My Lai massacre photographer admits he destroyed pictures

In 1969, Haeberle told The Plain Dealer that he had made no effort to photograph actual killings. He evaded the issue during interviews with Army investigators.

Last week, he said something distinctly different. “I shot pictures of the shooting,” he said. “But those photographs were destroyed.”

By the Army?

“By me.”

-an interview with Ron Haeberle by the Cleveland Plain Dealer

This story’s a bit old, but it’s the first I’ve encountered it. Ron Haeberle, US Army photographer during the Vietnam War, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2009 that he took photos of soldiers in the act of killing during the My Lai massacre but destroyed the negatives. Haeberle’s photos of the event were the first published evidence of the massacre, but did not show any identifiable soldiers. In the video embedded above (and on the Plain Dealer site) Haeberle states that he destroyed any such photos, not wanting to point fingers at particular soldiers and feeling a shared sense of guilt for being part of the coverup of the incident.

David Quigg’s post on the subject, where I first heard about this, makes an interesting point about the journalistic value of the remaining photos: because photos showing clear evidence of the killing were destroyed, the remaining photos no longer serve to tell the full and true story of the event. As Haeberle says in the interview, the surviving photos “aren’t worth anything unless somebody actually talks about them.” This provides a clear example of how factual and unmanipulated photos can nevertheless deceive the viewer into thinking a full account has been given when the real story, in fact, remains hidden or obscured. I should be careful here to acknowledge that Haeberle’s decision to take any photos and come forward with some remains an important, courageous, and valuable act.

Seymour Hersh‘s written account of the event for the St. Louis Post Dispatch won the Pulitzer for International Reporting in 1970.

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