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What We Learned This Week: Ron Haeberle Recalls Shooting the My Lai Massacre in 1968

By David Schonauer   Friday December 6, 2019


“I have to live with it,” says Ron Haeberle.

By “it,” he means the murder of 504 unarmed civilians — mostly women and children — by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Some of the women were raped and their bodies mutilated, as were girls as young as 12. The incident took place in two hamlets, My Lai and My Khe.

Haeberle was at the scene on March 16, 1968, working as a U.S. Army photographer, just one week before he was scheduled to return to the United States. He recorded the aftermath of what happened.

The My Lai Massacre, as it would come to be known, was initially covered up by the U.S. Army. Eventually the truth came out: Investigative journalist Seymour “Sy” Hersh first reported on the incident in a story that appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in early November, 1969. But the truth was so horrific that many news editors around the country didn’t believe was Hersh had written: The story was picked up by only 33 other newspapers.

Then, on November 20, 1969, the Cleveland Plain Dealer became the first news outlet to publish Haeberle’s pictures. (Hersh had been unaware of their existence when he wrote his story.) The images made the truth inescapable. Later they were published widely, appearing in both Life and Look magazines.

Last month, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of the photographs, Haeberle spoke to students at Ohio University about the impact of the images — not only on the country, but on himself.

“I have to live with it,” he said. “It’s reality. When I go back, I pay my respects to the victims.”

The National Press Photographers Association was on hand at the event, during which Haeberle and Hersh recalled how the images brought the horror of Vietnam home to America.

Haeberle noted that he documented the massacre with two different cameras — a military-issue Leica loaded with black-and-white film and his own Nikon F, which he used to shoot Ektachrome color film. “Haeberle was accustomed to photographs being censured by his commanders and had become discriminating on what he photographed with his military-issued camera,” noted the NPPA.

The color pictures he made with his own camera where his own property, and he brought them home, though he didn’t develop the film for a month after arriving back in the U.S.

Why did he wait so long? He told student that he needed to process what he’d seen and documented. “These photographs don’t mean anything until you start talking about them,” Haeberle said.

In the aftermath of Hersh’s reporting and the publication of Haeberle’s pictures, 26 U.S. soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was given a life sentence but served only three and a half years under house arrest. The war crime was later called "the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War.”

Here are some of the other photo stories we spotlighted this week:
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1. For Frank Ockenfels 3, A Long-Delayed and Marvelous Book

Acclaimed for his portraits of musicians and artists made over the span of several decades, photographer Frank Ockelfels 3 has only now published his first book. ”I didn't want to do a book just to do a book," he told PPD. "This is the book I wanted to do." It is, he says, a window into his visual thinking — what he calls "the insanity of my mind." And it might not have happened had he not gotten a call from Los Angeles photo dealer David Fahey, who told him it was time to begin thinking about his artistic legacy. Fahey is now featuring Ockenfel's work at his Fahey/Klein Gallery through Jan. 11, 2020.


2. Historic Photographer of the Year 2019

The Historic Photographer of the Year contest has announced the winners and shortlisted images of its third-annual competition. The work features everything from ancient stone circles in the UK to Islamic architecture in Pakistan. Contest judges apply not only aesthetic criteria when choosing winners, but also add weight to the historical narrative behind each image. The top prize goes to French photographer Stéphane Hurel for a shot of artificial harbors, called Mulberry harbors, used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.


3. The Art of Waiting ... for Public Transit

German photographer Dieter Leistner has spent the past 40 years taking pictures of people waiting at train stations and bus stops. Now collected in the book Waiting: People in Transit, his photographs, made in countries around the world, document the evolution of fashion, architecture and transport, noted CNN. Leistner has also been able to observe the changing habits of people with time on their hands: We now smoke less and read fewer physical books, he said. Instead, we’re on our cell phones.


4. Photographer Lynn Goldsmith and Muse Patti Smith

Patti Smith can't remember when she met Lynn Goldsmith. "Patti just tells people, 'Lynn has always been in my life," noted Goldsmith in an interview with PPD. Likewise, Goldsmith, the noted rock-and-roll photographer, can't remember when she met Smith. "But I don't want to say the same thing as Patti," says Goldsmith, "so I make stuff up. I'll say, 'I met Patti on a glacier.'" Whatever the truth, their long history is apparent in the intimate images of Smith that Goldsmith has shot over the years, now collected in the book Before Easter After.


5. This Hyperlapse Was Made With 1,272 Instagram Pics


“We’re getting to a point where it feels like just about everywhere on earth has been photographed from every angle. And then posted to Instagram,” noted DIY Photography. Art director Sam Morrison used that abundance to his advantage to create a 57-second hyperlapse of New York City. The film is made from 1,272 crowdsourced photos he found on the social network. Morrison sifted through some 100,000 photos on Instagram using location tags and hashtags, then sorted and animated in After Effects.
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At top: From Dieter Leistner's Waiting: People in Transit

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