W Bush’s television speech as a justification for the American invasion of Panama the same year. Haviv’s subsequent work in the Balkans, which spanned over ten years of conflict, was used as evidence to indict and convict war criminals at an international tribunal in The Hague. In the following decades, he would go on to cover more than 25 conflicts, and work in over 100 countries.

Since these early assignments, Haviv has been fascinated by questions of impact. What happens to conflict-related images once they enter the wider domain? What does their role become in education, art, politics and culture? And crucially, what factors determine how this journey takes shape?

© Ron Haviv/VII Photo.

The answers, which are of course myriad and complex, are somewhat different now than prior to the digital revolution. “When I started out, I’d be calling the magazine, saying, ‘Did anybody write a letter about my work this week?’” he says. Now stories of injustice can go viral overnight. Statistics that are otherwise hard to comprehend – 10 years of war in Syria; six million Syrian refugees – are given an acutely human face and identity. 

But humanity is expected to take upwards of 1.4 trillion photos in 2021. Imagery needs to grab ever-burgeoning levels of attention for audiences to remember it – and photojournalists are required to keep up. “When you think about how many images you looked at on Instagram today, and said you liked, how many of them do you remember an hour later?” Haviv asks. “Six hours later? 24 hours later? The ones that you remember 24 hours later and beyond, those are the images that work… The goal for us, as visual journalists, is to take an image that will last in that person’s mind.”

So what becomes of the images that flood our news feeds? Images of suffering that have become so ubiquitous that audiences are desensitised, and the impact diluted? Refugees loaded into boats; patients hooked up to ventilators during the Covid-19 pandemic. Is there still merit in these images, or is it now incumbent on good photojournalists to tell stories in newer, more engaging ways? “Obviously, you don’t want to be producing imagery that nobody pays any attention to, because then it fails completely,” Haviv says. “But at the same time, I often flip it around, and stress that there’s also the responsibility of the audience… Is the issue with the image? Or is the issue that you, as the viewer, don’t want to deal with it anymore, when perhaps you should?”

© Ron Haviv/VII Photo.

Needless to say, camera phones and social media have given rise to widespread ‘citizen journalism’, fuelling ongoing questions about the future viability of photojournalism as a profession. There are significant upsides to the democratisation of the field (such as communities affected by conflict being able to tell their own stories), and most professional photographers are reported to feel either neutral about it or see it as a positive development (Haviv included). That said, he is adamant amateurs are not interchangeable with professional photojournalists – and that both have an important role to play going forward.

“[As photographers], we have a lot of power – in both the way that we frame something and the caption that we write along with it – to misrepresent situations,” he says. “And that can be very dangerous.” Even before getting into the misuse of photography in post-production (Photoshop, deep fakes and miscaptions, for example), the ethics of photographing conflict as it happens – navigating intent and imposition, projection and apathy, and immediate threats to life – are extremely complicated. Only relatively recently is the conversation around such issues being fully dissected. And at a time when public trust in the media is spiralling rapidly downwards, Haviv asserts that trained professionals, speaking via reputable publications, are vital to retaining credibility.

“I don’t see any way photography could ever be objective,” Haviv says. “But what people should be looking for from me [as a trained photojournalist] is fair representation… A sense of trust that I’m choosing a moment that actually represents what’s going on; that’s not some sort of anomaly.” 

Even so, it is becoming increasingly clear that even the most ethical photojournalists cannot combat fake news alone. To help counter the threat, Adobe is developing an authentication system called the Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI), designed to permanently attach attribution and other metadata to an image in order to combat misinformation. The idea is that the system becomes so prolific that any image without CAI data attached will be viewed with scepticism, while CAI images can be understood as legitimate — but time will tell how feasible it is to roll out.

© Ron Haviv/VII Photo.

One other key challenge that has come with the digital revolution, of course, is the compromisation of security. With many photographers attempting to build an online audience, it is common to consistently post work from current and past stories – but there are dangers of having work so immediately accessible if the people you are photographing, and whom you are still amongst, take issue with it. “If there is work that shows the ‘other’ side [of the conflict], or work that can be felt as against the cause of the side you’re on, the repercussions can be serious,” Haviv says. “This is multiplied when working for media that is constantly updating imagery while you are still in the field. The idea of controlling the messenger, and taking issue with the message, has to be a constant concern for all visual journalists today.” 

Aside from imagery, phones can also be a liability in terms of letting people track your location (“When journalists arrived in Sochi for the [2014 Winter] Olympics, everybody’s computers were immediately hacked by the Russians – and that was just for the Olympics,” Haviv remarks. “Imagine going to the frontline in Syria.”). The CPJ has guides on how journalists can digitally protect themselves, and there are multiple affordable or free courses on hostile environment training – which encompass much of these issues plus medical guidance – that can be found with the Rory Peck Trust, ACOS Alliance and RISC.

Having spoken to Haviv for an hour and a half, the conversation, still, only scratches the surface of the innumerable ways in which the profession has transformed in his time in the field. A final question: in light of the ever-increasing volatility of the photojournalism as a career, how does he feel about the future? “When I started 30 years ago, one of the first major industry trade magazine headlines I read was, ‘Photojournalism is dead’,” he says wryly. “It’s still here.”

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.