Four Questions on Photography: Ilvy Njiokiktjien in Conversation With…Maggie Steber“Four Questions on Photography: Ilvy Njiokiktjien in Conversation With…” is a series of events where each month well-known photographers discuss with Ilvy their response to these questions:

  • What is your most important photograph, how did you make it, and what impact do you think it had?
  • What is your biggest photo failure; an image you wanted or needed but you messed up somehow?
  • What is your dream image or story?
  • What advice would you give to your younger self?

In this episode of the event series, Ilvy is in conversation with Maggie Steber.


00:00:05 [music plays]

00:00:40 Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Thank you Photo Wings. It’s so important that we can do these kinds of events. So thank you so much for making this all possible. And I just asked Maggie before we started the webinar, if she would like to introduce herself or if I should do it, and we decided on the last one, and she has, if you look at Maggie’s bio, you will realize that she probably never has a day off. She is a busy bee. So Maggie is a documentary photographer, and she specializes in humanistic stories. She’s part of VII Photo like, we are both. She has worked in 71 countries and is still counting. Her honors include a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in 2017, the Leica Medal of Excellence, the World Press Photo Foundation, and pictures of the years amongst many, many, many others. And she has worked in it for three decades and Aperture published her monograph Dancing On Fire. Thanks so much for being here, dear Maggie, for making time.


Maggie Steber: Oh, it’s a pleasure. And thanks to everybody who’s tuning in, it’s very exciting to see people that I know. And also people who are checking in from some other country. It’s always exciting that we can see that.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah. Thanks, everyone for being here. So let’s start with the first question. I am not sure maybe you can start sharing your screen, or maybe you want to talk about it first. But the first question is, what is your most important photograph up to date?


Maggie Steber: Oh, okay. I’m going to talk for a minute about it. So that the excitement, not the excitement, but what is that word, it doesn’t matter. So I’ve been really fortunate in this business, to have my work, receive accolades. And sometimes I was looking, when I knew I was gonna have to answer this question, I was looking through my archives and thinking, Well, this really put— this photograph was a photograph from Haiti, really, it it was really a lucky shot, but it it won me a lot of attention, and it won awards. And it kind of helped put me on the map. And there were two or three pictures that I really am very close to, and I think really moved me forward in my career, and of course, we, we tend to like those because they did something for us, you know, and also, hopefully, did something for the people in the picture or to tell the story. But so I was looking at all these pictures that I had taken in Haiti that had really moved me forward or had taken, you know, my Haiti work is what got my foot in the door, originally, to National Geographic, and which was a whole other story, but we won’t go into that right now. But, um, so I was thinking about what really has moved me forward. But sometimes, those aren’t the most important pictures. They’re important on some level, in your career as a photographer, but I think there’s this whole other side that has to do with our humanity, and how we want to live our lives, and what we want to practice in our lives that hopefully, is reflected in our work, but so um, and I also like to think that everything you do everything, any picture I take today will be a picture that everything I’ve done before then led up to is the way I think, you know, I like to think about it. But so I’m I’m an only child with an only parent. And my mother was a scientist and she was very eccentric and kind of brilliant. She really taught me how to work in a man’s world and not to without feeling like I have to be like a man. So an amazing person. And so she started to suffer from memory loss. And for nine years, I had her here in Miami. I couldn’t take care of her myself, because I was traveling all the time. But I found a really extraordinary place where the caregivers just treated her like she was their mother. But at any rate, so I was always, I was with her quite a bit of time. And I was always photographing because you know, when you’re with somebody who’s older, and they’re sometimes on medications, and so they sleep a lot, and there’s just a lot of pictures to be made of things like that. As well as everyday life. But so one day, I’m going to show you the picture now. Because there’s nothing like talking about a picture and then not showing it, it’s just cruel.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: How many, how many years ago was this?


