'Finding your visual voice is essential in photojournalism'

May 16, 2012, 07:04 IST | Ruchika Kher

An award-winning documentary photographer, who has visited 62 countries, Maggie Steber's work behind the camera transcends causes and borders. From winning the Pulitzer Prize for News Coverage to capturing quake-hit Haiti and the African slave trade, Steber's portfolio reads like a showreel of excellence. The American photographer, who will be in India to conduct a photography workshop in unexplored, hostile Baltistan, talks about life behind the lens

Tell us about your association with this workshop?
I will be one of two workshop leaders or teachers along with American photographer Ami Vitale. We will go out on shoots with the enrollees, critique their work including work they brought with them, and we’ll have classes showing work that exemplifies what a photographer looks for when shooting including the light, the moment, composition, working with people, landscapes, framing, editing and sequencing.

A picture by Maggie Steber

Is this your first visit to India? If not, when was the last time you were here, and why?
It is my second visit; the first one was brief, a few days when I was photographing a Sherpa eye doctor from Nepal who crossed into Northern Haiti to give a 3-day eye clinic. I can’t remember the name of the little village but it was lovely.

This workshop includes sessions in Baltistan, which was shut to visitors till last year. What challenges lie in store?
One can’t predict difficulty levels but that’s part of the adventure of travelling into such areas to photograph the lay of the land, its people, its appearances... you never know what you will find but I think we are privileged to go to Balistan. We must tread lightly and in a respectful manner since outside contact has been limited.

A young girl dancing in her blue lace dress belies the sinister poverty and violence that resides in the dusty dried out streets of Rabato, a slum just outside Gonaives, Haiti. Rabato is a scene of regular political protest and is thus the target of numerous slaughters and attacks on its citizens.

You’ve been a photojournalist for decades. How has your journey been so far?
Photography gave me a life I never expected to have. I have worked in 62 countries, covered everything from war to fashion, told stories, pursued science, been in riots... it has been a grand and privileged existence in the sense that I, a normal person, have been able to experience numerous peoples’ stories. It is not easy and one doesn’t have a normal life, a 9-to-5 job but it’s like being a wild horse running across an open plain and I love that about it. I’m very curious and this thing called photography has given me that opportunity.

Tell us about having to tackle difficult encounters.
Hard to tackle could mean several things: danger, access, timing, whether a story exists or not, editors.

Madje Steber, who suffers from dementia, stars out into a puddle from her wheelchair after a hard rain in Hollywood, where she lives in Midtown Manor. A onetime scientist, Madje worked as a parasitologist until age 72 but a few years after retiring, her memory began to fade. She was living in Austin, Texas and her daughter, Maggie Steber, had to bring her closer to Miami where she lived to be able to give her needed attention. Along the way, Maggie discovered things about her mother she had not known before and in the journey they took together until the end of Madje’s life, her daughter began to see Madje as her own person and not through the lenses of the mother-daughter relationship.

Your most memorable travel escapade...?
The first big risky assignment I did was move to Africa to cover a guerrilla war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for two years. I had been to Africa twice before and I felt it was home, as though standing on the land was like a silent thunder, as though I could feel the beating heart of Africa through my feet and up to my head. I’ve worked throughout Africa doing cultural, social and travel stories. But after 25 years, Haiti is probably the most memorable in terms of shaping everything I do and how I look at things in this kind of work. I keep learning there. Haiti has lessons to teach you and if she wants you to learn them, she’ll wring your heart out and never let you go. I think that’s happened to me. My other favorite places include Vietnam, especially the northern parts where I would live if I were younger, and I loved Nepal, too.

Maggie Steber’s picture of a boy, who is watching a fireman rushing to help put out fire in down town Port Au Prince, Haiti on election day, 1988.

What is necessary to become a successful photojournalist?
That has changed drastically since the Internet arrived, causing people to look less at print publications. That, along with down-turned economies hitting advertising hard and the ever-rising cost of publication expenses (paper, staff, travel), has meant a decline in publications numbers and their budgets. That has impacted it, at the same time suddenly, because of the Internet, there are many more photographers since before. Many staff photographers have been let go and entered into an already over-saturated market. But smart photographers who have ideas, good connections and are always working on personal projects, and reaching out to show them can still make a career. I’m unsure how lucrative it is any longer but it depends on style, whether you work for magazines or newspapers, your photography style. What’s important is to find new ways to tell stories. Numerous stories are about similar issues, they never disappear, but how you photograph a story, what you bring to light that hasn’t been seen before, a new style you might try, finding your visual voice — this is most essential.

Your projects in Haiti won you acclaim and awards. How important is social work?
For me, it has been everything and it has lead me to all kinds of places I might not have seen, things I might have never experienced. In trying to fund my work in Haiti outside grants and assignments, I try to shoot a wide variety of subjects so that I’m not focussing on one aspect of visual narrative. I love to photograph all kinds of stories and ideas. It’s challenging. Haiti, however, changed my life, my career, my heart, the way I look at things, like beauty, not always obvious in a place like Haiti, and yet there, it is. That’s thrilling.

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