This year marks the 15th anniversary of the photo agency VII, with New York-based Ron Haviv among its esteemed original seven founding members. While the agency has expanded and some of its stable of photographers has changed, the goal remains the same, to supply the world with powerful images and dynamic photo essays.
Haviv’s own coverage has focused on conflict and humanitarian crises ranging from the fighting in the Balkans and Afghanistan to earthquake recovery in Haiti and malnutrition in Bangladesh and Darfur. Haviv is one of the foremost photojournalists of our era.
Digital Photo Pro: What was the catalyst for creating VII?
Ron Haviv: VII came about around the time when Bill Gates with Corbis and Mark Getty at Getty were trying to solidify a hold on image content, realizing that imagery would be incredibly important in the digital revolution. So they started buying up small- and medium-sized agencies. And Saba, run by Marcel Saba, was one of those that was bought by Corbis. Four of the founding members of VII—Gary Knight, John Stanmeyer, Antonin Kratochvil and myself—were represented by Saba.
Watching what was happening in the business, we realized that we were not in complete control of our photographic careers—we were reliant on other people to direct the selling, licensing, distribution, a lot of the business aspects that then combine themselves with the creative, artistic directions of the work. So Gary and John started throwing some ideas around about how to take better control. We looked at what Magnum and Network and other cooperatives had done and decided because of digital technology we would put a new twist on something that had already been done that would not require a huge investment, because the practice of distribution was changing. Having to make multiple dupes and having a large office staff was a thing of the past. We asked Chris Morris, Alexandra Boulat and Jim Nachtwey to join. We realized that some clients would be very happy dealing with bigger companies that could do more one-stop shopping and that there would be some that would appreciate a more boutique approach working with photographers single-mindedly dedicated to working in the realm of human rights and social issues and documenting the world around us.
Digital Photo Pro: How do you develop ideas for both individual and group projects?
Haviv: Each one of us has complete autonomy, there’s no direction from the agency, everyone does what they want to do, and they use VII as a distribution network. Then there are times when we’re doing group projects such as our collaborations with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres). The first successful one was a book project about the Congo when nobody was talking about the war there. So myself, Gary, Jim, Antonin and Joachim Ladefoged got together. I created a pitch for the project with them and Doctors Without Borders bought into it, and we ended up with a powerful body of work which helped create awareness about what was going on in the Congo at the time.
For me, a lot of my foundation was formed over a 10-year period covering the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. I learned about the power and, more importantly, the limitations of what photography can do to effect change on the ground. I created a book, a short film and an exhibition that’s a permanent instillation in a number of museums in the Balkans and continues to resonate to this day, with much of the work being used in the war crimes tribunals in the ICTY, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Digital Photo Pro: Was the work in the Balkans a personal project or assigned?
Haviv: In the beginning it was self-assigned. At that point, I had started working with Marcel Saba. He believed in the story and he believed in me, so we would share the expenses, then he would try and recoup the money through sales.
Digital Photo Pro: Do you see that approach with a lot of the photographers at VII, not waiting around for the phone to ring but going out and creating a body of work on a project they feel driven to pursue?
Haviv: Absolutely. Especially today, where it’s not as normal as it once was for the phone to ring with the voice on the other end saying, “Go here.” “Go there.” For the photographers at VII, when one of us believes that a story is important, whether it’s news or a feature, we’re going to pursue it and try and get it done the best way we can.
Digital Photo Pro: Both on personal and assigned projects, you and your colleagues often put yourself in harms way cover conflict and humanitarian crises. Why have you focused on these subject matters?
Haviv: My first two widely successful photographs built the foundation for what I believe as a photographer. The first was in Panama, which ended up on the cover of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News of Guillermo Ford being attacked. When the U.S. invaded Panama, President George H.W. Bush spoke about the photograph as part of his explanation of why the invasion was taking place. I started to understand the power of photography being able to play a role in the conversation. It wasn’t about whether I agreed with the invasion or not.
Then a few years later, taking a photo in Bosnia where I documented a war crime. It was evidence of what everyone had already been talking about—that unless there was intervention in Bosnia, it was going to be a very brutal war. And the photographs were ignored. The war started and lasted for almost four years, and thousands were killed and millions became refugees, and it led to another couple of wars. There I realized the limitations of photography in its immediacy, but as time went on that work took on a life of its own and became a body of evidence to hold people accountable for their actions and their inactions.
With that understanding of what my colleagues and I do, especially in places where there’s danger, where there are risks not only to the people we’re photographing but to ourselves, it’s important to have that voice. Even if that voice doesn’t always have an immediate impact, it does over time, it does change people’s minds, it does educate people. It motivates people to donate or vote in a different way. I find that a very valuable.
Digital Photo Pro: How did you “discover” photography?
