Photographer Ron Haviv is no stranger to suffering. For decades, he has trudged through conflict zones in Africa, South America and the Middle East with the mission of documenting man’s worst crimes against man. His demeanor is quiet and his attitude is humble. How could it not be?
But during Haviv’s most recent travels through the destitute, conflict-ridden lands of Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he met a woman with a story that gave him pause.
“I met one woman who was raped— in the Congo, he said. “Her mother had been raped, her three daughters had been raped, and two of the daughters had become pregnant.—
That much was familiar. The woman’s reaction to the unthinkable trauma, Haviv said, was anything but.
“Instead of becoming this vindictive woman, she decided to devote her life to making sure other women aren’t going through the same thing she has,— he said passionately, as if telling the story for the first time. “I mean that’s just — the resilience of that …— He couldn’t find words to finish the sentence.
Stories like these are the focus of the newest photo exhibit on display at the Newseum, “Our World at War: Photojournalism Beyond the Front Lines.— The exhibit was produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross in partnership with the VII Photo Agency, which Haviv and several of his colleagues founded.
According to Bernard Bennett, an ICRC delegate, the idea sprouted at Red Cross headquarters in Geneva from a desire to humanize some of the world’s most tragic conflicts and tell the many stories of hope playing where it often seems like there is none.
“We want to show these people not just as victims,— Bennett said. “But what they are trying to do is salvage their lives and to help others.—
To prepare for the exhibition, the ICRC arranged to escort Haviv, along with colleagues Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey and Franco Pagetti, through conflict zones in eight carefully selected countries — Liberia, Georgia, Colombia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Haviv visited the latter two.
“We wanted to have diversity in terms of continents,— Bennett said. “And also in terms of whether these are ongoing conflicts or post-conflict situations.— Afghanistan, for example, is very much mid-conflict, while Liberia is post-conflict.
The exhibit, which runs until Sept. 7, is currently gearing up to tour the United States and more than 40 countries worldwide. Both the ICRC and the VII Photo Agency have put on human-rights-driven photography exhibitions before. But this one, Haviv said, has a different message.
With his photos for this exhibition, Haviv and his colleagues wanted to emphasize the perpetuity of the obstacles their subjects face — and have faced for years. These destructive conflicts often pop up in the headlines, Haviv points out, but as soon as the next big story breaks, they disappear.
“People just, once these places are out of the news, assume, Oh, everything’s fine again,’— he said. “But the reality, and I think that’s what this exhibition shows, is that it’s not. Their lives keep going.—
Haviv does not know how the world will respond to his latest work, but if history is any indicator, he has plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
In December 1989, when George H.W. Bush ordered an invasion of Panama, it was Haviv’s photography the president gave as one justification for the action.
Though their exhibit illustrates a reality that is quite depressing, both the ICRC and its photographers have striven to deliver a subtly positive message.
“These photographs show, to me, the resilience of the human spirit,— Haviv said. “I think, even though we see the opposite so much more — the brutality and horror that man can commit upon man — there are these remarkable examples of people looking forward kind of looking past it.—