“…I’m terribly grateful because I’m not the best photographer in the world but I work hard and I don’t give up.” – Maggie Steber
Judge of our 2023 Open Call Award (open for entries until the end of October), American photographer Maggie Steber, widely regarded as one of the most significant practitioners of our time, has dedicated her life to capturing human stories with rare sensitivity, perceptiveness and grace.
Born in Texas, Steber discovered her passion for photography whilst studying at the University of Texas at Austin, when a a photographer friend asked her to model for a shoot.
“I had studied ballet for 15 years and could do a number of things she had to photograph—stop action, portraiture, blur, and many more things that were required. She would show me the photos after she printed them in the darkroom, and I was so excited about it that I changed my major, which was French, and moved over to the communications school.”
Steber’s studies included classes with Russell Lee, one of the Farm Security Administration photographers who documented the Great Depression in the US, alongside Dorothea Lange. She also learned from the legendary street photographer Gary Winogrand, who imparted essential insights into understanding photographs, a skill that would later serve her well in her work as a photo editor.
Upon graduating, Steber found work as a photographer for a small paper in Galveston, Texas, after she convinced the managing editor to hire her by producing a front-page photo story for the paper in just one day, without pay.
Over the years, Steber has photographed in nearly seventy two different countries across the globe capturing stories that have graced the pages of prestigious publications such as Life, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Newsweek (it was on assignment for the latter that she spent a week photographing the great Richard Avedon, a moment in her career she cites as one of the most memorable).
Steber’s three-decade-long connection with Haiti began in 1986, shortly after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship and the ensuing political turmoil. She had previously documented the final two years of the guerrilla war in Zimbabwe, and upon returning to the US, found herself yearning for Africa. It was during this time that her then-agency, Sipa Press, assigned her to cover a story on poverty in Haiti. To her delight, Steber discovered the country possessed a strong African culture with which she immediately felt a strong connection.
“There is something magical about the people and the country, and they inspire me more than anything else. I felt that there was something more important than photographing there, and that was that I was supposed to learn lessons, some of them very personal. To this day, even with the current situation which is deadly, I think these people speak to my heart as well as my mind more than any other. I love them. I learned the Creole language, which is so powerful and expressive.”
It was her work in Haiti that eventually led to her hiring by National Geographic, after five previous unsuccessful attempts. Steber produced some of her most iconic work for the magazine, including a long-term project on Native American communities. Steber’s mother was Cherokee but she never disclosed this to the magazine, wishing to be hired based solely on merit. She formed a close bond with these communities, documenting their everyday life and cultural resurgence as they sought to provide their children with a sense of identity in a country that had historically mistreated them.
Above image: Chief Arvol Looking Horse stands over 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 has that title because he has been the keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota people since he was 12 years old.
It was also National Geographic that published the Pulitzer-prize nominated ‘Story of a Face’, in which Steber documented as 21-year-old Katie Stubblefield became the youngest person in the U.S. to undergo the still experimental face transplant surgery,
“I think the reason I was given ‘The Story of a Face’ is because I love science—my mother was a scientist—and because of the way I connect with people. I loved that story and the family who embraced me, and the young woman who made a mistake but was determined to live a life that would have meaning. Isn’t that something we all want? To live a life that has meaning? I am still in touch with them.”
Above image: Robb and Alesia Stubblefield hold their daughter, Katie, at their apartment in the Ronald McDonald House in Cleveland, Ohio, months after Katie received a face transplant at the Cleveland Clinic. Her parents have been warriors throughout the ordeal of Katie having lost her face during a gun accident a few years ago. They quit their jobs to take full-time care of their daughter through multiple surgeries including a full face transplant and continuing surgeries to refine the donor face. The face was donated by Sandra Bennington when her granddaughter, Adrea Schneider, fell into a coma from a drug overdose. (From the series: ‘Story of a Face’)
Steber’s nine-year project, ‘Rite of Passage’, which focused on her mother, Madje, and her battle with dementia, remains her most personal and memorable, leaving a lasting impact on countless families dealing with the condition. Inspired by the project, National Geographic assigned Steber to explore the science of memory. She contributed a full-page article featuring her mother’s journey, accompanied by a touching image of Madje having breakfast in bed. MediaStorm also produced an award-winning documentary about Steber and ‘Rite of Passage’, and Steber later self-published a Blurb book under the same name.
Above image: Madje Steber enjoys breakfast in bed, a morning ritual that went toward spoiling her as part of her care at Midtown Manor Assisted Living Facility. As someone who worked up until the age of 72, daughter Maggie wanted her to be able to sleep late, eat breakfast whenever she wanted, and in general, be spoiled rotten, in the final years of her life as she suffered from the decline of dementia. (From the series: ‘Rite of Passage’)
In total, Steber completed fifteen stories for National Geographic, a publication that she was once told she would never work for. Her persistence is a testament to her resilience and dedication, qualities shared by many of the people she photographs. Although the subjects of her work may be diverse, Steber invariably approaches them with sensitivity and respect, avoiding the cliches and tropes that often plague photojournalism.
Steber has been a member of the prestigious, VII Photo Agency since 2017, and served as a photo editor at Associated Press Photos and as the Director of Photography at The Miami Herald, from 1999 to 2003. During her tenure the paper’s staff won a Pulitzer Prize and were twice Pulitzer finalists.
Above image: Cherokee Mike Grant plays with his niece, Raven, before heading out to South Carolina in search of work. During the summer months, work is ample on the Cherokee Reservation at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, due to tourism, but things dry up in the winter and many Cherokee men have to leave the reservation in search of work elsewhere until the spring returns.
Reflecting on her career and offering advice to emerging photographers, Steber emphasizes the importance of research, humility, dreaming big while starting small, taking a genuine interest in subjects, cultivating ideas, patience, and determination—attributes that have been key to her own success.
“Every day, ask yourself why you want to do this because you will sacrifice a lot of things. That doesn’t mean you can’t be happy, but the more your work informs us, or saves lives, or lifts our spirits, that’s where you will find fulfillment.”
She stands as undoubtedly one of the most important and powerful voices in contemporary visual storytelling, a unique, humble individual, whose unwavering dedication to telling the stories of others can serve as inspiration to us all.
All images © Maggie Steber
The 2023 Open Call Photography Award is open for entries until October 31. Enter here.