Maggie Steber: Seeing Past the Veil, Part 2

Maggie Steber is an acclaimed documentary photographer who has been honored with numerous awards for her humanistic stories of people and cultures in crisis in 63 countries. Her series “Rite of Passage,” a heartfelt documentary on her mother’s long descent into dementia, is currently on view through June 1 as part of the “Presence and Absence” exhibition at the Leica Gallery in New York City. She photographed for 25 years in Haiti and published an iconic book with Aperture entitled “DANCING ON FIRE: Photographs from Haiti.” Steber was Director of Photography at The Miami Herald for four years, has served as a judge on many grant and award panels and has been exhibited internationally in solo and group shows.

An esteemed master teacher, she has taught internationally including three years at the World Press Photo Joop Swart Master Classes in Amsterdam, three years with the Foundry Photojournalism Workshops, at LOOK3 Photo Festival, Bursa Photo Festival in Turkey and at various workshops throughout the United States. Her photographs are in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress and held in many other private and public collections. Her pictures have appeared in such publications as National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, Smithsonian, and The New Yorker.

Here, is the second and final installment on her amazing career, including her thoughtful views on her personal goals and achievements and her observations on the role and relevance of photography in today’s rapidly changing world of digital imaging. You can read Part 1 of our interview here.

Q: All the pictures in your portfolio were output in black-and-white. Why did you choose this medium for these pictures in particular, and what is it about black-and-white images that you find so compelling?

A: I was photographing in so many different places under various lighting conditions that it made sense to convert the photos to B&W. I more or less shot what I felt like shooting on a particular day with the idea in mind that I could always convert it. I’m known as a color photographer, especially because of my longtime work in Haiti, which is all in color. But I began as a B&W photographer and I still love the tonal ranges and the range of emotions that can be conveyed in B&W, light and dark, good and evil, the idea of going toward the light, and the freedom from the distraction of color. It just seemed to fit into the abstract mindset in which my mother and I often experienced together.

Q: Which camera or cameras did you use for shooting these images, were they all captured digitally, and which lenses do you generally favor for this kind of documentary storytelling?

A: I shot a lot of film but also digital. I shoot with Leicas, and would use the rangefinders or sometimes the Digilux 2, which Leica no longer makes. My lenses of choice range between the 28 mm and the 50 mm. I like to be close but these lenses allow me to get back and include the environment as well.

Q: This is a sad story, but told with great empathy and compassion. Of course the subject is your mother so there is bound to be some emotional attachment, but there is also some degree of observational detachment needed do create these images. Do you agree, and how did you handle this apparent dichotomy to produce something memorable and meaningful for the viewer?

A: That’s a great question. Of course in some ways I was desperate to make images for myself of moments and things that would remind me of my mother and the experiences we were sharing. But I also tried to distance myself when I could, in both caring for her and photographing her, to make images that showed in a more clinical documentary way what this process of forgetting looks like. It’s important to understand what someone with dementia goes through. I wanted others to have a better understanding of the process, to dissect the process so it doesn’t seem so scary, and that it passes. I want to encourage people to be the warriors for their loved ones and participate in their end of life experience because it is such a gift.

I also thought it was important, because my mother was a scientist, to take this more scientific, clinical approach so the images might have value beyond the emotional ones. Sometimes I made images because it was the only way I could be close to my mother when she didn’t know me and could no longer speak. Some days I would just photograph her face over and over. That was for me, to help me get through it, to imprint her face on my mind. In that way photography was therapy for me.  Instead of being heartbroken, I would photograph and it gave me comfort. The experience made photography something very visceral for me — it held my hand through this long process.

Q: This picture entitled “Breakfast in Bed” not only conveys Madje’s living situation, but also her state of being. The industrial looking clock on the wall and Happy Birthday letters hanging on the wall add a touch of wistful irony. What does this picture mean to you and what were you thinking when you shot it?

A: Madje is having breakfast in bed, something I found so delightful. After a lifetime of hard work, she is drinking coffee like a queen, looking toward the brilliant morning light. She is happy. But time is passing and that clock ticking always reminded me that time was passing. With each tick she moved closer to that light. What that light represented was an afterlife or what would follow and I love that it was so bright and not dark. I hated to think of darkness for her. The clock is ticking but she’s happy. It’s blissful and without sadness or pain and she’s even having a cup of coffee while she waits. I loved lying next to her by that window letting breezes blow the curtains over us.  The morning she died and we laid her out in her beautiful dress in front of that window before dawn and when the sun came up the light shot through the curtains in the most brilliant way, like a spotlight.

