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Maggie Steber: Capturing Beauty in Unexpected Places

“There’s a little gate that opens to the courtyard,” she had told me the day before our interview. Once inside Maggie Steber’s home, a warm, saffron yellow wall greets me by the entrance. It makes the light coming in from the windows feel like it’s expanding. We quickly jumped into a conversation about the Haitian art dispersed around her walls, when we arrived at a couple of drawings made on worn-out pieces of tire. “They’re from neighborhood kids and street kids who work with Atis Rezistans,” she tells me, “they collect cast out materials- metal springs, paint, tires, wood, etc.- and make art out of them.” They’re playfully dark, almost surreal and magical. As our eyes linger on them, one piece in particular stands out: the colorful figure of a child, his head too large for his body, his ribs exposed. “These children have seen a lot,” Maggie says.

Maggie’s career as a photographer has been defined by two factors: her resilience, and her ability to perceive, what she calls, “the kind of beauty you see out of the corner of your eye.”

“I always find a way around barriers. Not by being terribly aggressive, but by figuring things out. By being smart,” she says. As we sit in her living room, a cold, sweet-peach tea in hand, and bookshelves framing the scene, she recalls getting her first job as a photographer. “The managing editor was not happy to see me,” Maggie says.

She had gone in for an interview at the Galveston Daily News the previous day, when she was told they didn’t want to hire a woman. Maggie left the newspaper’s offices saying she’d be back the next morning. At a coffee shop downtown she picked up on a story about a historic surgical theatre, on the campus of the medical school, which was about to be torn down to build a parking lot. She spent the evening capturing the building’s beautiful, haunted demeanor, and the night writing a piece. As promised, she was at the managing editor’s desk at 9 o’clock. “I put the pictures and piece on his desk. He read the story, he looked at the pictures, looked at me and said, ‘you have the job’.”

"The Saint."

A heartbreak and the realization that she was not a small-town girl would later take her to New York. “I didn’t have anything, I didn’t even have a winter coat. I would walk down the streets and window-shop and look in the windows, and pretended that I owned all that stuff and that I paid people to take care of it for me,” she says smiling mischievously.

After three months of working at a furniture store in Greenwich Village, that same imagination, and a bit of good timing made her the first woman picture editor at the Associated Press. “There were some people who were really mean about having a woman there, and then other people were really wonderful. But I was smart, and I worked really hard, and I could write a caption faster than anybody for a picture. I realized that if I did the job well, they would see that women were well suited for that job... and that’s what happened.”

Maggie’s work has taken her to 67 countries, but she always goes back to Haiti. “The Haitian people, they don’t give up. They’re so courageous, they are so strong in ways we will never be,” she says. Maggie has spent 30 years photographing Haiti as it is, beyond the instability and poverty that is often associated with it. In her book, Dancing on Fire: Photographs From Haiti, Maggie’s photographs take the things we insist on putting into boxes, out. “The reason I kept going back to Haiti is that, clearly, it was fascinating, there was so much to photograph, there was a lot of political turmoil, a great deal of violence at some point,” Maggie continues. “But, it’s also magical and beautiful, and the Haitian people are so powerful.”

A Mother's Funeral in Haiti.

Her work has captured history in the making. She was at the Olympics in Montreal, Moscow and Sarajevo. She once had a conversation on a plane with Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and spent a week in the life of American fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon. She has been published by Life, the New Yorker, Smithsonian, People, Newsweek, Time, and National Geographic, to name a few. In her repertoire of awards one can find the World Press Foundation Award, the Leica Medal of Excellence, as well as Pictures of the Year awards. But, when I ask her which one of these emblematic experiences would stay with her forever her answer catches me off guard.

On one of her trips back to Haiti, she had decided to take 50 pairs of tennis shoes for some of the street kids. “Some were abandoned, some were orphaned, some had run away from home because there were so many children. Some would go home, they would try to make money and take it to their mothers, but they mainly lived on the street.” When she began to hand the shoes out to the boys she knew, the word spread like a virus; from 50 pairs, only five were left. At the end of the day, there was a knock on her hotel room door. She was told a young boy was looking for her, crying, saying she had shoes for him.

The child found a pair that fit, and wanted to wash his feet before putting them on. When she offered to get soap he said he didn’t need any: only a rock and some water. “He put his feet under a faucet, and he took the rock and scrubbed his feet with the rock.” The child dried his feet on the grass, put his shoes on, and happily walked away.

