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May 27, 2012

War Enabling: Duckrabbit vs. Haviv and VII in a Larger Context

Haviv 1

This week, photo-blogger Benjamin Chesterton took photographer Ron Haviv, and his agency, VII, to task for commercial photographs Ron did for arms manufacturers Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems. Benjamin accused both of hypocrisy given the firm’s reputation and pride for its humanistic conflict work.

To the extent this debate fixes around who is more justified — if Chesterton is, and Haviv is a sellout; or Haviv is, and there’s a clean line to be drawn between the types of work — we will have missed an opportunity to look at larger issues at play. Simply put, moral compromise is rife when it comes to war and photojournalism.

Starting with Ron, I believe we still see that compromising going on in his explanation/rebuttal, especially the way he relates how his image, sold to Lockheed Martin, has been appropriated. Ron writes that all he did was sell “a stock photo of tracks in the desert.” And from there:

“My commercial agent sold the landscape image as stock to Lockheed Martin, which exercised its right to add smoke and text.”

Ron doesn’t tell us if the “landscape” image was shot in Afghanistan or California, or if the tire tracks are from a tank or a tractor, but I can’t imagine he felt all that clean when the company reworked the photo into “the end of the road” for something, or imaginably, somebody (or bodies) getting incinerated by a Lockheed PNAV SDB.

Haviv 2

Haviv 3

Haviv 4

The same can be said for the BAE ads where these photos, ostensibly for the “good guy” support organization, the USO, all-of-a-sudden get re-deployed by the arms contractor. In this case, Ron’s “support the troops” photography is used to confer a nobility on the soldiers (and BAE) in what also reads like some kind of emotional respite and deep reflective vacation from the hassles of civilian life and travel.

But does it really stop there? Frankly, it’s hard to see war photography these days as anything but a moral compromise across the board.

For example, how is the embedding program anything else but a moral compromise? How are those emotional bonds, and the natural empathy that develops between soldiers and photojournalists anything but a moral compromise? How is photo story after photo story of medevac missions — dramatic and heroic reportage facilitated in lieu of imagery that delineates an actual war front or the battle on the ground — something else beyond moral compromise? And, regarding the photographer, Noor-Eldeen, who was killed by the attack helicopter, why shouldn’t someone like Eric Draper be shunned because, as Bush’s White House photographer, he burnished the presentation of the person more responsible for Noor-Eldeen’s death than anyone at Lockheed?

I agree with Joerg that you don’t work with arms contractors if you’re a compassionate war photographer. But are there larger conclusions to be drawn that allow us to build on duckrabbit’s throw down in a more constructive way?

I imagine photo agencies and their individual members, especially the non-corporate ones, can formally agree to refuse any commercial assignments from arms manufacturers if that agency is going to be involved in conflict coverage. Perhaps restrictions, or at least “right of refusal” on the adaptation/doctoring of the photo are in order also?  On a broader scale, though, what about a more concerted effort by the photo community and its organizations to advocate for negotiated rules of media-military engagement, and an oversight process aimed toward the overhaul and/or creation of alternatives to the embedding system? What about a more concerted call for access to more stealth operations, including special ops and cyber-warfare? How about calling for greater access and disclosure regarding the function and scale of the military’s internal media/propaganda operations? How about putting pressure on universities, such as Syracuse, to drop DoD funded military photojournalism (i.e. propaganda) training programs? As the visibility of photos, and photographers, and the risk to photographers goes up, why not the level of advocacy, too?

In a militaristic society, especially post 9/11, where war is huge business and war makes great politics (the Obama’s campaigning hard around military installations and doing one base visit after another), we’d do better to admit moral compromise is everywhere. And with that, rather than picking each other apart, perhaps we (shooters and writers) might actually pick some battles together.

(If you’re in or near Brooklyn on June 23rd, I’ll be speaking at the Photoville photo festival in Dumbo at 4:45 pm on “The State of the News Photo.” Hope you can make it.)

