- Bearing Witness and the Limits of War Photojournalism:Ron Haviv in Bijeljina
Most of the photographs exhibited to shock us have no effect at all, precisely because the photographer has too generously substituted himself for us in the formation of his subject.Roland Barthes, “Shock-Photos”
But mustn’t the photographer who is unable to read his own pictures be no less deemed an illiterate? Isn’t inscription bound to become the most essential component of the photograph?Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography”
Although the camera is an observation station, the act of photographing is more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening. To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a ‘good’ picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.Susan Sontag, “On Photography”
For instance, I can recall down to its minutest details Ron Haviv’s close-up photograph taken in 1992 of a Muslim man begging for his life on the streets of the town of Bijeljina in Bosnia. I feel the horror at what is about to take place, can even imagine what is being said, know well enough that these men with guns are without pity. And yet nothing that I can imagine or say equals the palpable reality of this terrified, pleading face on the verge of tears.Charles Simic, “Archives of Horror.” [End Page 629]
Who is this witness, I ask myself, this photographer who gives himself the godlike right to be there? Did he just happen to come along? What took place after the camera’s click? How come the killers let him go with the evidence of their crime? Did they exchange any words before he went his way? Is it true then, as Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977), that the camera is a passport that annihilates moral boundaries, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed?Charles Simic, “Archives of Horror”
While traveling in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 with the paramilitary leader Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović and his militia, the photojournalist Ron Haviv took several award-winning photographs. Some show Arkan’s milita kicking the bodies of murdered citizens in Bijeljina. Another shows a young man on his knees pleading for his life to the camera. Although Arkan ordered Haviv not to take such photographs, Haviv did so nonetheless, at some risk to his life. Haviv’s photographs were later presented as evidence at the Hague Tribunal and helped indict Arkan as a war criminal.1 Later, in an interview, Arkan said of Haviv, “I look forward to the day I can drink his blood.” Haviv courageously risked his life and bore witness to the unconscionable character of what came to be known euphemistically as ethnic cleansing.
It is unrealistic to expect Haviv to have intervened on behalf of the civilians being executed in Bijeljina. He was powerless as he witnessed the pogrom that started the war and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Arkan liked a photograph of himself posing with a baby tiger next to a tank that Haviv took of him in Serbia and invited him to join him when his militia entered Bijeljina. It would have been difficult for Haviv to speak out on behalf of the civilians being murdered. Still, it is important to ask to what degree Haviv’s presence contributed to the war crimes. Was Haviv’s camera a mirror through which Arkan was able to promote his terrifying images to the world and his victims’ community? Was Haviv an unwitting accomplice to Arkan’s massacre of unarmed civilians? How did the kneeling young man feel about being photographed before his execution? In The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda after the Genocide, one genocide survivor says to the journalist Jean Hatzfeld that it would be unconscionable to take a picture of a victim during genocide. “Could...