Maggie Steber: Um, this is the picture. Um, so let’s see, my mother passed away about 10 years ago. So this was, this is probably a picture I took 13 or 14 years ago, 13 years, maybe. Um, so the thing is that I was with her quite a bit of the time when I could be, and photographing her all the time. And partly, I really had no intention of doing anything with these pictures. I just was using photography to save me. Because it was really, you know, this melancholic voyage of memory loss and all the things that each, that she forgets, and even being forgotten, as well, which sometimes it’s heartbreaking. And sometimes it’s kind of liberating, actually. But, um, so one day, I was hanging out with her, and she went to sleep, and I stood on the bed, I just thought, Oh, she looks so beautiful. And so with her little stuffed kitty. So I stood on the bed, I’m quite fond of standing on beds and photographing people actually, I seem to photograph a lot of times I photograph people laying down, cuz it’s just a beautiful frame. But, so, I took this picture. And it wasn’t until well, I loved the picture. I loved it, because it was her. But it made me really think a lot about a lot of things. And again, that everything I had done, sort of led up to this moment, everything I had done in life, not just photography, but in life. Because from the time I was five, and I realized one day, my mother would die. And I really wanted to be there for that I really felt it was my duty. And that maybe it was the reason I was born, that this would be the most important thing I would ever do in my life. And so…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: What was the feeling that you had, because at first I can imagine this was a, an image that was just for you, or maybe you and your family?


Maggie Steber: Well, this is my family, me and her. It was, it was really just for me. And so I would have these memories. And I also my mother was half Cherokee, and she really looks it here. I think she’s a genius. And I, I just thought it was so peaceful. And so I really have hung on to this image. And whenever I miss her, I look at it and it makes me so happy. But, um,


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Was it it published as well? Or was it really an image that kept? Was it for you?


Maggie Steber: Well, I never meant to share any of this work. But finally, I realized that I learned so much about how to give somebody a better end of life experience. And that I wanted to, and also because I would spend a lot of time at this assisted living facility where she (inaudible) and I would see people just come and dump their family and never come back. And I thought oh, but you’re going to miss out on some really important things. So I decided that I learned so much, like I looked at 50 places to find the right place. And I spent a lot of time to make sure that caregivers were really sincere and well trained in terms of memory loss. And I just learned so much about how even though it took a lot of work, how you could really make somebody’s life experience so much better. And that there was a gift. There was a gift at the end and the gift for me was that I got to see my mother, Madge, as her own woman. I was able finally to separate myself enough from her. Maybe it was because of looking through the camera so much at her that I saw her as a woman for the first time and not as my mother. And so many things were revealed and walls fell down, and I learned secrets that I’d never known before. And I was like, wow, I never imagined that. Um, so I got to see her as her own woman. And that was, that was so amazing, because I thought, this is the woman I wish I could have known. You know, but, um, so anyway, I finally decided to publish the work. And I did it first with AARP. And I made this little multimedia thing where I did a little slideshow that was moving. And I um, I wrote a narration. And they got such a great response. And then Brian Storm at media storm saw this work. And he approached me and said, We would really love to do something with this work. And I said, Well, okay, but I don’t have, you know, the money. It’s $10,000, or something to do this. I don’t know if it was that much. But anyway, he said, No, no, your money is no good here. We we want to do this. You really did something important, and we want to produce it, and they did. And they won an Emmy, or, or something with it. But, um, that was really generous on his part. And it gave it a widespread, viewing, all of the work. And then I still to this day, get emails from strangers, that, just saying that this work really, that they’re going through the same thing, and that it gave them such encouragement and a way to look at it. And even they would say, but do you think it’s alright, to photograph and I said, You’re asking the wrong person, I’m not gonna say it’s wrong. This is your family. And photographs are about memory. And, you know, look, I have this beautiful picture of my mama. And she’s not here anymore. But she’s here. And so this is…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I think that’s the power of the image that that people all around the world will recognize this, even if their mom is still around or healthy and strong and running around. I think everyone in the back of their mind will know that one day, this is going to be it. Yeah.


Maggie Steber: So, they’ll go on. But I’m saying nothing can show you how your mother looked at 25 when the moonlight is just showing on her face, like a photograph. And that’s a nice way, I think, to think about memory, which again, is what photography really is so much about is memory. Because the moment you photograph something very instant, it becomes the past. And it’s a memory of something. So I really urge people to photograph your families, and especially your parents, or your loved ones as they’re getting older. Because yeah, you’ll have it. So yeah, this is the most important picture to me.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: And just as a last question, I’m officially not allowed to ask more than four, of course, but I was just wondering, do you also have this image in your home? I mean, printed on a wall or is that too? Is it something you, is it an image you like to look at? Or is it?


Maggie Steber: Yeah, I love to look at it. Yeah, I have a small print. Hanging, not where you can see it, but in my bedroom. And yeah, I love looking at it. You know, it’s always just like, Good night, mom. I also Well, I had her ashes as well. So…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah, no. Beautiful, beautiful, touching image. And I love the stuffed cat as well. It’s just the detail that makes it so beautiful. The way she’s putting her hand there.


Maggie Steber: Yeah, it’s sweet. It’s sweet. Yeah.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: So it’s a bit of a heartbreak. But I think if it’s okay with you, can we ask you or can I ask you about your photo failure? Yeah, which image or which story didn’t work out for you or maybe not in the way you envisioned it?


Maggie Steber: Yeah. Well, um, so I’m going to put the picture up. Okay. And I think some people will say what, what beautiful, pretty nice. What is this a failure about, but um, it’s a bit of a I think it’s a very interesting story, actually. And it has a lot to do with how my brain works, I guess and when it’s working, and how I, how I feel about things, and especially in terms of responsibility that we have in photography. So, um, I was really fortunate to get this assignment from National Geographic magazine a few years ago, on face transplants. So I love science. Because of my mother. And this was a remarkable story because we had it exclusively. And it was about this young woman, Katie, who blew her face off in a suicide attempt with a rifle. And she literally…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: And she was really young when she did that, right?


Maggie Steber: She was 17. Yeah. A boy broke her heart. And and teenagers, we did it many, many years ago, there was a great story on the science, of the science of the teenage brain. That was, I’m trying to think of her name. A really wonderful photographer shot that for the magazine. And the story was about how impetuous teenagers are. That’s why they get into so much trouble because their brains, which are also our brains don’t really mature until around the age 24, or something like that. So anyway, Katie was upset, she blew her face off. And somehow she survived. And her parents who were teachers had to start taking, they had to quit their jobs and start taking care of her. And it was amazing that she lived it all. And when they got her to the hospital, you know, after she shot the face off, the doctors took flesh from her thigh and from her stomach, and they made this little face that had no nose. But she had a like a little elephant trunk that was bent for nose, but it was indented. Anyway, it was kind of a strange looking face, although I fell in love with it after some time. At any rate, so, I had been working on it for about a couple of years. And I would go quite often to visit Katie and her family in Cleveland. She was at the Cleveland Clinic. They lived at the Ronald McDonald House nearby. They had daily doctor’s visits, and of all kinds of speech lessons, they had, they had physical therapy every day. Every day, they had things to go and do. And then they were trying to live their lives as well. And so, you never knew when and if Katie would get a face and several times a face became available, which is a thing. It’s strange to talk about it like,  “What? A face became available?” because you know how people will will donate organs of all kinds. But when it comes to being asked to donate your loved ones face, it’s personal, you can imagine. And, and so several people, or a couple of people said yes, but then they have to run all these tests on the person while they’re still alive. Well, they like they might be brain dead or in a coma or something. And if they find any kind of disease, they can’t use the face because it can be denied or rejected right away. So that happened two or three times, which was greatly disappointing. And then, here’s where the failure comes in. So, I was really reticent about leaving the country for any reason. But finally, I was offered to teach a workshop in Dubai, and I hadn’t had a little bit of work. So I thought, well, I really need to work. And so I took it, and wouldn’t you know, the day before it started, um, or the day after it started the workshop, I got a call from the picture editor saying Katie has found somebody to donate a face there’s a face that’s going to be donated, and they’re going to go into surgery right away. Can you get back and I couldn’t I couldn’t get back because…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Technically you couldn’t, or no flights, or no or…


