Photo Journal: Maggie Steber - Rite of Passage


By Jim Colton

AP Brats; it was an affectionate term we used for those of us who cut our teeth in our early twenties working for the venerable Associated Press in New York City. We were mentored under the guidance of veteran journalists like General Manager for Newsphotos, Hal Buell and photo editors like Tommy DiLustro and Jack (Jake) Schwadel. They were no nonsense, gritty, hardworking, hard-drinking old salts. 

Maggie SteberIt was always my conviction that if you could work for a wire service where your deadline was yesterday, you could work anywhere. And there were two types of wire people; those who worked there for a few years and moved on to other industry careers, and those who made it a lifetime vocation. One of those, like me, who fell into the former category, was Maggie Steber.

Maggie was a breath of fresh air when she arrived at the AP photo desk in 1973; a desk that was dominated by middle-aged white guys. She brought a unique sensibility and different perspective along with her trademark Texas smile.  Steber is an award-winning documentary photographer who has worked the newspaper, wire service and magazine beats as both a photographer and photo editor. 

One of the smartest things I ever did was hire her as a contract photographer at Newsweek magazine when I was the director of photography, resulting in exclusive assignments from a day-in-the-life of Fidel Castro to a week-in-the-life of Richard Avedon

In a recent project “Rite of Passage,” Maggie documents her mother’s journey through her final years battling dementia. The pictures are profound and deeply moving.

Steber has won the Leica Medal of Excellence, as well as first-place prizes at World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year contests. She has been the recipient of the prestigious Alicia Patterson Foundation and Ernst Haas grants and her pictures have appeared in publications such as TIME, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, People, Smithsonian and National Geographic to name a few.

She was the Assistant Managing Editor for Photography at the Miami Herald, was a Master Instructor at the World Press Photo Foundation’s Joop Swart classes and served as a juror for POYi and the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contests. She has just finished a lecture series for the University of Miami and teaches at various workshops around the world.

Jim Colton: We grew up as AP brats in the 1970's. Where were you prior to coming to the Associated Press? And what drew you into photography as a career?  

Maggie Steber: I grew up in Austin, Texas and went to the University of Texas. I worked my way through school. Finding time for all my course work was challenging and for four years I slept three hours a night. Photography saved me from becoming a high school French teacher in Texas where no one wants to learn French.

My first job out of school was at the Galveston Daily News, a small town daily where I wrote, photographed, did layouts, shot picture stories, wrote headlines and covered everything from the police report to obits.  It’s not an interesting story but how I got the job is:  I went to apply for the job of photographer-reporter at the paper.  The managing editor told me it was a night position and better suited for a man in case my car broke down or I got attacked. They were already considering two men for the job.

I asked the editor to wait 24 hours before hiring anyone. Then I went out and found a story that, by accident, was rather controversial; concerning a historic operating theater that was about to be torn down at the UT Medical School in Galveston. I photographed the theater; it was a beautiful old wooden theater in the round with sunlight pouring in through the slatted windows. I interviewed students and townsfolk about the theater’s fate, stayed up all night writing and printing photos, and slapped the whole thing on the managing editor’s desk the next morning at 9am.  

He read the story, looked at the photos, and looked up at me and said, “The job is yours!  Neither of those other male candidates would have gone to this much trouble and find a story I can use on the front page in tomorrow’s paper.” It was published the next morning. That story kind of describes my career philosophy. I never say die…not without trying! I’ve found that if you try the “just one more time” angle, often things work out in ways that you never imagined. 

I'm not a small town gal so I left Galveston for New York City to seek my fortune. A friend was working at Associated Press Photos there and suggested I apply. They had been searching for a woman to hire (lucky timing) and I fit the bill, having a degree in journalism and having worked on a newspaper. That's where I met you…and as you are fond of saying; we were AP brats and grew up there in so many ways. 

When I was hired, the editors were all men, some older ones who kept liquor in the bottom drawer of their desks. You could smoke and they smoked cigars! There was a darkroom with a host of characters and it was my safe haven when the photographers were mean to me. It was like working on a star ship. We were at the center of the world. There were photos coming in and going out again and I learned the names of all the baseball and football teams and the major players so I'd know who was important. I edited negative film and I could write a good caption in record time, so that got me sent to the Olympics in Montreal, Moscow and Sarajevo, and to a couple of political conventions.   

I left because I fell in love with Africa, having gone there twice to do feature stories to try my hand at freelancing while I still had a job. I started following the war in Rhodesia and finally left AP to move there, covering the last two years of the guerrilla war. I hooked up with Sipa Press there (One of the big three French agencies of Sipa, Sygma and Gamma) which was very helpful and I worked for the New York Times, mailing negatives with captions every week!

