Ron Haviv, a co-founder of the VII photo agency, has covered conflicts and human rights issues around the world for more than 20 years.
My photojournalist life has often been framed by two important ideas — those of the bystander and the upstander. More than once, those ideas have come into play at the most serious of times: when someone’s life is on the line. Should you, can you and when do you take the picture?
We have all witnessed acts of killing through the lens of fiction, in the movies or on television, for much of our lives. But to witness someone die in real life, and for that death to be a violent one, is surreal. The line between life and death is never so apparently thin as in that moment. The idea that the camera protects you is, in my mind, a fallacy. It actually enhances the moment, because all of your energy focuses on the death or killing as it occurs in front of you.
When video by Feidin Santana surfaced Tuesday, showing North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, it demonstrated once again how surreal it can be to watch that simple act of killing. Over time and with experience, I’ve learned that in war, such scenarios usually end in one of three ways. When I see someone whose life is in danger, they are sometimes saved, either through my actions or by the simple fact that I am there with a camera; in Haiti, I once physically protected a man from police, and in Afghanistan, I persuaded Northern Alliance soldiers not to execute two young Taliban prisoners. Sometimes, the person’s life is not saved, regardless of what I try to do, and I am not even able to document the crime. And then other times — as when Scott was gunned down, with Santana recording — the life is not saved, but I am able to document the crime.
Early in my career, during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, I was accompanying Serbian irregular troops as they conquered the Croatian town of Vukovar. As civilians were marched out in single file, a woman turned to one of the gunmen, pointing toward the line as she spoke to him. Within moments, a man was pulled from the line and shot point-blank with an AK-47. The whole episode happened so fast, my only reaction was to try to document it. But a split second later, I was told, with a gun to my head, “No photos.” Dismayed that my presence didn’t deter the killing and, further, that the crime would go unrecorded, I made a promise to myself that I would never let this happen again. If I couldn’t stop a war crime, I would make sure I had evidence to later prove that it had occurred.
That chance came the following year with Serbian paramilitaries, during the first battle for Bosnia. A middle-aged couple had been brought out of a home to the street. There was a great deal of shouting from the soldiers and the couple. The gunmen were yelling at me not to take any photographs, and then several shots rang out and the man fell to the ground. At that point, I knew there was nothing I could do to save the couple, but I needed to document the war crime. I managed to move away and photograph as the man’s wife tried to stem his bleeding while holding his hand. A few moments later another woman was brought out, and she, along with the wife, was shot. As they died, I photographed a soldier who approached them, cigarette in one hand, sunglasses on his head; he delivered a swift kick to one of the victims, the ultimate act of degradation. These images were eventually used in the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague to indict and convict various people of war crimes.
In subsequent years, as I documented world events, there were times in the heat of battle — in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — when combatants fell lifeless around or in front of me. There were also times when I saw civilians’ lives fade away, the result of disease or famine, for instance in Congo and Somalia. Regardless of ethnicity, gender or geography, each loss of life that I witnessed remains with me, engraved in my mind.
Our modern era of visual technology and widespread accessibility has shown us the Rodney King tape and the Eric Garner video, and now we witness an apparent execution by gunfire in South Carolina, documented by another bystander. Santana quickly moved into the upstander role by bravely recording the moment and then disseminating the video. “I knew right away, I had something on my hands,” he told NBC News on Wednesday. Santana said he thought about erasing the video but kept it because he knew that it contradicted the official police story.
Such imagery was primarily once the unfortunate domain of the visual journalist. But now these moments can be witnessed, documented and shared by us all, because almost everyone has the right tool in their hands. The question is: Does the volume of imagery take us to another level of numbness or fatigue, or will it increase the urgency to respond to what we see?
Read more from Outlook: