Photographer Profile-Ron Haviv: "Every journalist has to have the ability to bond with people"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday February 24, 2015

A few minutes before 5:00 pm on Tuesday, Jan 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook Haiti, bringing terrible destruction to the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The death toll from the quake and the days of violent aftershocks that followed was staggering, though exact figures have been disputed.

A few hours after the first shock, photojournalist Ron Haviv  arrived in the city, along with several other journalists who had pooled resources to charter a jet from New York. Theirs was the last plane to land before the Port-au-Prince airport closed.

“I’d been doing stories in Haiti since 1990 and knew Port-au-Prince pretty well—it was a noisy, chaotic place, but in the hours after the earthquake, what I remember is just the dead silence,” Haviv says. “Everyone was in shock. The city and all those lives had been destroyed in just seconds.”

On assignment for People magazine, Haviv documented the effects of the earthquake, and over the course of the following months the magazine sent him back to Port-au-Prince several times to report on relief efforts. It was on his first followup trip, in March, that he met Steve Helling, a Florida-based staff writer for the magazine. The two established a close working relationship and became friends, bound together as witnesses to dreadful destruction and suffering. What Haviv didn’t know, however, was that he was also becoming part of another story—one of persistent hope and love.

“I knew Steve was affected by what we were witnessing, but I didn’t understand the extent of it,” he says.

An Emotional Two-Year Journey

During his time in Haiti, Helling watched as doctors struggled to save injured Haitians and treat those dying from lingering effects of the earthquake. In December of 2010, he was in a clinic for infants suffering from cholera when he learned of 13 other infants who had recently been abandoned. He called his wife, Emma, to tell her the story.

"I told her, 'If I could adopt all these kids, I'd do it,'" Helling would later write. “Her response stunned me. 'I've been looking into it,' she said quietly. ‘It takes a long time, but it can be done.'"

What followed was an emotional journey, as Helling and his wife, who had two biological children of their own, plowed through layers of bureaucracy and mountains of red tape to adopt four Haitian children ranging in age from five years to 18 months.

The editors of People wanted to tell Helling’s story, not only through his own words but also in photographs and a series of short films  for the magazine’s website. The Hellings would have to let someone into their home and their lives to observe them intimately over the course of many months. Helling agreed, with one condition.

“The only person I would let do it was Ron,” he says. “He was the only person I felt comfortable with.”

Off and on over the following two years, Haviv would make multiple trips to Haiti and Florida to chronicle the adoption process and the daily life of the new Helling family, capturing breakfasts, pizza nights and Christmas mornings.

“Ron has the uncanny ability of knowing when to make himself fade into the background and when to make himself seen,” says Steve Helling. “It was good for me as a journalist to experience what it’s like to have someone looking at your life and how you can intrude.”

Haviv says that being able to follow the family over such a long period made all the difference.  “It was an almost unheard of commitment from a magazine in the current editorial era,” he says. “I was able to watch these kids slowly become Haitian Americans.”

Beyond that, establishing trust with people is simply part of Haviv’s nature, and part of his job. “I think every journalist has to have the ability to bond with people and have them let you into their lives,” he says.

Understanding the Beauty of Motion

Haviv is best known for his coverage of other kinds of stories: A founder of the VII photo agency, he has become one of the most accomplished photojournalists of his generation, covering wars and the effects of conflict around the globe. He also worked as Newsweek's White House photographer during the Clinton administration.

His big break came in 1989, when a photo  he shot while covering elections in Panama—it showed supporters of dictator General Manuel Noriega bloodying the country’s recently elected opposition vice president—was published on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report in the same week. President George H.W. Bush cited the image in a speech justifying the U.S. invasion of Panama that year; the Atlantic  recently named it as a photograph that changed history.

Like many other photographers, Haviv has incorporated motion into his journalism work—though his experience goes back to the days before the DSLR video revolution. “I’ve been going down this path for a long time,” he says. “I used to carry a Sony PD150 camcorder along with my film cameras to create multimedia pieces.” One of his most moving multimedia projects, combining stills, video and sound, was an exploration of malnutrition in Bangladesh created as part of a VII project for Doctors Without Borders.

For his video pieces about the Hellings, Haviv combined video footage with his own stills from Haiti, to dramatic effect. “It was appropriate, because I was a primary source for the background visuals,” he says. He shot the video with two DSLRs, a Canon 1D X and 5D Mark III, giving him the ability to work as a filmmaker the way he has a photojournalist—unobtrusively. “I didn’t shoot with film crews,” he says, “so I could be a fly on the wall.”

Haviv never took a formal filmmaking course, but instead looked for information online and talked to other people with more experience in video. Now he’s the one sharing his knowledge. This coming weekend he will be taking part in a VII agency event called the Evolution Tour, which will be held on Saturday, Feb. 28 and Sunday, March 1 at the AbelCine store in Manhattan. (Go here  for details.) The program will include discussions and workshops about transitioning from photography to motion.

“The biggest adjustment most still photographers have to make with video,” Haviv says, “is simply accepting the beauty of motion and how it can take you from place to place within the work itself.” That means understanding the concept of editing continuity. “You also have to learn about sound,” he says. “It’s really difficult. When it works well, nobody notices, but when it doesn’t work, everyone hears the problem.”

The art of observation is something else that can go unnoticed when it’s done well, as in Haviv’s work with the Hellings. “When I first looked at Ron’s pictures and videos,” recalls Steve Helling, “I would often say, ‘Was he there for that?' I wouldn't even remember him being around.”