'Go when it's quiet': veteran photojournalist Maggie Steber on why coups and riots don't reveal the whole picture

Ahead of her upcoming talk at the Palo Alto Photo Forum, the Pulitzer finalist discusses her time photographing Haiti and the daily appeal of voodoo.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse stands in a field near the Moro River in Green Grass, S.D., beating a drum during his daily prayers to his Lakota ancestors. Green Grass is a tiny community with traditional roots on the Cheyenne River Reservation, where Lakota people live. The chief’s title refers to him as keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe…since he was 12 years old. Photo by Maggie Steber.

Universal humanism.

That's the term I quickly cobbled together after combing through the 30-plus years of photographs in Maggie Steber's portfolio, which is indeed eclectic: a Lakota chief in South Dakota, a young girl perched on a wall in Afghanistan, a rowdy kid's soccer game in Haiti. I was trying to boil this multi-faceted mix of imagery down to a cohesive theme, a tidy sound byte of a phrase to characterize the overarching thread of her photojournalism. So "universal" not just because Steber has covered so much of the globe, but because the imagery remains uniquely accessible across contexts — from the most violent instances of human strife to the quietest of tender interactions. And "humanism" because even after looking through some of her imagery without caption information, it all still seamlessly dovetails together with the human experience in its many many forms around the globe.

In conversation, Steber evokes this same wavelength through her (now-veteran) point of view. At a time when so many photojournalists have grown pessimistic in the age of declining budgets and iPhone photographers, Steber remains deeply positive about her craft and the new blood coming into it. It's an outlook that, of course, jibes with the long view content of her work, which even at its most visceral always seems to have an undercurrent of hope running through it.

We caught up with Steber ahead of her upcoming talk next week (11/15) at the Palo Alto Photo Forum, and discussed everything from her long-running tenure photographing in Haiti, to why her freezer is full of dead lizards...and vodka.

Take a look.

So, looking through your portfolio, I was trying to devise the right phrase or overarching description to describe your body of work. Then, I figured I'd start by just asking you directly—how would you characterize your photography?

I would say that I like to be close. I like to make it intimate so that it's a more visceral experience. I want people to understand — in an intimate way — what [my subjects are going through or what they're thinking. So I tend to work up close.

I'm photographing the human experience. And I'm fascinated that people will let me into their lives. So I always think we have to respect that. I want to make pictures of people that viewers will respond to in some way and relate to.

Well, your long-term work in Haiti certainly seems emblematic of that, and I'm curious how you first found your way there?

I lived in Africa for two years covering a war, and I really loved the whole continent. So, I started going to Haiti because it had the most African-ness of the Caribbean. They have really retained a lot of their culture from the days of slavery. And they have a fascinating history. I love it. It's magical, it's very dangerous, it's very rich and poor at the same time. I was bewitched and enchanted and fell in love with that place. I love Haitians and think they're a great people, so I keep going.

It's an interesting country to focus on, because I can't help but think that in America we have a very skewed view of it. So I'm wondering about the misconceptions versus realities that you've encountered over the years?

Almost everything is misunderstood. People either go there to write exotic books or missionaries go there to save everybody's soul from Satan. Or reporters go when something big is happening. And that's what gets reported. It is a very poor country and has a very corrupt government.

But, take voodoo, for example. Haiti is a Catholic country, but voodoo is really the national religion. It's not at all Satan worship. It's really more like the Catholic religion. And it was under the guise of voodoo that the enslaved Africans planned a revolution and freed themselves back in the 1700s. So voodoo is very important, and even if you don't practice it, you really respect it. And it's actually something that gets people through the day. But there's also a lot of Christianity as well. You have a lot of missionaries coming in to build churches instead of schools or houses, which is annoying.

But people are very sweet and very inventive. They work very hard, they have great art and there's just all of these things you don't hear about because only the bad stuff gets reported like the earthquake or a coup d'tat, riots or things like that. That's true for every place in the media, but Haiti really gets it bad because she's in the shadow of the United States.

To follow on that, in the sense of how the media drops in during certain moments and then gets out, how have you found ways around that to get the longer story or more in-depth understanding of the place?

Well, when I started going, it was to cover the news. Because a 30-year dictatorship — the Duvalier regime — fell, and I went just before that happened because I read that their were riots going on and I had been there once before when the secret police were in charge. So I went to see what was happening, and the whole country rioted and the dictator had to leave. And then there was an attempt at elections and those ended extremely violently. And then there was another attempt, and then on and on. So here was this country that, for the first time, could speak out and do things, but was still pretty corrupt.

But at some point, I realized I needed to go back when it was very quiet, because I was missing the beauty and tenderness and all of the characteristics of the Haitian people that I really love. And so I went in search of beauty. I went when nothing was going on. I would go into the countryside and visit farmers. I would stay in the city and just walk around and talk with people and do little stories. I really learned a lot more that way about Haiti. I let the Haitians really teach me and guide me. I got to see this ephemeral, very beautiful side of Haiti that you don't see when there's lots of political stuff going on. And I thought, Yeah if I'm going to keep going here I need to strike a balance and I have to show that Haiti is more than how it is described on the front page of newspapers. And in that, I think, Haiti really gave me a gift.