Haviv: I came late to photography. I studied journalism at NYU to be a writer. In my third year in college, my uncle, who is a serious hobby photographer, gave me a camera, and at the same time a friend of mine was very into photography, so I started to get exposed to the medium. Also, to help pay for school, one of the jobs I had was working with fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo. I was carrying his portfolios around and got to see the way the business worked. That further exposed me to photography as a possible career. For reasons still unknown to me, I decided that I would rather tell stories with photographs rather than words. I took an introduction to photography class at NYU and basically self-taught myself from there, then hit the streets of New York and entered this magical world of photojournalism. I became an intern at a small newspaper, The New York City Tribune, then an intern at Agence France-Presse, learning as much as I could from everyone around me.
Digital Photo Pro: Whether you’re shooting assignments for a small newspaper or a major publication, the assignments are often variations of the same themes such as environmental portraits and reportage. It’s a great way to learn.
Haviv: Absolutely, and for all the day-to-day stuff I was out there with the guys from AP, The New York Times and so on. So while relatively few people got to see my work, I could compare my work to those photographers covering the same stories as well as learning from the director of photography at the paper.
Digital Photo Pro: What equipment are you working with these days?
Haviv: It depends on the story. I just started shooting with the Fuji mirrorless cameras for smaller, more intimate moments. For video and harder stories such as shooting in conflict zones, I’m using Canon, either the C series for video or the 1D X and the 5D series. I’m a big fan of primes for the Canon, especially the 50mm f/1.2 lenses and the 35mm f/1.4, and the equivalent focal lengths on the non-full-frame Fuji. For video on the Canon, I’m often using the 24-105mm.
Digital Photo Pro: What’s the idea behind your recent book The Lost Rolls?
Haviv: I had over 200 rolls of film from 1988 to 2012 that I hadn’t processed. Often on assignment, I would have a third body, a panoramic or 2 ¼, or I might shoot some black and white on a color story, then ask the client, if there was one, “Do you want to see another version of the story?” A lot of times they would say, “We’re good with what you provided.” And I would put that roll or rolls away thinking I would process it or them later. Then there were situations where I shot tungsten film outside by mistake and personal work such as a girlfriend or something like that. I also had a series on nightclubs in New York. I had never been able to sell the idea and didn’t process the film at the time because I couldn’t afford it. The Lost Rolls is basically a collection of my personal and professional life over 25 years.
Digital Photo Pro: How did the early color film hold up?
Haviv: Terribly. Going back to the idea of memory, there are times where I don’t remember some of the photographs, and it’s mirrored by the physical degradation of the film. Some of the young people looking at the exhibit at Photoville in Brooklyn said, “Oh, I have that filter on my phone.” I explained that it’s not a filter, it’s the results of light leaks, color shifts, X-ray machines or mold on the negative—nature’s Photoshop. The black and white, while sometimes frayed at the edges, held up the best. Fourteen of the rolls that were part of the project were Kodachrome, which as far as I know is no longer processed, so Blue Moon developed them as tinted black and white.
Digital Photo Pro: What was the catalyst for deciding to process all of these rolls?
Haviv: Dan Milnor at Blurb said, “Let’s do a project together.” They wanted to show the quality of their offset printing, which they’re doing in addition to on-demand printing. I said, “I’ve got all this film, if you guys want to process it and see what I have…” We started with a few rolls.
The book project looks at memory and how it relates to photography. It’s a nod to the end of the analog era. There are many photographs where I don’t remember where I was and what was happening. That’s impossible today with digital where you always have the time and date and often a GPS location.
The project is going to enter a second phase called “Lost Rolls America.” I’m partnering with Fujifilm North America and PhotoShelter. We’re asking people to send in a roll of their own lost roll. I’ve been speaking to many people, and there’s always at least 60 percent of the audience that has a roll of film tucked away in a drawer that they forgot about or didn’t care about or were about to throw away. Fuji will process and scan the roll for free, then upload it to a secure FTP. The viewer can then chose one or two images that mean something to them and write about it, then upload it to a visual archive that we’ve created. The difference between Vivian Maier and Garry Winogrand and “Lost Rolls America” is that people are writing about their memories and the circumstances around the photograph, and how it relates to them today. We are creating a national archive of lost memories.
Digital Photo Pro: How are you archiving both your personal body of work and the massive amount of photography created by the photographers of VII?
Haviv: Thankfully for great technology and partners like PhotoShelter and others, we have the ability to protect our work and make sure it’s always accessible. We were with Corbis for quite awhile. We’re going back to partnering with Marcel Saba at Redux to handle our archives. Each one of the VII photographers has individual archives in our studios and redundancies. PhotoShelter is the backend of the VII structure that we’ll integrate with Redux. PhotoShelter allows the individual photographer as well as companies to have a very robust distribution system.