Maggie Steber and the art of vulnerable photography

World Press Foundation Award-winning documentary photographer Maggie Steber. — Picture courtesy of Maggie Steber
World Press Foundation Award-winning documentary photographer Maggie Steber. — Picture courtesy of Maggie Steber

GEORGE TOWN, Aug 21 — There’s a photograph that haunts me: a huge red heart screams from a concrete wall, a grown man is in the foreground wiping tears from his eyes and three young Haitian children look upon him, seemingly indifferent to his suffering.

That shot was taken by documentary photographer Maggie Steber and it speaks volumes about her ability to capture the most vulnerable moments in conflict-ridden situations. 

Steber was in town recently for the Obscura Festival of Photography to conduct a workshop on photographic intimacy, a prominent feature of her work in magazines such as National Geographic, Life and The New Yorker.

Winner of the World Press Foundation Award and the Leica Medal of Excellence, Steber grew up in Texas and credits her mother, a single parent, as a great influence. “We didn’t have much money but my mother raised me in a very cultured way and always made sure I had the confidence to do things.”

When Steber attended the University of Texas in Austin, two of her mentors were the celebrated photographers Russell Lee and Garry Winogrand.  She says, “Lee was quite old but still wonderfully healthy and he laughed a lot.  He was one of the Farm Security Administration photographers who took pictures of the US during the Great Depression.  He taught me to respect people we photographed and to be humble because they had allowed us into their lives.”

'Broken heart pump'. — Picture courtesy of Maggie Steber
'Broken heart pump'. — Picture courtesy of Maggie Steber

Winogrand, whose work is hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, showed Steber how to look at photographs. “His photographs were risky and spontaneous. He taught students not to go for the ‘eye candy’ — those images that were so perfect and easy to like — and instead to look for and look at more obscure photographs. While that meant spending more time, it really helped me to appreciate things that were not so obvious.”

Early in her career, Steber worked as a photo editor for The Associated Press in New York. She then became interested in Africa and finally decided to quit her job to cover a war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  

She recalls, “You could not get to the front lines because if the guerrillas caught you, they would kill you. I chose to photograph the changing society, the flight of all the white people who had settled there and were running the country. That was a much more interesting story to me than trying to photograph bullets.”

After that, there was no turning back. When Steber returned to the US, she continued her journey in documentary photography by working in Cuba. “I wanted to tell stories but I needed to become a better photographer. I paid my own way and went to Cuba whenever and however I could.  I never show that work because it’s not very good but it helped me learn to shoot with a more documentary feeling.”

Today, Steber is known for her strong, compelling images covering subjects as diverse as post-war trauma, the Cherokee Nation and the African slave trade, but she is perhaps most drawn to Haiti. 

She says, “People think of Haiti as a poor black country that is corrupt, violent and a failed state. Those things aren’t necessarily untrue but it’s so much more.  Its history is astonishing: Haiti witnessed the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world, for which it seemingly has been punished forever after. They even had to pay repatriation money to France for liberating themselves and robbing France of its richest colony!”

According to Steber, the Duvalier regime which lasted 30 years either killed or chased out most of the intellectuals, artists and merchants. “They were an important middle class that could have helped the economy. So many Haitians have died yet Haitians are still generous, friendly, fearless and resilient. They have lessons to teach us. If Haiti loves you, it wrings your heart out every day but you always come back for more because you simply have no choice.”

For every assignment, Steber looks to her story to determine her angle, be it broad or focused. “For example, my work in Haiti covered a wide range of ideas and events — politics, violence, elections, but also daily life. I don’t want to repeat what I have done. I have also photographed my mother and her memory loss over a seven— to eight-year period and that, of course, was very focused.”

A lot of Steber’s work is very immersive in the surroundings and the people she captures. Given the sensitivity of the situations, she believes the best photos come from intimate exchange and interaction. 

'Mother’s funeral'. — Picture courtesy of Maggie Steber
'Mother’s funeral'. — Picture courtesy of Maggie Steber

“If you photograph people, you have to be interested in them and in their stories.  If you are not, forget it.  Instead of enriching your life, the photographs will end up as empty things.”

The shared experience is what fascinates Steber. She says, “Maybe it’s because I grew up alone, as an only child with a single parent. I sort of regard many of the people I meet as members of my family. I’m gathering them as I go and growing a family, even if it’s only the photographs that I have to remember.  Photography is all about memory. You record a moment in history; be it world history, personal history, or an intimate history.”

Given the hardships some of her subjects go through, Steber doesn’t believe one can be objective when reporting. “It’s impossible. And if you do manage to be objective, then all you produce are boring photographs.  Every decision we make in life is subjective, not only based on the news but also on our own personal experiences which have shaped how we see the world around us.  I would much rather be accused of being subjective than of being too removed.  I want to be as vulnerable before the people I photograph as I ask them to be before me.”

Ultimately, as a documentary photographer, Steber is convinced that the issues never change, only the ways of seeing the world or telling a story. “We still have war, hunger, domestic violence, abuse of women and children, slaughter of animals, men devouring the earth in search of gold and oil and leaving gaping wounds behind. So the challenge for all of us is to bring fresh visual points of view to the world and perhaps, we can change just a few minds that might make things better, or who might even save us.”

OBSCURA Festival

11-31 August 2014

Various venues, George Town, Penang

For more information, visit or email [email protected]

Learn more about Maggie Steber at her website.

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