So, shifting gears a bit, you also produced a really compelling photo series on your mother's battle with Alzheimer's disease. And I find the contrast so fascinating, because if a place like Haiti is inherently photogenic, then how do you even approach photographing a topic like Alzheimer's?

Well, I'm an only child with an only parent. My mother raised me and she's my only family. And I just needed to be with her as much as possible and it was very hard, because you're being forgotten...it's very tough.

I just started to photograph her, because I thought, I can just be a puddle on the floor and be useless or I can be a warrior for my mother and use the camera as my shield. And I wanted to see her, and see who she was becoming and who she has been. So I started photographing her, but never with the intention of sharing the work, it was just really for me to make new memories.

I just learned so much...so I decided to write something and do a little slideshow. I got that published at AARP, and then Brian Storm of Media Storm saw that and contacted me to say that he really wanted to do a multi-media piece. So he produced it, and it's called Rite of Passage. And I finally decided that maybe this work could encourage other people to be brave and stay the course, because it allowed me to talk about not only the difficulties, but also these gifts. Walls fall down and things come out that you never knew. It's like a last chance to love. So I approached it like that.

I also have to ask you about your Secret Garden work, because when I first encountered it on Instagram, I was surprised that it was so much more of an artistically oriented project. I'm curious how you found your way to that project.

Recently, I thought about how I've been in this business for a long time and people tend to categorize us: everybody thinks I do this...this is what I do. And actually I do much more. So I decided I wanted to create a safe place where I can do new work and I didn't have to care if anybody liked it or not...it was just for me. And so I decided I'd make a secret garden and I'd plant these ideas where they were safe and I wouldn't tell anybody about them...I'd just see what happens. And then I just started making pictures that I'd never made before that tell stories, and each one is a reference to my story or something in my life. But it's not obvious. And the most fun thing about it is that they mean one thing to the viewer and then something completely different to me. It's a secret. You'll never get to know what that is.

So all of these things grow in the garden and its just this alternate universe where my alter ego lives and plays. Anything can happen and exist. There's even a dead lizard army that protects it. (I don't kill them, they get in the house and die or the cats kill them, and then I freeze them in foil...so the only things in my freezer are foil-wrapped dead lizards and a bottle of vodka.)

I guess the Secret Garden is letting my imagination run wild. What I've done is always pretty serious stuff and sometimes we have to remind ourselves to play. Because when we play is when ideas come to us. And I encourage everyone to have a secret garden.

I wanted to also ask you about Instagram, because it didn't exist when you first started as a photojournalist. I'm wondering about how you, as a photojournalist, see it affecting photography these days?

Well, I really like it as a platform ... I know a lot of photographers who go around saying, "Oh well, now everybody thinks they're a photographer"—but actually, I love that. I think it's very democratic. Yes, now everybody is a photographer and why shouldn't they be? If it makes photography more popular, then that's a great thing — it elevates photography.

I love the democracy that Instagram provides and I get messages and queries from all over the world and it's rather wonderful.

Do you think some of the craft has gotten lost a bit within photography, say without the slower, tactile, dark room-oriented side of it?

I think digital has really affected the way people take pictures, because they'll...chimp, you know, you can take a lot of pictures and say, "Ok this is good enough," instead of really pushing yourself. In the days of film, you didn't really know what you were getting so you had to work hard and I think in that sense, people were better photographers.

But it also means that there can be more photographers because in the days of film, you had to buy and process the film, and then print the negatives, and not everyone has access to that.

But I also think that people who missed that and don't do it now are really missing out on something magical. I think it's where you can be really intimate with pictures.

So what's next? What are you working on and what do you hope to be working on soon?

I still get assignments and I'm currently working on two proposals that I want to pitch to National Geographic. And I'm starting a new personal project...and I'm not sure it's gonna work, but I'm just giving myself over to it — it's about wind. And I'm trying to show wind in a more ephemeral and visceral way than just trees blowing.

But I'm also still working on the Secret Garden and I have a lot of work to do there (which I hope I never finish). And I also have exhibitions going on, and I teach workshops as well. So I have all those things going on and I'm very grateful for it.

Tell me about what's in store for your upcoming talk at the Palo Alto Photo Forum?

It's going to be about intimacy. Brian Storm and I are going to have a conversation and discuss why taking your time and being quiet and listening makes you a better photographer (and a better person). You learn something. It's not just about the picture, but also the images belong to the people in the pictures. That's how I feel about it.

The Palo Alto Photo Forum hosts Maggie Steber in conversation with Brian Storm on Friday, November 15, at the Mitchell Park Community Center in Palo Alto. Click here for event info and tickets.

Follow Maggie Steber on Instagram

Or see more of her portfolio at www.MaggieSteber.com

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