(photos: Ron Haviv)

  • Scarabus

    Great post, Michael. Need to reflect on it.

    One quick observation, though. Soon as I saw the image of the kid leaning against the wheel of the truck, I connected it with the first picture. I thought, What if the Taliban had purchased the same stock photo, made the same fire and smoke modification, but added their text in place of the war profiteer’s. Something like…

    “The Americans come with their huge war machines and tear up our land. But we will not be defeated. Like David fighting Goliath, we will with the help of Allah destroy these monsters.”

  • Dbarbour

    Haviv is trying to make a living>selling his work to an agency allows him to produce other work that is far more important, engaging and truthful. Support publications and assignments are few in number, documentary photographers have to support themselves to do their best work time and time again. In todays market we have to do things like this but >big but<please note any photo photoshopped to this extent is no longer a photograph, it is an altered image or illustration and should be credited as such.

    • Michael Shaw

      Can you reply and clarify your point? I do think, because of our emphasis here on the integrity of the photo itself, that the adaptation of the photo is an important point.

  • black_dog_barking

    In a militaristic society, especially post 9/11, where war is huge business and war makes great politics  … we’d do better to admit moral compromise is everywhere.

    Regrettably there are times and circumstances that require military intervention, when the application of measured violence is the right solution to a problem. For those times and circumstances we need to have that response available, men and women trained in efficient killing. But everyone involved should know that the purpose of the military intervention is the same purpose as the rest of our communal activity – we’re doing what it takes to build and maintain a sustainable humane society.

    Unfortunately our ideals can be gamed. The military represents a large source of relatively cheap labor trained to obey orders above all. As such the military can be charged with solving problems that have no violent solutions and the military response is “Sir! Yes sir!”. And then we’ve spent a decade in Afghanistan to no measurable good end.

    BTW, the co-opting of art for military use has a complement when military technology  finds its way into our everyday lives, eg the internet, and GPS.

    • jonst

       bdb wrote: “And then we’ve spent a decade in Afghanistan to no measurable good end”.  I suspect I would strongly agree with that assertion, particularly if I asked bdg to elaborate on it.  My problem is I don’t know exactly who the ‘we’, in “we’ve” refers to. I think some people/entities have made a great deal of money and they might not share your (and my) sentiments.

      As to bdb’s “..we’re doing what it takes to build and maintain a sustainable humane society.”

      I have not seen the evidence of that end. But evidently he does. Hope you are right bdb but count me in ‘not convinced’ group.

  • Mark Tucker

    There are lots of unknowns to this story. But the one thing that does surprise me is that VII, or Ron Haviv, would not have a clause in their Stock License contract that forbids adding other photographic elements to their photographs. In this case, the smoke in the background. Since photojournalism is especially sensitive to retouching issues, I’d think they’d forbid that entirely. Darken a sky? Fine. Bump the contrast? No problem. But strip in some smoke on the horizon? Hmm; to me, that crosses a line for a photojournalism agency, even in these challenging economic times.

    • Stan B.

       Mark, the photo/ad appears on Haviv’s website as part of his commercial portfolio- not as part of VII’s enterprise.

  • Stan B.

    Photojournalists (and their respective agencies) should have put their
    collective foot down a long time ago when the embed process was rammed
    down their throats- instead of immediately sucking up to it.

    This kind of corrupted behavior was inevitable.

  • Jim Johnson

    Michael – I hope all is well. This is well said. I like the final suggestion very much. 

    • Michael Shaw

      Thanks, Jim. One thing this debate actually evidences is how much an extended community of photo-bloggers is taking shape to discuss important issues related to photojournalism and media culture. (Part of that debate, from the back-and-forth between Chesterton and Campbell on the duckrabbit site, is what to call people doing this kind of thing. Campbell doesn’t like the “blogger” term, and I don’t really either. The question, though, is — is it journalism?) Anyway, a lot of this is playing out on Twitter. Would love to see you get involved there, as well.