Maggie Steber: There were flights but I, they were going into surgery as quickly as possible. Yeah, me coming back from Dubai was like, basically you lose two days. And so, I was gonna miss to surgery, and I did miss it. The only saving grace was that a really good friend and a wonderful photographer Lynn Johnson stepped in. And she was going in to meet this family she’d never met before. They didn’t know her. They were expecting me to be there. We had grown very close. And in walks this stranger but Lynn is a remarkable person who’s so quiet and soft. And she can just dissolve into the wall. And you don’t even, I mean, she’s almost. It’s almost a spiritual thing, the way she does it? It’s just, she’s an amazing person. And so she photographed the surgery, and she did a fantastic job. And so I came back, and I have to say, I was, I was heartbroken and crushed. And I was very depressed about having missed it. And so I went, you know, to go and take some more pictures, because the story wasn’t over. And to show how Katie was going into her face and things like that, but I never, I’ve never gotten over it. And I feel like I failed the family. I failed Katie, and I failed the magazine. And I don’t know if the magazine felt like that, but I felt like that. And, um, yeah, I’ll never get over it, actually. So I thought, alright, I have to find some way to redeem myself to myself. And not having been there for something I had really been so excited about, and looked forward to and didn’t know if it would ever actually happen. And so we were photographing, both Lynn and I were photographing. And finally it was time to close the story, because Katie had really grown in to her face. And it was kind of having this happy ending. So I went to see them for the last time and had been thinking about how her parents were such warriors for their child. I mean, they, they had to set their whole lives aside, they had to find ways to raise money. They were extraordinary. They learned everything about the medicine. They could be doctors, now, they learned. And they fought too, you know, they said, well, we want to make sure she has good teeth and things like this. And you know, she has to have a nice face. But it’s not like you can turn down a face if it gets offered. But anyway, they were warriors, for their daughter, and I so admired them. And so on the last day, I said, all of this to them, that I I said, you’re like the eagles in my culture. The ancestors fly over us. And they’re as eagles. And they, they guard us, and they protect us, and they hear our dreams and our wishes. And I felt like they were they were eagles, and they were warriors for their daughter. And so I told them that this is the kind of picture I’d like to take. And they said, it sounds good. Let’s do it. And so this is the picture I took. And it was the last picture in the magazine. So I feel like even though I missed the climax, that I could pay, homage, homage and respect to these extraordinary people in Katie, too, for being so brave, and that I could try to make something really beautiful. And so this redemption…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: It’s a beautiful image. And it also went all around the world. I mean, I think many of the people in the chat now or in this webinar now have seen the image. I mean, it just, it’s such a touching image. But I can totally imagine that you were heartbroken at the time and that you still are in some ways to miss, yeah, the climax like that, I can imagine it’s it’s painful. Did you chat to them about it? How they felt because you just said you felt so guilty towards them. But…


Maggie Steber: Yeah, yes. And they they embraced Lynn. They, I mean, they, when she walked in, and it wasn’t me, and she had to introduce herself. And I think we had talked to them as well. The picture editor had said, you know, Maggie just is not going to make it back and you can’t ask people to hold… So this woman, it was a grandmother who had, was the health surrogate for her granddaughter, and she had overdosed in a drug, with drugs. So she was brain dead and she was in a coma, but they can die any minute. It doesn’t mean just because they’re being kept alive that they you know, that they won’t die and then to keep the face going that’s why they have to go right into surgery. But yes, I did talk to them. And they said, Well, we were sad that it wasn’t you. But Lynn was great. And they got to know Lynn. And they really appreciated how she’s such a gentle spirit, you know, and she really, they embraced her as well. But they were, they were so happy. And so glad that here was finally, this kind of miracle that was happening.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: That’s beautiful.


Maggie Steber: It’s just what, the reason I chose this is because it is about redemption, and that you can have a failure, but you can somehow make up for it. And


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Actually a question in the, from Sarah Terry, exactly, kind of exactly about this. Because I agree with her. She says this kind of became the photo from the story. I mean, it I’ve seen it in so many places. And you were talking about redemption. But do you do you think you would have taken this exact photo, if you would have also been? Well, how does she put it? If you hadn’t missed the operation, the surgery? Would this photo have been there now? That’s a great question.


Maggie Steber: Yeah, it is a great question. But yeah, I think it would have, because to be honest, as I spent so much time over a three year period with these family, and they embraced me. I mean, they talked about things in front of me that I was like, Oh, I probably shouldn’t be hearing this. But anyway, or just family matters or something. I was like a member, I was like a member of the family. They just, they, they were lovely to me. And it was, I love them. I love them. Still, I’m still in touch with all of them. And I want to go see them. As soon as COVID is kind of over because Katie is still, she has to take a lot of medication so that the face isn’t? What is the word? Rejected? Oh, yeah, it can happen. It can happen every time. So she’ll forever have to be taking these drugs that keep it from being rejected. It’s a never ending thing. But yes, early on, as I got to see how much they were like warriors, I thought I have to think of what kind of picture I can take that shows this because who knows if this, if we’re gonna, how long will we stay with this story if she doesn’t get a face transplant, and, you know, they were just, everything was up in the air. So who are the real heroes here? And I thought, as much as the doctors are, as much as the woman, the grandmother, she’s really a major one too, was to donate her granddaughter space. But who are the people who were there constantly. And I always thought it was Alicia and Rob, her parents.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: And you just said earlier when we were looking at your mother’s image that you like taking pictures from above, is this from above, or are they…? Above right? Yeah, I figured. How did you take this image there? What are they? Like, is it in a studio? Or is it at their home?


