A mourner at his mother’s funeral, at the national cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 1987 ©Maggie Steber.

Why We Make Photographs

Maggie Steber on fighting ones corner, turning the camera on yourself, the quiet heroism of photo editors, and that “University of Missouri look”

Jun 17, 2015 · 9 min read

As a documentary photographer Maggie Steber has racked up awards. As a newspaper photo editor and teacher she has given advice, support and energy to thousands. She strikes a fine balance between respect for her subjects and respect for her audience; sometimes her images are difficult, but then so is the world. Always, Steber’s images are life-affirming.

For Blink, Kyla Woods talks to Steber about what she looks for in images and in image-makers. Tech might be changing things but it’s still all about the story. And it’s always been about solid ideas.

Kyla Woods (KM): You are a photographer, but you were also a picture editor?

Maggie Steber (MS): Yes, I am a documentary photographer. I have worked in sixty-five countries, and I have been doing this for a long time.

I have created several long-term projects; one on Haiti, where I still work after thirty years. Another was about my mother, who for eight years suffered from memory loss. Initially, those images were made just for myself. However, it ended up becoming a project that I made public because of what I learned. Not only about how to ensure better care for people, but also in terms of witnessing the end of somebody’s life who meant something to you.

A portrait of Madje, Steber’s mother. From the series Madje Has Dementia

I was also a picture editor and a director of photography at a major newspaper. I love looking at pictures taken by other people — I could do it all day. I am just thrilled with the idea that everybody sees something different.

KW: How long have you worked in the media industry?

MS: I am elusive about it, but let’s just say a long time.

The reason that I am elusive is that I am concerned about age discrimination. In the sense that when you’ve been around for a long time people know of you, but they think, “Oh, she does this, she does that.” There is less sense of adventure about you, less mystery or surprise and so one has to work constantly to reinvent one’s self.

Haitian soldiers go after a child attempting to steal a box of food aid from beneath a shuttered warehouse door pried open during food riots in Cap-Haitien one week before the riots lead to the fall of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship. January, 1986. Photo: Maggie Steber.

KW: Can I ask you about this pigeon-holing. Is it a prevailing mentality in the industry?

MS: There are many photographers and a lot of them specialize in a specific genre or visual language or subject, and then they become known for that. However, even if they do specialize, they might change stylistically in the future.

In the meantime, there are people like me who love to do a lot of different things. I have also had the good fortune to be affiliated with National Geographic for many years, but now people think that this is all I do.

“There was a ‘University of Missouri Look’ which was very classic and beautiful. The composition and structure were distinct. You could see it everywhere.”

There is such a plethora of talent now, so picture editors have to organize photographers into categories because often they have to find somebody to do an assignment in five minutes. Editors also have a tendency to look at a body of work, especially at portfolio reviews, and they are unable to step outside of the box of their magazine and see the work for what it is. This doesn’t especially serve a photographer at a portfolio review because it is a critique that comes from a narrow point of view.

Picture editors, the unsung heroes of this industry, have the ability to make photographers look great. At the same time, they can make them look terrible. They battle on our behalf and on behalf of our pictures, and many photographers have no idea about what a tough battle that can be.

KW: How has visual storytelling evolved over the years?

MS: When I was learning about photography, I found inspiration in Robert Frank and Eugene Smith. There were some Life Magazine photographers who created great work. Bill Eppridge did a great story on Needle Park. But I think they tended to have a certain look.

There was also a kind of University of Missouri look, which was very classic and beautiful. I didn’t go to school there, but many photographers did, and they had this beautiful visual style that lasted a long time. The composition and structure were distinct, and you could see it everywhere.

One prevalent problem is that photographers keep taking the same pictures over and over again. The issues never change. There will always be poverty, war, famine, and abuse. All of these things are issues that photographers feel compelled to capture.

A corpse in the alcove of home along a well-traveled pathway in the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during one of the many struggles toward democratic elections since the fall of the 30-year dictatorship of the feared and hated Duvalier family regime. The death was a warning to Haitians that if they voted in an upcoming election, this would be their fate. 1987. Photo: Maggie Steber.

If we keep taking the same kind of pictures, viewers will feel a visual fatigue in regards to the sameness of photographic approach and visual reporting. As photographers we have to think: ‘How can we take new kinds of pictures that look different but still tell the story in an intimate way?’

“One prevalent problem is that photographers keep taking the same pictures over and over again.”

Now, photography is moving towards a more contemporary look. Some pictures are very obvious, and there is nothing wrong with that. Those are genuine, honest images. But, if we’ve seen them before, we play less attention. Something that is quite contemporary is when photographers tell personal stories about their families. For example, Diana Markosian’s photo essay “Inventing my Father” and Jen Davis’ work on her body weight. There are others, of course.