  • duckrabbit

    This is brilliant post. Well done Michael.

    Just to add the reason why I have asked @VIIphoto:disqus 
     just how many of their photographers are working for the arms industry is that I do believe that this is a much wider issue than just Ron Haviv, one that BAGNEWSNOTES has been on the money with more than any other space on the internet (IMO).

    • Michael Shaw

      Thanks Benjamin. I’m just trying to be constructive. I totally agree this goes far beyond Ron and is worth the struggle. I have so many photographer friends and I don’t envy them the moral dilemmas among all the other dilemmas, especially when operating on shoestrings.

  • Erin Siegal

    This is an important conversation to have, and the ramifications stretch far beyond war coverage. Did Haviv actually know that the image was sold to Lockheed Martin? I doubt it. That’s the question worth asking. 

    It’s less about “selling-out,” and much more about the issue of taking responsibility for how our images get used. Keeping track of what goes where, in terms of stock, can be next to impossible. I’ve felt burned myself, when images of subjects have ended up in strange places For example, after shooting a daily life story on a transgender man for Reuters, one of the images ended up in an encyclopedia, as the illustrative definition of “transsexual.” My subject found it himself through a friend, and called me to ask. He thought it was funny, but really, it wasn’t.

    And just now, trying to Google the story, I found this:

    As well as this, one of my portraits being used to illustrate a story about killings of trans people. From a glance/quick visual read, it’s easy to assume that the portrait is of someone who was killed, which is very much not the case:

    If Reuters can’t tell me where my images are going, can I expect Corbis to? What about the various agencies beneath the Corbis umbrella?

    How can we expect Haviv, or any other photographer for that matter, to closely track every single image?

    Personally, the lack of control over how my images get used and the lack of transparency by corporations I work with, like Reuters, ultimately led me away from straight photography. Now I’m writing just as much as I’m shooting. When I do video or multimedia work, I take responsibility for editing. 

    But I know that’s extreme. How can photographers take more responsibility over how the images we create are used? Is it even possible?

    Sources come first. Without those who collaborate with us, help us, and allow us to exploit their image, there is no photograph… or paycheck. 

    • Michael Shaw

      Erin, this is a fabulous comment. It wasn’t my intention to take Ron to task, btw, and I hope I’m not taken as doing so.

       The context you provide here is not only critical to the debate, but one I haven’t seen addressed as well in other threads. Perspective on the issue means understanding the thicket of complexities, risks, tricks associated with dealing with distribution and control when what you’re up against, as you eloquently point out, is “the man” — or the not-so-large, necessarily, but the unscrupulous.

      Further thought: I used “photo community” in a tweet this AM, and Jeremy Nicholl (@Russian_Photos) asked me what I meant. I use the term as much in a wishful as a prospective way. Being “not of one the tribe” in a natural subgroup of this “community” — not a photographer/photojournalist, a publisher, an editor, a teacher — but a member of the more cross-over category of “photo-blogger,” I believe there is a lot of potential and leverage that might be brought to bear in the face of these moral dilemmas. I hope I’m not sounding too thomas friedman here, but I’d like to think I could at least help get people talking to vs. at each other. Thanks for your insights!

    • Stan B.

      Erin- I think lot of us could sympathize with someone who had their photograph used out of context- as was yours. And your reaction was one of… regret. It was that very small piece of humanity that was completely absent in Haviv’s own reply.

    • Guy Calaf

       Erin,  as far as I read, Haviv did post a statement that did not mention that he was not aware that his image was being used commercially by a weapons manufacturer. Lockeed Martin is a very big corporation and I am sure that image was billed and invoiced with care by Haviv’s commecial agent. You can still find that image on Haviv’s personal web site. Many photographers do commercial work on the side of their compassionate documentary photography work. I always interpreted Haviv’s journalistic work as one that denounced conflict, sufferance and war. Perhaps he does believe in military intervention for a good cause and maybe it would be proper to ask him that directly.
      I firmly believe that a photojournalist who focuses on conflict and human sufferance should not sell images to weapons manufacturers. Very simple. I could not look straight in the eyes of any of any of the subjects of the images I took in my life if I would have sold my images to such an organization.

