Veteran photographer shares experience of covering her beloved Haiti for 30 years

Maggie Steber has been photographing Haitians intensively for 30 years, and has dedicated her photos to changing how the world sees poverty.

“You don’t have to photograph bullets flying through the air,” Steber told an audience of students, faculty and staff at Mount Royal University (MRU) on Nov. 23. The event was co-sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation and MRU.

The photographer has been talking about her work under the theme, “The Audacity of Beauty” because she finds beauty in places that other people have deemed as poverty stricken by political corruption or natural disasters, like the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010.

With the support of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Steber visited four universities in Western Canada in November to tell her story, and Haiti’s, one frame at a time.

She urges photographers to invest time in a place, do their homework by reading the history of the culture, art, and music, and then going in like a little baby that knows nothing.

“If you spend enough time in a place, things come to you,” says Steber. “Every picture is a historic document.”

The former assistant manager of photography and features at the Miami Herald, Steber has worked in 64 countries freelancing for publications like The New York Times, Newsweek, The Guardian and National Geographic.

She has shot everything, from fashion to war and riots, earning numerous accolades along the way. She has seen starving people, in search of food, converge on a warehouse. She has seen people fight, desperate to stay alive.

One of Steber’s favourite photos is her image of a dead Haitian lying in a pool of his own blood that slowly mixes with oil spilled on the street. The two liquids ooze together to symbolize the red and blue Haitian flag. For Steber this picture spoke to a higher idea, a metaphor for Haiti that she called, “Haiti bleeding to death.”Haiti Bleeds: On Election day in November 1987, polling stations were closed one hour after opening when countrywide massacres were carried out on voters who went to vote in the first presidential elections in 30 years. Blood flowed in the streets of Pt-au-Prince, the capital, mixing with the oil of the pavement, making it look as though Haiti itself were bleeding to death as was the hope for democracy. Photo courtesy of Maggie Steber.

In 2010 Haiti was struck by a catastrophic earthquake that had a magnitude of 7.0.

While the rest of the world sees rubble from earthquakes and photographers flock to developing countries to capture “poverty porn,” Steber focuses her lens on the light that can be seen in the darkness.

To Steber, Haiti is a remarkable place, the home of the only successful slave revolt, in 1791, and to this day has still retained its unique culture despite poverty and political turmoil.

She knew that during the aftermath of the earthquake, journalists would flock to Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, to document the tragedy, but she wanted to be fair to Haiti and capture images that eluded photographers chasing the story of the day.

“Almost all history is told from a western point of view and that really denies us the ability to see a fuller picture,” says Steber.

She saw the National Palace, official residence of the president, and described it as a beautiful wedding cake that had fallen into itself, tired and melted.

The damage and devastation was so raw that one picture wouldn’t be able to portray the situation properly.

Initially unhappy with her work on behalf of The New York Times, Steber switched her focus to Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the main economic artery in Port-au-Prince.

The amount of damage along one very important street was significant to Haitians. Steber captured the earthquake’s profound impact , in her series Scenes from a Ruined Boulevard.

With three decades in a country that has seen such a hard time, Steber talked about how she keeps going. If she finds herself weeping, she said, she reminds herself that Haitians get up every day and they do it all again.

“They don’t have time for self-pity and they don’t have time to cry,” she said.

“The idea of sticking your camera in somebody’s face at this most terrible time is very difficult. I am telling you these stories because you young-uns need to know how to do this, because I get asked these questions a lot: ‘How do you do this? How do you talk to people? How do you cover something like this?’”

“It’s a very sensitive thing and you have to be sensitive.”

Steber shared a story about the first time she realized the real power of a photograph.

Deciding to get out of the city to see the “real” Haiti, Steber travelled to the countryside and stayed in a village. The woman of the house asked Steber to take a family portrait of her and her children. Steber obliged, telling her MRU audience that journalists need to give back when they can. After taking the family’s portrait, Steber turned around and the whole village was lined up, decked out in their finest clothes ready for their portraits.

She returned to New York to make prints before returning to the village to hand out the portraits. “[The pictures] became family heirlooms, people were laughing, crying, rolling on the ground,” says Steber.

Becoming emotional as she recalled the day, Steber said she was deeply moved that village residents killed a pig in her honour for a feast that night. “The pig is the piggy bank” for poor Haitians, she added, so it was big honour that they sacrificed a pig to thank Steber for her photos.

“The best stuff comes with patience,” she said.

Paul Coates, a photojournalism instructor at MRU, said Steber’s talk was on point with what he tries to teach in the classroom.

“As far as making connections with people and doing research,” says Coates, “know the landscape and how people have been treated and go in with a bit of humility.”

With photography being a snapshot in time and acting as historic evidence, both Coates and Steber agree that taking the most accurate image is important for photographers.

“Our business is about meeting people, going in and learning their struggles,” says Coates. The more dramatic the image, the more eyes that will see a story and hopefully reach a wider audience.

For Coates, the photograph that really struck him was a Haitian man dressed in his finest suit grieving the burial of his mother. MOTHER’S FUNERAL: A young Haitian man writhes in grief at the funeral of his mother in the National Cemetery in Pt-au-Prince, Haiti in November 1987, while his family and friends try to hold him back from the coffin. Photo Courtesy of Maggie Steber.

Steber studied the situation, looked around and asked if she could join them for the burial of this young man’s mother. “He rose up in this last cry of anguish and I got that picture,” says Steber of the moving image of this grieving son in a blue suit supported by four men in white shirts.

At one point in her time in Haiti, after weeks of photographing a lot of dead people, Steber sat down and wept for a very long time.

“I am telling you that because this stuff affects you, it changes you. You better be human before anything else. You can be professional but you better be human.

“You’re asking people to let you into their lives and it is a huge privilege. You have to really understand empathy to deal with people, because they are sensitive and fragile, just like we all are.”

Andy Mawji, a photojournalism student at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, found Steber to be extremely credible.

“It’s amazing how she walked the walk and can talk the talk and how humble she is for it,” said Mawji.

Steber is a living, breathing example of the importance of humility and learning from each other.

“Humility is extremely important in your life, no matter what you do — just think, we could all be in Syria right now.

“But we’re here and we get to go out and tell people’s story and it’s amazing what they will share with you.”

mwals925@mtroyal.ca

 The editor responsible for this story is Stefan Strangman, sstrangman@cjournal.ca