Maggie Steber: Oh, no. Yeah, it was at the Ronald McDonald House. So I just had them lay down on a bed seven about laying down in bed and standing over people seem to be my thing. Sorry. So they laid down. And I did have one strobe light setup with a white umbrella. But I didn’t want to use a strobe light because it becomes too harsh. So I like to use the modeling lamp and bounce it off of the umbrella. So it’s not shooting through the umbrella. But because it’s the modeling lamp, it’s not quite as strong. So kind of reflected it, bounced it off. And then there was a lamp on a table by the bed. So I just took the lamp shade off and use that as the, the other light because I like I really like to use hot lights as much as possible, you know, constant light as much as possible, because then I can really see what everything looks like, which is the point of having modeling lamps. But yeah, and I shot this on film on two and a quarter film. Oh, wow. Because I wanted it to be like forever.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah, well, it really is now. It’s beautiful Maggie and I’ve, you’ve probably seen it but in the chat. There’s a lot of love coming in for this image. Let me just quickly check if anyone by accident put a question in there because if anyone has a question, please put them in the q&a box so we see them now, There’s just a lot of love in the chat. So that’s lovely. Lovely to read as well. If anyone has a question, please put them in the q&a for us. So Maggie, I think looking at the time, questions.


Maggie Steber: Oh, okay. I’m gonna Should I stop the share?


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah, so we can see you, better. Oh, great.


Maggie Steber: Okay, sorry, I tend to kind of talk too much.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: No, no, no, no, we’re perfectly fine for time. Okay, what is your? And I wonder if you have any, but because it seems like you’ve done so many things already. But what is your dream story that you would like to shoot? It doesn’t necessarily have to be your next story. Just I mean, it can be outrageous, something you would just love to shoot?


Maggie Steber: Well, I I struggled with this question. Because I’m, whenever I’m, whenever I get an assignment, or I have a project of my own, I’m always dreaming about what the pictures could look like, you know, what, what is it about? What, what should they look like? How can I make an image that is surprising? Or hasn’t, you know, already been done dozens of times? So I don’t have a very good answer for that. But, um, so I would just say it’s whatever the next assignment is, or whatever the next personal project that I have, which I always believe that we should have going on, it’s


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: It’s a project in your mind to one that you’re working on you mean.


Maggie Steber: Both. Because you know, It’s a place where you can seek solace. Like, this is not an easy business, no matter where you are in it. And there’s so many things that take you from being you know, really emotionally so excited to be really down. But, um, so whenever I’m working on something, I’m always kind of trying to imagine what something would look like, or what should it be about, like, right now, I’m actually am working on a project where I’m photographing men with flowers and to— they are men I know. I have to know them. And it’s to denote that men have a gentle side as well, and that they don’t always and they don’t often get to show it. So I’m, so I’m always trying to think, How can I make an image? You know, it’s very different from the last one I made. But yeah, I don’t really have a great answer for that. I mean, I was thinking…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I mean, it’s not a specific one pointing out a certain project, but it’s, um, yeah, right. It’s always good to have your next project in mind and to be working on a project and not just, yeah…


Maggie Steber: Well, I was thinking, Oh, should I say that it would be to photograph Beyonce, but I don’t think so.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Put it out there!


Maggie Steber: I know, she’s wonderful. I’m a big fan, but I don’t want to photograph her. Because her PR people would be impossible. And


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: But then maybe your dream image would be of Beyonce without the PR people. It can be outrageous. So that will be a good one as well.


Maggie Steber: Why not? Dream big. Always dream big. Even if you’re doing something small, even if you’re going to photograph an interior for somebody. Dream big.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I totally agree. So on that note, what would have been or what would be your advice to your younger self if you could give it now.