  • Dave Ellis


  • Nina

    Erin,  if you have taken sensitive images and want to protect them,  you can specify with  stock house what usages are allowed.  Of course they might reject your image because of the restrictions but that’s the moral line you then decide to draw or not.    Many of my images require my permission prior to publication and I insist on reviewing associated texts.  I doubt I am alone in doing this. Control is not impossible if you have the will.  But Ron, in his statement, and by the fact that his name was on the poster,  is clearly comfortable with the usage which is his right.  It’s strange that you assume he was somehow blindsided.

  • Jenny Lynn Walker

    FANTASTIC post! Every question raised in it! The moral issues are complex and it is great that the nature of conflict photography as it has become is put under the spotlight. 

    Photography played a vital role in ending the Vietnam war. Additional valid questions might then be: Would the war in Afghanistan – the longest war in US history - still be going on without “embedding”? Does the embedding “system” contribute to prolonging war? 

    People put their lives on the line to document conflict but if the system they are operating under contributes to extending war and yet more lives being lost, what exactly is conflict photography achieving or, indeed, promoting??

  • Walter

    Michael- This is a fascinating issue to dig into. What strikes me as odd in this whole debate is that duckrabbit doesn’t not apply the same critical standards to their own commercial resales to dubious clients as they did to Haviv.

    A duckrabbit spoof site put up convincing evidence that duckrabbit is reselling editorial images to adult portals:

    • duckrabbit

      Hi Walter,

      Its a shame you went off topic. But just for your info as a business duckrabbit doesn’t resell editorial images. 

      That said I absolutely love the pictures that David did of a swingers convention for Marie Claire.

    • Michael Shaw

      Imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

    • duckrabbit

      Just to add Walter, the cracking images you refer to by David White that have been ’sold’ to ‘adult’ websites were infact (and quite obviously) stolen.  But again, that has nothing to do with the importance of the post here.

      The spoof site we take as a compliment. It’s so bad it makes us look good.

  • Mike

     it’s sad to see haviv go to the dark side.  He’s really destroyed his credibility as a journalist.  If you are going to be a journalist be a journalist.  You can’t blur the lines the way he is.  I think he’s unethical.  he got caught stealing art from steve lehman as well. 

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  • Geraldine Ferdinand

    Lots of unknowns. Luckily there are bold risk-takers out there that devote themselves to uncover these truths. An incredible one I recently watched is called Fools On The Hill. Can find it at Every American should watch.

  • Viennaseranno

    Photography and documentation of truths are never welcomed but SHOULD be. Here is an example of a great documentary- Reveals our legislative malpractice, resulting in our complicated society. Well executed and eye opening.

  • Kinsey Augustus

    Was a bit sad when I came across this article & it seems Nachtwey had the same lapse in judgement too:

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  • Photographer

    Such a this is an important conversation to have and the ramifications stretch far beyond war coverage.  Photography played a vital role in ending the Vietnam war and such a great creativity. 

  • black_dog_barking

    When Michael mentioned “moral compromise” it moved his subject into the realm of the ideal and I’m following his lead. My assertion about our common goal to build a sustainable humane society is simply an ideal, one I believe to be widely shared but for which objective evidence is thin beyond a) our collective “natural” day-to-day responses to our children and b) the fact it makes me feel better to believe we’re really trying to be better.

    As to the statement about no measurable good end in Afghanistan, it is a falsifiable assertion and can be countered with examples connecting our adventures in Afghanistan with good outcomes. I can’t think of any. But I’d be happy to hear of our good works.

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