JC: You worked during a period of time that I call the "heyday of photojournalism." Many of your assignments were through a wonderful photo agent named Jocelyn Benzakin of JB Pictures. What do you recall about Jocelyn and what were some of those early assignments?

MS: Photography and the business of photography in all facets of communications have changed so much. Back then, the “important” photographers were all older (and mainly) Anglo men.  Breaking in as a younger woman photographer was challenging and having a photo agent was rather critical. Jocelyn could open doors that I could not. I met her when I returned from Africa. She wasn’t sure about working with me at first and I would have to say she favored male photographers. But I won her over with just sheer hard work and will power. A short voluptuous French woman born in Morocco, she always had a cigarette going and reeked of that period of glamorous French photojournalism when anything seemed possible.

Well-respected, she was a king—and queen—maker. Tough, very tough, and funny and generous and manipulative in ways that sometimes agents had to be. If she recommended you to an editor, they listened…and that could change the course of your career. Anyone who ever worked with her regularly would have to admit that was true. She left Sipa to form JB Pictures.

For 5 to 7 years, this small agency was very hot. Having worked for years in the business as a revered expert and trusted editor, Jocelyn created a place where we could grow and excel but also stumble and fail and where we could all be groomed. In New York, Jocelyn hosted salons inviting picture editors and photographers for drinks and evening viewings of our work. She helped promote my work in Haiti, along with getting me assignments I couldn’t get for myself… like LIFE magazine. 

We photographers were the stars of Perpignan in its early years. It was successful team work, at least for a while. I loved her very much as a colleague. We were business friends; we only had one conversation as two women talking about womanly things in our many years working together. She was a man’s woman for sure. I think all her photographers loved her but she was a rather difficult person in the way that so many creative people can be difficult and demanding. In this business she was singular with a vision of who she wanted to work with and how to make them names in the business. Those are the kind of agents that can make your career. I have received great advice from a number of them…even if I didn’t work with them. 

An agency is a place for community but it’s a huge challenge now to have an agency at all. There are too many photographers and fewer venues for our work. And selling an idea (so critical to one’s career) is even tougher now than it ever was. Even the ones that seem to shine from the outside are struggling.

JC: You've been to Haiti perhaps more times than any photographer I know. Why Haiti? What is it about that country that fascinates you?

MS: I’m sure I’ve been to Haiti over 200 or 300 times in the past 25 years but I feel like I never finish my work and that speaks to what a layered, complicated, fascinating and mysteriously beautiful country it is. I could work there all my life and never be finished. It’s a nation rich in history and culture. I’m constantly spellbound by Haiti and most photographers who are drawn to it recognize that allure.  But my fascination goes beyond photography. 

Haiti has a singular history; the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world. That fact is a source of great pride for Haitians and has a lot to do with how Haitians view themselves.  Haiti is so much more than a small impoverished nation. If you do your homework, you learn that it’s a place of great intellectual accomplishments producing great writers, painters, and musicians. You learn that it’s a place filled with magic and ghosts and powerful humanity; a portal between Heaven and Hell where everything falls into one of those categories. It is a place of remarkable and sometimes vicious despots, kings, dictators and presidents; all characters playing roles in some great Shakespearean epic. And it is a place for beautifully strange misfits if you like. I have no choice with my relationship with Haiti. I am supposed to be there because I have lessons to learn. Haiti is one place that will teach you lessons you never imagined existed. 

JC: You created one of my favorite books during that time called "Dancing on Fire." (See link below) Is it still one of your favorite endeavors? Can you tell us a little about how that came about?  

MS: That book! Can I just say how grateful I am to have that book? I’m grateful that I could do that work, that I had support from people like you, and from grants and assignments. So much of this business is luck. I do believe we make our own luck but a lot of it is out of our hands.

Making that book was the most wonderful experience. I had been working in Haiti for a while and began to think I had the makings of what could be a powerful book. I don’t set out to do a book. I think the work has to merit it and the story the Haitians were living through was a powerful one. I showed my work to several publishers, all of whom loved it. But when they got to the proposal meetings, the sales people said it was a book about Black people and Black people don’t buy books. I was shocked at the racism of that because in fact, all kinds of people have bought Dancing on Fire and hung my prints from Haiti on their walls.  

So one more time I chanced it and took the book dummy to Aperture. The next day, director Michael Hoffman called and said they wanted to do the book. It was one of the sweetest collaborations of my life…everyone was grand! I had a great editor, designer and production manager. I was at the printers in Hong Kong and slept on the floor with the presses which they loved and they made a beautiful book for us. There was a book signing at the old Aperture Burden Gallery and we played Haitian music and covered the tables with bright plastic cloths with fruit and flowers and birds and served mojitos. The place was jamming, packed solid, people talking, laughing, buying the book, looking at prints and dancing. Hoffman said it was the most successful opening they ever had!