Maggie Steber: I thought a lot about this too. And I guess. Well, I worked really hard most of my life and and in this business. And so I’m really proud that I worked so hard because it got me somewhere. And I wasn’t you know, I had a lot to learn. I wasn’t a great photographer. I’m still trying to be much better photographer. But what I guess I would say, I wasn’t afraid to work hard. And if I was disappointed, I just said, Okay, next time I’m going to do better. Um, but I think I would tell myself to have a little bit more confidence in myself, which I did do in terms of being kind of fearless, but which I wish I had had a little more confidence in my work, and I wish even now, I had a little more confidence in my work because I I never quite think I’m there yet. And I think I don’t know. That’s just silly. Sometimes I think that just being silly, but I…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I wonder what, I mean, with all the awards and honor, like all the prizes you won. I wonder. So apparently it’s not in that right? It’s not, that’s not where that kind of confidence comes from maybe a little bit? Or how do you see that?


Maggie Steber: Well, that has given me great confidence. Yes, but, I guess what I really look for in my work is joy, I mean, that I would have the joy of doing it. And um, so maybe that’s what I would have told my younger self is to have a little more joy about it. Because when we’re working so hard, you know, to move ahead, it’s not always joyful. I mean, you know, because things are really hard. And there’s a lot of people and how do you stand out and somebody won’t answer your email, or, you know, if you call that person, are they going to respond, or just all of the things that we are juggling as photographers in a business. So I think I would have told myself to be a little more joyful.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: That’s great advice. I think I could give the same to my younger self. I’ve only been in this industry for 15 years, but it’s just been. Yeah, like a race, kind of, you know, like, do better, do better, work harder, make, take more pictures, take better pictures, call the editor again, make it better stand out. And then it just it can be very stressful. And sometimes you have to relax. I totally agree.


Maggie Steber: Yeah, yeah. Or when something works out, take the pleasure in it. And it’s fine. It’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re going to have like a huge, big ego or anything like that, which is always boring. People with the, ugh, it’s just like, really?


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah. Well, that’s definitely not you. Like, that’s what I love about you that you’re so great at what you do. But it’s there’s no arrogance about it. You won all these awards, and you never, you’re just amazing. And just being you and yeah.


Maggie Steber: Thanks. Look how lucky we are. We’re so fortunate, even if we work hard in it, we make it happen. People let us into their lives, they let us tell their stories. They they open the door and say Yes, come in. Yeah, I’ll trust you. Yeah, you get to see things that you might never have seen. I mean, I’m just a nobody from Texas. And I’ve gotten to work in 71 countries, and I’ve had a life I never, ever expected to have. And so that’s so privileged. And I’m, I love mentoring a lot of people, I do it out of joy. Because it’s so exciting when you can just give somebody a little boost, and something happens for them. That’s always exciting. So…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I agree. Well, maybe thanks a million for all these lovely answers to the four questions that actually turned into, I think, seven questions. But that’s, I mean, I could have asked a lot more. And I see there are actually quite a bit of questions coming in in the q&a. So let’s get to those if that’s okay with you. And if anyone else. …there are already quite a bit. But let’s try if anyone else has a question. There are a few double ones. Susan and Daniel are both asking if you would do a photo follow up of Katie and her family. Is that something?


Maggie Steber: I’m planning to do that. I don’t know if it…I don’t know if the Geographic will be interested. But I’m doing it for myself. And as soon as you know, it’s safe for Katie, I want to go and do a follow up because they’re we became friends you know, and friends with a family and we’re still in touch. And I think they’re extraordinary people. And I have fun with them. And I have to say Katie, by the way, has the most evolved sense of humor. She’s hilarious, actually. Which is also, you know, just amazing. So yes, I will. I will go back and on my own or maybe maybe for the Geographic. I don’t ever assume anything from any magazine. So, you know…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: But it would be lovely. And I think a lot of people are curious to how she’s doing and how the family is. Yeah. I mean, looking at just the q&a. I think a lot of people are curious on how she’s doing.


