Behind the camera: Ronald L. Haeberle
Where: Sơn Mỹ village, Sơn Tịnh district of South Vietnam
Photo Summary: Victims of the My Lai massacre
Picture Taken: March 16, 1968
In the early 70s, a poster was created to protest the Vietnam War. It combined photos taken by U.S. Army combat photographer Ronald L. Haeberle and a quote from a Mike Wallace CBS News television interview. Due to the ambiguous copyright status of the photo, it has appeared in numerous media including newspapers, magazines, poster runs, etc.
Creating the poster
In 1970 a group of Vietnam War activists called the Art Worker’s Coalition (AWC) created the And babies poster. AWC members Irving Petlin, Jon Hedricks, and Fraser Dougherty took text from an ABC interview, “And babies? And babies” and overlaid it onto the Haeberle’s photo. Peter Brandt donated enough paper for fifty thousand copies of the poster. While printing the printer staff showed intense hostility towards the AWC as the blue-collar workers were patriotic to the core and viewed any attack on government policy as an attack on the country. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) initially agreed to distribute the poster as a political statement that it was outraged by the My Lai massacre. Another obstacle encountered was when it went to MoMA directors William S. Paley and Nelson Rockefeller vetoed distributing it under the policy that the MoMA could not commit, “to any position on any matter not directly related to a specific function of the museum.” While they refused to fund the distribution they relented to allow independent distribution but the MoMA name could be used as the source of the creation. The poster was quickly snapped up and was spread and reproduced all over the world.
Exposing the photo
Only one week from finishing his tour of duty Ronald Haeberle was an Army photographer (31st Public Information Detachment) when on March 16, 1968, he accompanied Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division on an operation to the Sơn Mỹ village, Sơn Tịnh district of South Vietnam. On that day the Americans killed around three to five hundred villagers in what would become known as the My Lai Massacre. Haeberle later testified that he personally saw about 30 different American soldiers kill about 100 civilians. He recalled that he saw “Guys were about to shoot [the villagers]. I yelled, ‘hold it’, and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M16s open up. From the corner of my eye, I saw bodies falling, but I didn’t turn to look.” In another interview, he remembers that he ” didn’t make it to certain parts of the village where other things were going on, the rapes and the cutting of tongues and scalping and all that stuff. I didn’t see any of that.
The massacre would go unnoticed by the public until Haeberle haunted by his role in the event started to publish his pictures and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh took up the story after collaborating Haeberle’s pictures with the interviews from those involved in the massacre. Hersh tried to get his story published but most refused to believe that the event actually happened. Then a small publication the, The Plain Dealer, the major daily newspaper of Cleveland, Ohio was approached by Haeberle. Mike Roberts, a Plain Dealer Washington bureau reporter remembers that “No one believed [Hersh’s story] Bill Ware, the [Plain Dealer’s] executive editor, called; he wasn’t sure if we should go with it. Almost simultaneously, this kid comes forward with these pictures — Haeberle’s photographs legitimized the story.” In the course of verifying Haeberle story an Army prosecutor named Aubrey Daniel called and in strong language suggested that the paper halt publication of the photos. Another reporter at the paper remembered “Daniel told us, ‘You have no right to run those photos because [Haeberle] was using an Army camera,… And we told him he’d had his own camera, too.”
Eventually, 20 months after Charlie Company had mowed down hundreds of Vietnamese Hersh’s story was published and was picked up on the wire by over 30 publications. Around the same time, Haeberle got his gory photos published in LIFE magazine for $20,000. The media coverage combined with the efforts of soldier Ron Ridenhour exposed the massacre to the world. Ridenhour had found out about the event through other soldiers and when he returned to America started a letter campaign that was mostly ignored until Congressman Morris Udall (D) started to investigate. For his persistence in trying to get the story published Seymour Hersh received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.
On December 14, 1969, Mike Wallace, with CBS News, did a television interview with one of the soldiers, Paul Meadlo, who participated in the massacre. The text for the poster was taken from this interview:
Q:How many people did you round up?
A:Well, there was about forty, fifty people that we gathered in the center of the village. And we placed them in there, and it was like a little island, right there in the center of the village, I7d say … And …
Q:What kind of people – men, women, children?
A:Men, women, children.
A:Babies. And we huddled them up. We made them squat down and Lieutenant Calley came over and said, “You know what to do with them don’t you?” And I said yes. So I took it for granted that he just wanted us to watch them. And he left, and came back about ten or fifteen minutes later and said, “How come you ain’t killed them yet?” And I told him that I didn’t think you wanted us to kill them, that you just wanted us to guard them. He said, “No, I want them dead.” So-
Q:He told this to all of you, or to you particularly?
A:Well, I was facing him. So, but the other three, four, guys heard it and so he stepped back about ten, fifteen feet, and he started shooting them. And he told me to start shooting. So I started shooting, I poured about four clips into the group.
Q:You fired four clips from your …
Q:And that’s about how many clips – I mean, how many –
A:I carried seventeen rounds to each clip.
Q:So you fired something like sixty-seven shots?
Q:And you killed how many? At that time?
A:Well, I fired them automatic, so you can’t know hom any you killed ’cause they were going fast. So I might have killed ten or fifteen of them.
A:Men, women and children?
Q:Men, women and children.
Copy right status
Ronald L. Haeberle took the photo while in the American military as a US army combat photographer. As such any work, he did as a government employee should fall into the public domain. However, Haeberle used multiple cameras; the first was his black and white Army issued camera and the second was his personal camera that used color film. Therefore the copyright is uncertain as he used his own camera to take the, “And babies”, poster photo. Further clouding the status of the photo is that text is overlapped over of the photo making it an altered original work of art, much like the more modern Fairey Obama Poster. Regardless of the poster status, just the photo was published by Time/Life and Haeberle granted reproduction rights to the AWC without charge on December 16, 1970.
John Morris, the photo editor for The New York Times at the time remembers:
In late morning, we received word that London papers, copying the photos from The Plain Dealer, were going ahead without payment, ignoring the copyright. The New York Post followed, in its early afternoon edition. Rosenthal decreed that it would now be ridiculous for The Times to pay. We would publish “as a matter of public interest.” The next day, November 22,  The Times ran one My Lai picture on page three—downplayed to avoid sensationalism.