JC: You have worn many hats in our industry; photographer, photo editor, instructor, lecturer, juror, etc. Which are your favorites and what are some of the differences for you personally, especially when you are responsible for other photographers, like your time as the Director of Photography at the Miami Herald?

MS: Silly boy, I couldn’t possibly choose one! I’m thrilled that I have been able to do so many things and I think it’s kept me in photography. I’m so glad I got to be a picture editor. I know it made me a better photographer AND a better business woman. I love photographing; it makes me feel alive and I’ve been hugely privileged that people let me come into their lives and I can see where they live and learn what they think and photograph it. 

But I must admit that I could look at photographs all day; all kinds, no matter what. It never ceases to amaze me at how the world holds its eye up to that viewfinder and each person sees something different.  It’s spellbinding.

I look at a lot of contemporary art photography, secessionist period, historic photos, documentary, photojournalism, fashion, surreal, conceptual and personal work that is therapeutic. I like looking at all of it! I think different genres of photography can inform one another and I know it informs my work. Looking at photographs is like taking a long drink of water after a hard thirst. 

I look at the work of a lot of young photographers and sometimes help them with their edits, just because I love the work. But don’t start emailing me everyone! I have more than I can handle. I love to teach as well -- workshops more than fulltime -- and I have had the great honor to have served as a judge on a number of grants and juries.   

What a great privilege it was to be at the Miami Herald as the Director of Photography. My approach was not one of thinking I was the boss but instead that I was there to serve the staff’s talent; to be the wind beneath their wings…as corny as that sounds! The Herald staff is hugely talented. All I did was open the corral gate and said, “Get out there little dogies and take great photographs!” And they did. 

We used Rosa Parks from the Civil Rights movement as our reminder that the photo department would no longer sit at the back of the bus but that we would drive it. And sure enough, we were Pulitzer finalists twice for two photo-driven projects…both discovered by the photographers. This was in spite of the metro editor telling me “We don’t do photo-driven stories here,” to a managing editor who ignored our requests while the photographer continued to work on the project for months. Thank goodness, he was a great journalist as well; taking notes and maintaining contacts. That project was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

I learned how to win the confidence of editors and designers and always gave them credit when something was successful. We had a publisher with vision, Alberto Ibarguen, now Chairman of the Knight Foundation, who loved photography…again a matter of good luck. We made a couple of magazines without ads; proper Sunday magazines on Afghanistan and one by Bruce Weber showing the local Haitian community. For 3 or 4 years, I had a pretty grand time and I think we used photography so much better because of active engagement and the photographers earning the respect of the newsroom. But I itched to get back outside so I returned to freelancing and I think just in the nick of time both in terms of the freelance market and the impending downsizing of newspapers.

JC: You've been selected as one of 11 women photographers for National Geographic's "Women of Vision," project. (See link below) Can you tell us a little about that and what that distinction means to you?   

MS: Titles are tricky things because there is a sense that it’s only these 11 women photographers who have worked for National Geographic that are women of vision when in fact, for years there have been fabulous, talented and amazing women working for the magazine. There had to be perimeters set that I’m not privy to making the choices but the women represent a broad spectrum of age, experience and accomplishment.  

This is but one of the many things NGS is doing to celebrate their 125th anniversary.  First of all, if you did not see the exhibition in Washington at NGS headquarters, it will be traveling. It was the most elegant exhibition I have ever seen. Each woman had her own room with large prints and there were interactive things in the common areas; videos and audio and a big cocktail party at the opening…..but of the exhibition itself, in all my wildest dreams, I did not think it would be so understated and elegant. So that was wonderful and many great things have come from it including some speaking engagements when the exhibitions open at various venues and a number of interviews including a recent one on NPR Sunday Morning Edition (see link below) along with photographer Amy Toensing, one of the other women. And there is a book which has just come out and it’s also simple and elegant.  It’s been one of the very nicest things that have happened to me...among so many.  

JC: As someone who has transited the analog to digital world, what's your take on the industry today? Are we better off? Do you miss anything from those days and how has it affected you professionally?   

MS: I miss film but I still shoot it; 35mm and 120mm on personal projects and if a client has time. I’m grateful for digital (I wasn’t at first) and am amazed at what I can do with it. Anyway, it’s here, isn’t it? I use Leicas so now I have both film and digital…they are still my buddies.

Are we better off? I heard somewhere that over one billion photos are made every day. I love that on one hand; people are so visually driven and think it’s important to record things but…they also fail to live in the moment. That aside, there are just too many photographs. But there are also many millions more that are very good because of the technology, which is more affordable, attainable and automatic!  

