Interview 23 Jan 17

Capturing the Image of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia

Photojournalist Ron Haviv’s shocking image of a Serbian paramilitary kicking a woman’s corpse during the Bosnian war is one of the subjects of a forthcoming documentary about his most significant pictures.

Igor Spaic BIRN Sarajevo
A Serbian paramilitary kicks the dead body of a woman in Bosnia in 1992. Photo: Ron Haviv/VII.

Ron Haviv’s 1992 picture of a Serbian paramilitary fighter kicking the lifeless body of a middle-aged woman who his comrades had killed just moments earlier may not have changed the course of the Bosnian war like Nick Ut’s famous photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running away after a napalm attack in her village.

But to those who at that point had still not fully understood the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ - which reporters were using to describe what was going on in Bosnia and Herzegovina - the shocking photograph quickly explained how dirty the ‘cleansing’ really was.

Another photo that Haviv shot in Panama in 1989 captures newly-elected Vice-President Guillermo Ford fending off an attack by a paramilitary supporter of the dictatorial regime of Manuel Noriega.

The bloody shirt in the photo, the defensive pose and the soldier standing in the background, doing nothing to stop the attacker resulted in a photo which the US President referenced when announcing the US invasion of Panama a few months later.

Panamanian Vice-President Guillermo Ford being attacked in 1989. Photo: Ron Haviv/VII.

Now the award-winning photographer and his co-director, photojournalism professor Lauren Walsh, have decided to explore how and why these particular two of the thousands of pictures that Haviv has produced took on their own lives.

For their documentary, entitled ‘Biography of a Photo’, they travelled to Bosnia and Panama to interview people about what the two images meant for their societies.

“Do the photos still have meaning and if so, what is it?” Haviv explained in an interview with BIRN.

“There are a lot of correlations between the photo in Bosnia and the one in Panama. Although the photos are very different, the Panama one stands for the fight for democracy and obviously the photo here [in Bosnia] is a photo of a war crime, which in my opinion had no impact whatsoever when it was taken,” Haviv said.

Although the image prompted an international uproar at the time, it did nothing to change the course of the conflict. However, it did turn Haviv into a potential victim.

Taken from the small space between the front and back end of a truck in a street in the eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina, the photo portrays a senseless act that defines the mindset of those who committed war crimes during the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s.

Haviv was watching when the infamous Serbian nationalist Tigers unit, led by notorious Zeljko Raznjatovic, alias Arkan, arrived in Bijeljina. He took pictures when they took a Bosniak man and a woman out of their house, killed the man, and then the women. He took pictures when they brought out the sister of the women and shot her too, but somehow the perpetrators were not in any of the frames.

“I realised I had nothing to prove what happened, so I wanted to get a photo of the Tigers in the same frame as the bodies,” Haviv recalls.

Minutes later, a couple of fighters came around the corner and Haviv lifted his camera to capture them next to the bodies when another member of the paramilitary unit just walked into his frame and, for no reason, kicked the dead woman’s body.

The sound of Haviv’s camera made the soldiers turn around and see him but he just gave them a big smile.

Arkan demanded the film and promised to return it to Haviv after he had taken a look at the images. If he liked them, Haviv would get back the film.

But what Arkan did not know is that Haviv had previously hidden the roll with the image in the car, and had loaded a new roll and started taking more pictures.

“And then we had this ridiculous conversation about film labs in Belgrade, where I’m saying the labs there are very bad, let me process the film, I’ll bring you the pictures and you can tell me what I can use,” says Haviv.

“We argue for 15 minutes about film processing. So at this point I know my film is gone, but I want him to see I’m fighting really hard for this camera, and he doesn’t think there are any other pictures,” he adds.

Eventually Arkan took the film from Haviv’s camera, but the photographer drove back to Belgrade and filed the image from the hidden roll.

When the images were published, they produced nothing more than outrage and Arkan’s anger, including an alleged statement that he was looking forward to drinking Haviv’s blood.

Ron Haviv.

For the next eight years, Haviv tried to keep out of Arkan’s way while still covering the Balkan conflicts.

“Other photographers were arrested because they looked like me, and I narrowly missed him, mostly in Kosovo,” he said.

It took time for the photo from Bosnia to become an image of some significance. The turning point may have been its display in the courtrooms of the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague by prosecutors who were trying to describe ‘ethnic cleansing’ to the judges.

The photo then became one of the symbols of the Balkan conflicts, but was particularly significant for Bosniaks, who it reminds of the suffering they endured.

It also had other unintended consequences - a few years ago it was used as propaganda material in the war in Ukraine.

“A very famous Russian blogger had taken the Bosnia photograph from Bijeljina and had changed the caption. He wrote that the soldiers were not in fact Serbs, but were Ukrainian soldiers, and that the victims were not Bosnian Muslims, but were in fact ethnic Russians living in Ukraine,” says Haviv.

The blogger had a large following, and the photo went viral all over Russia. Haviv wrote a public statement explaining that the photo was from Bosnia not Ukraine, but he says the blogger had a much larger audience than him.

Eventually the blogger retracted it, but his retraction produced little reaction, and the photo was then displayed again with the same caption months later during a photographic exhibition in Moscow, says Haviv.

“I felt an amazing amount of disrespect for the victims in that photograph - for their sacrifice and their loss to be misused in that way. I felt also a punch in the idea of what journalism, in this case photojournalism, is supposed to be and how easily it’s becoming to knock that down,” he adds.

Haviv believes that what happened to his photograph is a small indication of the dangers that journalism and photojournalism are facing.

“This phenomenon has always been going on throughout photography, images being misused with captions being changed, different sides using photographs for different reasons,” he explains.

“But I think never before has it reached a point where it is now so dangerous, because the ability for imagery to spread so wide so quickly. And then even when there are corrections, it’s never able to correct the first instance,” he says.

Haviv and Walsh hope to have their film ready for the 2018 Sarajevo Film Festival.

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