Maggie Steber: All Stories are Personal

The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma: Sea of Memories, 2011 © Maggie Steber

A true citizen of the world, Maggie Steber is known for her remarkable humanistic photography and photojournalism, garnering many honors in the course of her storied career.

She is a longtime contributor for National Geographic and was director of photography at the Miami Herald. She is best known for her exceptional body of work covering Haiti over 25 years – through natural, political and economic disasters.

However, despite her reputation as one of the world’s finest documentary photographers, she will be talking about something a bit more personal when she appears at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival in June.


She will present her fine art project, “The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma.” Lily LaPalma is, as she describes it, her alter ego: “She is adventurous, fearless, and mysterious and she revels in it. Her secret garden is filled with ideas that grow unfettered by trends or others’ opinions. It is not for them, it is for her and it is for me.”

Steber will talk about igniting your imagination by giving yourself permission to play, discussing how to make a safe place for yourself and playing with ideas, using photography as a medium for expression.

The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma: Edward Hopper's Bedroom, 2017 © Maggie Steber

Mike Lee: You grew up in Texas and later went to the University of Texas during the halcyon times of when it was going through the beginnings of a dramatic social change. How did those experiences help frame your consciousness as a working journalist in Texas, New York and beyond?

Maggie Steber: Austin, my hometown, is the liberal oasis of Texas. The city was laid back, kind of hippie-ish, people were nice to each other, and it was exciting to be at the university and more independent. I marched in protests against the Vietnam War, was tear gassed, and took pictures.

I think the answer to your question is that these experiences framed my consciousness about life, politics, ideas, being exposed to new ideas that were the beginnings of dramatic social change. These experiences still shape and frame how I work as a journalist in other places. I grew up thinking everyone was equal, it was what I was taught, but going to and studying other cultures and their histories I saw it wasn’t everyone’s view.

We are shaped by our experiences and the ideas and words and actions of others. They connect us and those stories of human connections are the ones I want to tell.

Artibonite Valley, Rice Harvest, Haiti © Maggie Steber

Lee: Haiti. In those 25 years where you photographed in Haiti, you strove to show-as you put it-“the audacity of beauty.” Could you tell us more, and its importance of the people who struggled to create a better life while under at times apocalyptic conditions?

Steber: Most of the time when you read or hear about Haiti, the news is bad or catastrophic, be it political or natural. Seems like one thing after another happens to Haiti, it just can’t get a break. Or so it would seem. But when you go to Haiti during quiet times, or into the beautiful countryside you find the real Haiti and there you find its beauty. There, one has time to look for it, to wait for it, to be surprised by it, like something you see out of the corner of your eye.

I think rather than describing Haitians as resilient, although they are that and more, it offers a more balanced view to describe them as people who imagine themselves more than the foreign eye

reporting on it. They wear their history like a proud crown. They see and create and believe in beauty as much as anything else and they have a vision of who they are as a people with a rich culture. This is audacity of beauty, to exist where it is least expected.

© Maggie Steber

“I used photography as my shield during my mother’s illness. She was my only family and she was disappearing right before me. Focusing on her constantly gave me some sense of control in an uncontrollable situation.”

Lee: You said that covering your mothers’ struggle with dementia was the most important assignment you accomplished. In retrospect, how does the experience of melding the difficult present (at the time) while confronting your shared history apply with where you stand now as an artist and documentarian?

Steber: I think there’s a saying: All stories are personal or something like that and they are. I used photography as my shield during my mother’s illness. She was my only family and she was disappearing right before me. Focusing on her constantly gave me some sense of control in an uncontrollable situation.

And I loved looking at her, I wanted to look at her all the time when I could because I knew one day it would only be through photographs. In the end, I got to see my mother as her own woman, nothing to do with me, and I wish I could have known that woman. Photography gave me courage and purpose. And now I have the photographs and memories through them.

That experience changed me in a number of complex ways, including understanding passage of time, but also prepared me for exploring new ideas. A few years ago I started taking photographs that were darker, spur of the moment, things I saw or felt. I usually don’t do this but these were interesting. I would see something, an idea came to mind, and I took the photo.

Madje Steber sits for a portrait © Maggie Steber

This grew into The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, my alter ego in an alternate universe and this work is nothing like my documentary work. I can’t even begin to describe the work but it is wild and free, the garden is where I plant new ideas that grow, a safe place where I put work and I don’t care if anyone likes it or not-so liberating!!!! I’m having a great time and I received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in support of the project.

Lee: Where did you think you most had to go outside of yourself to complete a work to your satisfaction and why?

Steber: Events I didn’t want to cover. But one has to make a living. Early on I did a lot of news. And I also worked as a paparazza for several months to make some money after returning from covering a war in Africa. My days began at midnight and ended at 6am. I would go home, cry, sleep and go back out there.

I thought if this was what I would have to do to earn a living in photography, I should rethink things. But things got better.

Masuda Muhammadi dreams of her childhood days and of her late father, during an afternoon repose. Her father was killed in a plane crash in his native Afghanistan where he had returned to help rebuild the country. © Maggie Steber

Lee: As a photo editor, supervising assignments and projects, what are you looking for and what is your primary focus while reviewing portfolios and finished assignments?

Steber: I love ideas and I want to hear about them. It’s fun to imagine how an idea can be visualized. When I look at photographs, I’m looking for a strong storytelling photograph or a piece that has a twinkle in its eye, so to speak, something different, or an amazing moment that brings composition and color and light together all at once. I’m also intent on looking for stories and ideas. I also love essays that don’t have a beginning or end. And I’m always on the lookout for ideas that are developing. I see lots of possibility in peoples’ work. I love looking at photographs and imagining how they could develop or where they might be published, or a direction that would take the photographer to a broader vision.

Some advice about portfolio reviews: Don’t show too many photos, 30 is probably a good number. Projects or series are better to show than single event-driven things. Don’t talk too much but be prepared to give a broad view of your work as the editor looks at it. Don’t get stuck on every photo over explaining. Go with 2 or 3 questions that you would like to have answered about your work: advice about where to go next, who would be interested, what’s missing, how could you make it stronger….but only 2 or 3.

And don’t be crushed if someone doesn’t respond to your work or is critical. Some editors can’t see beyond the borders of their magazines. What’s good and bad is subjective, one person’s opinion. But do listen even if it’s tough because there might be something there to think about.

Maggie will be doing portfolio reviews at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival. You can sign up on the registration page. You can see more of Maggie’s work on her website.

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website

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