I would say that for many people, the technological revolution has made them worse off; jobs disappearing, shrinking ad purchases and markets for their work, etc. That’s when you have to reinvent yourself and I try doing this all the time. I don’t want to keep doing the work I’ve already done. I want something to grow from that. I want dark things to come out onto the table…and I want to surprise people and myself.   

As for the industry, if you know how to look; how to focus your work for a particular market; how to present your work; how to do something that has been done before in a new way; how to work on a project…then I think there are possibilities. But I also think it’s easier to do if you are younger. And go look at magazines, for heaven’s sake! Focus your search.  You don’t have to work for everyone at once. And don’t aim too high…unless you have something that is killer! I’ve been pretty lucky. I manage to get enough work through assignments and workshops and print and stock sales…but it’s not nearly as lucrative as it once was.

JC: Are you a fan of some of the new "instant" technology like the iPhone and Instagram and social media uses of photography?

MS: I love it all. I don’t care what was used to take the photograph as long as it’s a great picture or important or even different…and I don’t mind the filters either. I think people are doing some great work with the new technology and it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s all about the photograph and the idea or story behind it for me.

JC: The project "Rite of Passage," (See links below) that you did on your mom Madje doesn't get any more personal. Can you tell us a little about it and why it was so important for you to document her life? 

MS: I was an only child with an only parent, an eccentric, merry, strict scientist who really encouraged any creative aspect in my life that she could (to keep me out of trouble most likely.)  But she wouldn’t let me photograph her after a certain age…just about the time I began photographing. Decades later, she began to lose her memory. Walls and barriers fell away and I so wanted to have photographs of my mother, to hear her voice (because she couldn’t form words at some point) to see her moving and interacting…all that was just for me. 

What I learned along the way was life changing. I think because I worried about my mother dying since the age of five when I realized death would come, I needed to be with her as much as possible. But someone suffering from dementia doesn’t always do a lot, so I filled the time by taking photos, video and audio. Photographing her was therapy for me as I understood my role more and more. 

And I learned so many new things about her. I began to see her in a different light…as her own person…not my mother. That was reflected in a lot of my photographs. At one point she even became kind of sexy. 

I became my mother’s warrior. I made sure everything was as good as I could afford it to be. (The most expensive places are not always the best. It’s all about the caregivers) I researched medications and questioned doctors who yelled at me, and I made sister-friends with the women who cared for my mother when I couldn’t be there. I learned so much I thought it was important to share this journey that one sometimes takes with loved ones and show how it could be so much better for an end of life relationship if we play the role of gentle warrior. So I made a piece with AARP first that I wrote and narrated to photos and then…

Brian Storm approached me about making something bigger, for 3 or 4 years he asked me, and when I was ready, I said yes. The MediaStorm piece (See link below) is very intimate. I sometimes wonder if it is too intimate but why sugarcoat something that is so dramatic. I held my mother for the final hours of her life, and she died in my arms. The worst and most important thing that ever happened to me and I’m so grateful for it.  It’s a personal story I wanted to share.

 JC: Are there any current projects that you are working on that you are at liberty to talk about? 

MS: I have several projects in the works that I’d rather not talk about, one of them has been in the works for some years and keeps growing…at some point I’m going to have to edit it but I just keep shooting. I’ll go back to Haiti at some point this year for a project with writer Amy Wilentz. I’m teaching workshops in Malaysia and Guatemala this summer and judging some competitions, and I have some assignments coming up. But I am hankering so much to reinvent myself and that’s what I’m aiming for. I think creative people have to do that. It’s not that you leave what you have done behind; you build on it and change some things. This is the time to surprise people who thought they knew me (see smiley face here).

JC: Lastly, as someone who has been on both sides of the loupe, what words of encouragement can you offer to the young photojournalist who might be contemplating a career as a photographer or photo editor?

MS: WORK ON A LONGTERM PROJECT!!! It does not have to be a war. Think of telling the story of many through the story of one. Be charming and smart. Be well-informed; know the magazine WELL before you go see an editor or send work. Be kind. Don’t talk too much about your success in this market as people are struggling. Be empathetic and generous with people. Keep your ego in your back pocket. Look at magazines and the Sunday New York Times in print; read literature that might support an idea you are developing. Learn to do research of both subject and market. Don’t be a sap; do your homework before going to a war or to photograph the lady down the street. Think outside the box by becoming familiar with what other work on the same subject is out there. Be ready to work hard for a while and struggle and suddenly gain success only to be devoured by it. Think quality, not quantity. APPRECIATE PICTURE EDITORS—we would be nowhere without them and their jobs are often thankless….I’m sure there is more but…….


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