Q: The image entitled “Black Stockings” is, on the surface, rather abstract and enigmatic, but it also has a very tender, and emotional dimension that conveys a sense of personal presence. Do you agree, and how do you think it fits into the overall impression created by your portfolio?

A: That photograph does several things: it describes a phase that Madje went through where she became very sexy. I always thought she must have been sexy but in a discreet way. Maybe sensual is the better word. I never got to see her in this way. Now she was liberated from the mother title and role and I loved seeing it, that she could express this aspect of her personality without hesitation. It made me love her even more because I could look at her as a woman. I think photographs have different jobs to do and in this photograph I tried to make something existential that had nothing to do with me or with her being my mother but spoke instead to her sensuality. I wanted my photographs to do many things: to be tender, to show what Madje went through, to show the funny moments, the violent moments, the tender moments, and the sensuous moments to show that even in the forgetting, the person is there. Dementia is the unraveling of someone’s life as though something was being rewound or unwound and spread out before us. This was a part of that. I loved thinking that this woman who happened to be my mother was also a sensuous creature who had desires, had loved and been loved, had had sex — imagine that! — and a love life. These were things I never got to know about her.

Q: “Reflection” is a simple, masterfully composed image shot from behind that captures many aspects of Madje’s life — her individuality and strong personality, the fact that she is well cared for, and the fact that she has limited horizons at this stage of her life. It’s amazing how a good photograph can express all this and more by simply showing what is and composing it in context. What are your feelings about these observations?

A: It is always exciting to learn what people see in a photograph. This photograph was taken after a hard rain and the sun had come out so we went for a walk. After the rain, things are so fresh, a new beginning, washed clean, fraught with possibilities. For me, the reflection was about two things: looking into a mirror that was reflecting the world she would leave behind and looking into a space that showed where she was going — new possibilities. I saw the reflection less as a limitation and more as a wide-open space for her. I loved her braids too and these took on special meaning for me at her death, as I cut them and kept one for myself.

Q: I do not think the title “Sleeping Beauty” is ironic although some will inevitably disagree. It does have a fairytale quality to it and the spread out skirt, curved posture, and the fact that she is clutching a toy stuffed animal bring one back to childhood and the eternal return, the inevitable cycle of birth and death. Am I reading too much into this, and how do you feel about this image?

A: I agree with all the things you said about this photograph. For me the most important thing is that she is so beautiful. She looks very Native American to me in this photo, which she was, and elegant, and the light and shadow play a role there, too. She is like a child but she is also a woman. I could look at this photograph all day and see new things in it. I think it is one of the most intimate photographs I made. I feel closest to her in this photograph.

Q: You have unflinchingly included a number of disturbing images of in your portfolio, “Caged and Terrified,” and “Bad Day for Madje.” Did you include them because you wanted to create an authentic overall picture of Madje’s life experience at this stage, and what do you think her reaction to them would have been if she had been competent to pass judgment?

A: I wanted to remember every moment of it, even the tough stuff, to record it so I wouldn’t forget, even if these memories were sad or frightening. If people can see this is what happens but understand it passes, they might be more involved with their loved ones going through this. And I think it’s honest to show this. Because Madje was a scientist, I like to think she would have been glad as a scientist that this work might help people. Of course, we will never know. I tried to be respectful but this is the kind of thing I have photographed in other peoples’ lives, we all do this, and it only seems honest to tell the full story of our own lives. I’m sorry if people think I stepped over a line, but I don’t think I did. I could have gone much further than what you see.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years and are there any other genres, subjects, or projects you plan to document now or in the near future?

A: I’m at that point where I’m trying to move past or perhaps back up to where I began. I’m leaning toward the dark side of things and am working on some projects that speak to that darker side of human nature but that’s all I care to say about it right now. I love doing what I’ve always done but I long for something different to augment my photographic voice and that’s what I’m working on. I’m also seeking beauty.

Q: What qualities do you think a documentary photographer needs to possess in order to tell a story effectively, and what are some if the elements that would be essential to include in such a story?

A: This question is far too important to answer in brief. One must be curious about the world, about people, about telling stories, interested in finding new ways to do that, new audiences, new visual styles. Photographers continue to cover the same issues — sadly these never change — so how will we get people to look at our photographs and be impacted by them; that’s the challenge now. And courage, I think one needs courage to do these stories, and the courage to be one’s self. Perhaps the most important quality is empathy, which will allow us to understand what is before us.

Thank you for your time, Maggie!

- Leica Internet Team

 To watch a video about “Rite of Passage,” click here. Maggie’s work on Hati can be found on The Audacity of Beauty website.