Maggie Steber is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and internationally known documentary photographer and educator whose work has appeared in major magazines, newspapers, and book anthologies, as well as worldwide exhibitions. A member of VII Photo Agency, she is best known for her National Geographic photo essays and her humanistic documentation of Haiti, depicted in the book Dancing on Fire: Photographs from Haiti. Maggie has worked as a picture editor for Associated Press, contract photographer for Newsweek, and director of photography at The Miami Herald. Her work can be found at the Library of Congress and in private collections.
She recently won the coveted National Geographic 'Photographer's Photographer Awards" and will be coming to Santa Fe to teach her class Portraits That Tell Stories March 3 - 8, 2019.
SFPW: You have mentioned how in many ways, portraiture is a common thread between different schools of photography. How would you define portraiture and what it means to the art of image making?
Maggie Steber: Almost any kind of story one is telling, no matter the subject, I include animals in this, includes a portrait. If you think about the face as a roadmap of someone’s life, there are stories there, embedded in every line, every wrinkle, every expression. The face does something that no other part of the body can do. It has an expression, it shows emotions and reactions, it lets us smile, eat, drink, see, kiss….it is how the world measures us, right or wrong as that can be. It is the archive of our lives.
Many people regard portraiture as being a photograph of someone’s face and use lighting and angles and expressions to tell us something about the person but quite often it is also an expression of how the photographer sees the person. Sometimes that kind of portrait tells us something about the person….that they are beautiful or ugly (by various measuring sticks), that their lives have been hard, that they are happy…a myriad of things that photographers try to capture. And sometimes it is about objects that mean something to someone, those can be very important clues to what someone has experienced and what their lives have been like….what is important to them, what they treasure or fear or love. What I like to do is to make the portrait go beyond the face and tell a story that is more obvious so that the viewer gets to see something more than what we look like and instead tells us what is important to the person as well. Everyone has an opinion of what a portrait is. I think there is a lot of lovely work being done in portraiture that is direct and just includes the face, the way the person sits, how they are lit….sometimes that’s enough. But for me, it is just the beginning of someone’s story and I think it’s much more challenging to make a portrait that also tells a story and that’s almost always what I’m looking for. But it is certainly one of the basics of photography and art. We often start with this but it doesn’t have to be the end of a person, it can be the door that if opened wider tells us more.
SFPW: You have worked on projects as diverse as Haiti, the Cherokee Nation, Dubai, and the African Slave Trade; how do you approach engaging with cultures outside of your own? What is your process for understanding different communities and histories?
Maggie Steber: When I’m going into someone’s life or a different culture, I read the history of that culture or event. I listen to the music and look at the art, I read the poetry and even sometimes fiction written by people whose culture I’m entering. I learn as much as I can, sometimes even interviewing people, and then I go in like I know absolutely nothing and I let the people of that culture teach me. I sit and listen well before I take photographs because only then can I hope to get to the truth, as much as someone from the outside can do. I go in like a blank piece of paper ready to be written on, like a baby being taught by those wiser than myself. And to be honest, it gives me the greatest personal joy because I do learn something and perhaps the most important thing is that I get to learn that there are so many ways to look at the world and at people. And in the end it is the people of those cultures whose opinion matters most to me.
If they like what I have done, that validates it for me more than anything else and I get to revel in the knowledge of others.
SFPW: Many of the projects you have worked on in the past have also been based around more abstract and scientific concepts which aren't inherently ‘visual’. How do you approach creating imagery for themes such as the science of sleep or dementia?
Maggie Steber: These kinds of stories are always challenging. First of all you have to study what these things mean and their importance and then try to get away from the myriad of images that have already been made. Sometimes that’s tough because for example there are only so many ways you can photograph people sleeping….we think. In truth, sleep is affected by environment, age, circumstances, family, jobs, and of course science. So many science studies are done and I look for those as one way that scientists continually look at sleep patterns, even of other animals to measure human sleep patterns. There are many many scientific tests that one can photograph in the lab. We can also look at what happens with sleep deprivation as in a new mother who has to get up numerous times at night to calm a baby.
There really is a lot to photograph but you have to study it and think about it. Dementia is a whole other thing. There objects are important because they tell us about the person through letters, objects, possessions, environments. But in dementia, I’m looking for who the person was and who they are, not defined by memory loss but what evidence is still there about who they are. In the case of my mother, I constantly photographed her for nine years, to pass the time when she slept, to chronicle her various moods and what happens to the body, the good and bad days, the care given to people (or not), but in my case, I photographed my mother so I would never forget who she was and what she looked like, I think sometimes I even did it so that one day when she died, it would not seem so foreign to me, as strange as that sounds. What I discovered in staying the course was that I could be the warrior for her and even more importantly, I got to see her as her own person and nothing to do with being my mother and this was a huge gift. Also photographing the people around someone who suffers from dementia. For some people it is heartbreaking. Some people leave and never return because it is such a challenging thing but for those who stay, who try so hard to be caregivers, we have to tell their stories, too, because their lives are changed. I love science. My mother was a scientist. I try to bring it down off the pedestal we tend to put science on and apply it to everyday life so it is accessible and easier for people to understand. I think things are far more visual then we think they are but we have to be patient and frankly, I think photographers are quite often not patient. Many just want the photograph. For me, the experience is more important because one day that is what I will remember as much as anything.