Haitian girl dancing and singing.

This image, which has stayed with her for so long, says a lot about the awakening nature of what is seemingly simple. It says a lot about the lense she uses to look at life.

When you look at Maggie’s trajectory, the accolade of awards and recognitions speak to her success as a photographer. But at a closer glance, her biggest achievement lies in her work’s ability to look humanity in the eye without shying away. With her resilient, observant nature, she has encountered its many faces, and brought their essence, uninhibited and pure, to light.

Maggie has that essential component in any transcending artist: the ability to see beauty in unexpected places- in things that aren’t tangible, that you only catch if you’re paying attention. “The great thing about being a photographer, is that you get to see a lot of things. A lot of bad things, but also a lot of funny things. Then, some really extraordinary things.” Her photographs have dealt with a plethora of issues, but it is in the universes behind each one of them where her work finds its differentiator.

One of her most personal projects involved photographing her mother’s journey through dementia. In Rite of Passage, Maggie does what most artists, of any medium, hope to achieve. She turns the uncertain, the heavy-hearted and even absurd parts of life into something beautiful. Through photographing her mother, Maggie became vulnerable to the possibility of her mother, Madje, being someone other than just her mother. She saw the scientist, someone who was sexy, strong-willed, delicate, someone who was a woman.

Maggie's mother, Madje Steber, with dementia, sleeping.

Once, she asked her mother to take off her dress during a portrait session. “The minute that she took off the dress and sat back down I thought, this is not my mother anymore. My mother would never have done this. This is a woman who is her own woman,” she says. “And, Madje my mother is not there anymore, it’s Madje her own person.”

We aren't used to thinking of those closest to us as something other than the role they play within certain structures. So often we obviate the person behind that role: their aspirations, their fears, their mistakes; their inner world and their humanity. It takes courage to create work that says ‘I see you, as you are, not as I want you to be, not, as you appear.’ “I had these pictures of her when she was young and she was beautiful and when she was doing this or that. But I didn’t have the complete story, and now I have the complete story.”

Maggie's family photos.

Maggie’s search for the complete story appears in almost all of her photographs. It’s in her earlier work photographing behind the scenes at a Bill Blass fashion show in New York. “When the models would come off the runway, in order to get to the dressing room they would have to run through a kitchen where the chefs were cooking,” she says reminiscing. It’s in her work on the African slave trade, the Cherokee Nation, and soldier’s letters. “I’m always surprised that so many of them will let you in, and allow you to photograph them, and they are so vulnerable, and trusting... so I’ve learned to be humble and vulnerable.” It’s in the scenes her pictures capture of a Miami that is transitioning from the superficial, party capital of the world, to what it was always meant to be: a multicultural hub of creativity.

I see this, also, in the many photographs she has taken of people sleeping. “I do photograph a lot of people sleeping. I don’t know why I do that,” she laughs. In essence, those photographs are about a different dimension; a place where we're all equal, where we’re all creators. A place no photographer has ever been to, or gotten the complete story on.

Four girls in Miami sleeping in the same bed. Used on a Nat Geo story about sleep.

Part of the human experience is dealing with the fact that it’s difficult to get the complete story on anything, or anyone. Even while interviewing Maggie, I notice that element of a woman whose internal universe is wider than one could imagine, not to mention describe. One of her latest works is an ode to that universe. As a 2017-2018 fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation at the Guggenheim museum in New York, her exposition Dark Side: Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, tells two stories: the one we, as an audience, see, and the complete story, the one only Maggie knows, and doesn't feel the need to reveal. We walk through Lily LaPalma’s garden, thinking we’ve figured out the way, only Maggie has the real map.

As I sit here trying to put together the pieces- Maggie Steber the photographer, Maggie Steber the woman- I realize there’s a duality to the nature of this thought. The separation between being a woman and being a professional, a creator, a something other than. The incongruence, like watching the solitary beauty of ball gowns waiting to be picked up on a kitchen floor. The incomplete story. I can’t bring myself to understand why. Until I recall another part of my conversation with Maggie. “You don’t have to act like a man, to live in a man’s world.”

One thing is certain: Maggie Steber has lived unapologetically, circumnavigating the norms and social nuances that told her she should be, or act, a certain way. “I haven’t given anything up," she tells me when I ask about her life. "I’ve simply made choices.”

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