Madje had good days and bad ones. She went through stages of kicking, scratching, screaming, wandering, anger, fear, paranoia and gentle behavior, stages that all dementia victims suffer from and which pass.
Madje Steber enjoys her morning coffee in her bedroom at Midtown Manor where she resides in Hollywood, Florida.
Maggie Steber photographed her mother through the process of the memory loss. From the series
Madje Has Dementia.

MS: I love that idea of turning the camera on ourselves. As photographers, we are always asking people to reveal so much about themselves, and it’s only fair that photographers also do that. The extraordinary thing I learned is that we can save ourselves through photography.

KW: What role do you think technology is playing in this modern day visual storytelling?

MS: It has certainly impacted photography in a way that has been both good and challenging.

The audience has exponentially expanded, and new technological inventions have seen interactive media become a commonly used tool. As a user, you can have an immersive experience, and this inspires you to find out more information on different subjects. But because of the easy availability of people to have access to smartphones, or cheaper cameras, everyone has become a photographer. I love the democracy of this idea so much but there is also an important professional aspect that many would-be or emerging photographers are not aware of.

Haitian policeman stands on shore as an accused robber wades in from the harbor after being caught in the act and trying to escape by jumping into the harbor in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Once the man reached shore, a second policeman (not shown) raised his rifle and shot the man in the head, an example of the lack of a proper justice system in the tiny country. Photo: Maggie Steber.

KW: Do you believe there is a degree of advocacy in compelling visual storytelling?

MS: Yes. However, the Internet has allowed it to reach a broader audience — and this is why it seems to be abundant.

The Everyday Project on Instagram is a great example of that. Peter DiCampo, a photojournalist and the co-founder of Everyday Africa, was tired of seeing the tragedy, suffering, war, and disease that had befallen parts of Africa. As a result, he created an account that displayed positive images of Africa, on a platform with a large audience. Images shape the way we think about people and places, and if we only see dark images, we do not see the full picture.

Everyday Climate Change is also another great example. Humanity is at a point where advocacy needs to be integrated into storytelling.

“Research is essential — you need to look at what is out there on that subject so that you understand what you have to do differently.”

KW: Can you talk about the problems that young professionals face?

MS: There are many young photographers who don’t understand that if you work in this profession, it’s for the long haul. It’s an industry that requires ideas, energy, a lot of very hard work and believing in your ideas — because often, no one else does.

Young photographers also need to have the discipline to observe. When you start shooting, think about things and how a big subject can be boiled down into something manageable. Sometimes we can tell the story of many through the story of one or how you can relate the story of one to the story of many. Research is essential — you need to look at what is out there on that subject so that you understand what you have to do differently. This industry is tough and competitive, but it can also enable you to lead a remarkable life.

There are some photographers who have been discovered, and they become overnight stars. However, they are not prepared for what follows. Suddenly everybody wants you, and you can burn out so fast! I’ve seen it happen even in my generation, where people became overwhelmed; they didn’t know how to say no, and they burned out.

“Picture editors are the unsung heroes of this industry. They battle on our behalf and on behalf of our pictures, and many photographers have no idea about what a tough battle that can be.”

KW: You are a judge for the Instagram/Getty Grant — can I ask what qualities you will be looking for in submissions?

MS: The theme is designed to shed light on underrepresented communities. I believe that all the judges will be looking for this.

At the same time, I am looking for stories — the same stories we have seen throughout the years, but told in a new way perhaps with a new approach, visually and philosophically, or something that has a different point of view. I hope some people are thinking about animals, too, as these are communities that are underrepresented.

The work submitted doesn’t even have to be story-related. It could be an essay, or work that is so out of this world, but it must give voice or shine a spotlight on underrepresented communities.

‘Happy Birthday Madje’. Madje Steber smiles on the morning of her 86th birthday in her room at Midtown Manor in Hollywood, Fl, Aug. 16, 2006.
Madje suffers from dementia and goes in and out of memory loss. Photo: Maggie Steber.

Maggie Steber is a documentary photographer. Her honors include the Leica Medal of Excellence, World Press Photo Foundation, the Overseas Press Club, Pictures of the Year, the Alicia Patterson Grant, the Ernst Haas Grant, and a Knight Foundation grant for the New American Newspaper project. Steber was the Asst. Managing Editor of Photography and Features at The Miami Herald, overseeing Pulitzer winning projects. She served as a jurist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize awards. Clients include National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, AARP, The Guardian, and Geo Magazine. She has taught workshops at the World Press Joop Swart Master Classes, International Center for Photography and Foundry Workshops.

Kyla Woods works as a freelance writer specializing in current affairs, photography, and design. Her work has appeared in Long Cours, Le Figaro, Le Point, This is the What, and Foam Magazine. She writes regularly for Musée Magazine, Peril Magazine. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Kyla is based in New York.

Originally published on the blog of Blink

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Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

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