SUMMIT, NJ – The strife and human rights atrocities that occur in war-torn or famine-stricken countries and territories around the world are stories that must be told. For Ron Haviv there is a moral imperative that guides his work as a photojournalist, a responsibility to tell a story with photos of what really happens around the globe.
Haviv specializes in documenting human rights issues and the human impact on war and strife in places that most Americans only see on TV news.
“We have a real ability to influence events for the better in the world,” Haviv told an audience of 200 hundred Summit High School students on Wednesday. “That starts with you being educated.”
Haviv was the main speaker on Wednesday at Summit High School’s Human Rights Day. The program was sponsored by a grant from the Summit Education Foundation and supported by high school photo teacher Don Standing.
Standing produces the event in conjunction with two English teachers, Greg Valaca and Denise Velez. Humanities teacher, Bob Kish, led off the program with a presentation on concentration camps. In preparation for the program Valaca and Velez had students spend a week reading books on human rights and genocide.
“From my perspective as a teacher, my job is to show the students how this stuff exists out in the world,” Standing said. “It’s one thing to learn [by coming] to class and it’s another to meet someone who was witnessing these events first hand and to show them that these things exist.”
Haviv had just returned from Egypt where he witnessed the public demands for the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak. He was there to photograph and videotape the massive protests and witness the exuberance over the former president’s resignation on Feb. 11.
“It was an experience being in Cairo seeking Mubarak leave and seeing the birth of a new country,” Haviv said, but noted the challenges that he and other journalists faced in obtaining images.
“In Egypt, journalists were being attacked,’ Haviv said. “It’s easy for regimes and people who don’t want the world to know what is going on to attack the messenger.”
Haviv showed his audience of students several documentary multimedia vignettes of photos and video with narration. They often featured a close-up look at people torn by their troubled surroundings
“There are times when I tried to take photos of a war crime and a gun was put to my head,” Haviv said. “Now people are very aware of photographs and the power they can have so they try to make sure that no one can see what is going on.”
Other vignette topics included human suffering in Bosnia and even a short documentary on gang violence in Los Angeles.
“It is very difficult to be in these extreme situations," Haviv said. “Going back to my work in Yugoslavia traveling with troops and then watching them commit war crimes in front of me was really difficult. It was difficult to take pictures without them knowing that I took the photographs. After I took them I was put on the death list...”
Students, for their part, developed a new-found appreciation for the process of photojournalism as a craft and for gaining unfiltered insight into world events.
“It was interesting to hear a first hand account of what was going on in all the situations,” said photo student Max Frank. “It’s cool to hear his opinion on things as opposed to looking at the images on your own behind the scenes."
“It was awesome to see and hear his video about Egypt because all we hear is media but a first hand account is pretty awesome,” offered Ben Tolles. “We have a better appreciation for what they do.”
Others said that they are now able to see world events in a new way. “It’s nice to see the actual truth,” said Hannah Pollinger. "A lot of people think it’s easy to take a picture but it really can be a life-threatening experience.”
While Haviv realizes that having guns pointed at one’s head does not sound appealing, he said he hopes that his presentation empowers young people to educate themselves about issues that are occurring in the world.
“I hope that they get a sense of the career aspect of it that there are various ways to be able to make your dream happen,” Haviv said. “The other thing is that...when they vote and sign petitions they can have an impact. They are going to be making the choices. Photography is one of the ways of learning."