Maggie Steber: She’s, she’s doing fine. Her work is not over. She goes to speech lessons. Because before her mouth went like this, she couldn’t even keep food in her mouth, her mother would have to feed her. But there was some issue with the tongue. So she’s going to speech lessons. She goes to physical therapy. She still goes to doctor’s appointments. Her parents are still taking care of her. They did find an apartment. It’s really lovely. And they’re working. They do different jobs to, you know, support themselves. And they have family members who are doing fundraisers from time to time to help.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I’m surprised in a way. I would have thought with the attention that the story got that they would be okay, financially with fundraisers because it was so big.


Maggie Steber: Well, I think I think that that helps. Yeah. And Rob, the father is writing a book. And I think it could be a very useful book, and a really great book that would help other people get through some of these crises that we sometimes face. So, you know, I mean, I try not to ask them too many personal questions about their financial situation. But they’re, they’re holding on. They are okay. And, you know, all the thing is that the Cleveland Clinic hospital had a grant from the the military, the US military, to move, face transplant science ahead. And following us. So many soldiers were coming back with some really terrible accidents that disfigured them. So they really, and Katie was the closest the youngest face transplant person. And so they were she was closer to their ages. So anyway, they were supporting them for quite some time.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Beautiful. So yeah, that’s amazing. Okay, please do an update for all of us. And everyone else.


Maggie Steber: I can’t wait to go.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Let’s see the other question. Jeff. Sigmund is asking, how do you separate your feeling or feelings or not let them show to your subjects? That’s a good question.


Maggie Steber: Um, I have to  save a lizard. Wait a minute.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Okay. A lizard needs to be saved. This actually happened as well, when we were preparing? Before we went live? The cat caught the lizard? And then Maggie saved the lizard. So this must be a daily routine. Now? Well, the cat is now she’s like, What did you do? My lunch. My breakfast.


Maggie Steber: Well, I just can’t let them you know, I mean, get in the house or something. The cats play with them. And then they kill them. And I just can’t let that happen too often. Yeah. Um, well, here’s the thing, um, you know, this is entirely depends on what the story is, like, sometimes you just need to stay back and not, and be an observer. It’s not about you, and that sort of thing. But I really try to, I don’t want to be the biggest person in the room in terms of, you know, because a photographer comes and people you know, are going to be photographed, and they’re not quite sure what you want. And here, you’re from some other culture, or, you know, who is this person from the Geographic or the New York Times or whatever. Um, so, I, I do try to get to know my subjects. And I tried to make them comfortable. And in the case of the Stubblefields, they were so welcoming, Katie’s parents, they were so welcoming. AndI don’t think I would have gotten some of the pictures I got, had I not just been very open with them, you know? Because I wanted them just to act like yeah, it was a fly on the wall, and that sort of thing. So, and to be honest, I want to get to know my subjects. And quite often I’ll, if I have to go photograph somebody, I’ll sit and talk to them first and find out more about them. And because I want them to be comfortable in who they are. And I want them to understand that they are empowered. They can say yes or no to anything, and that I’m just there to, you know, to take their picture. And…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: So important, otherwise it feel so unbalanced, and unsafe, I guess as well for the protagonist? If you are just…


Maggie Steber: Oh, yeah. And we don’t want to. Yeah, we don’t want to use people. We want to tell their stories, but we don’t necessarily want to use them in that way. And I think, as well, we learn a lot more about them. And then we can make a better picture. Because who would know that? Oh, you know, the person’s favorite place in the house is the bathroom or the bedroom or something? And then maybe that’s where you make a portrait, you know, something like that. But I know there are people who say, Oh, well, no, you’re not supposed to get close to people. And you’re supposed to stay separate. And I think well, sometimes that’s true. But what a bore, you know, I mean…


It’s important to have a connection, right. Anyway…


That’s, that’s part of the joy of being a photographer. And it’s so amazing that people will trust you earn something. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. To gift. Yeah…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: That’s true. Donald is asking—it’s actually in the chat, Maggie. He asks, Donald Harrison asks, Did you give specific asks of them as you were shooting,


Maggie Steber: Um, with a face transplant story, once in a while, if I thought it might be appropriate, I would ask, but I was just there with them all the time, where they lived in the car, with a doctor say, they just ignored me. They didn’t. I didn’t have to ask anything. But once I did want to— Katie was in the bathroom crying. And I was always trying to look for a picture that showed the amount of suffering that she went through. And because it wasn’t always obvious. And so I did ask about that. But she didn’t want me to. And so I, of course respected that. And I understood why. But I had other opportunities to make a picture like that. But I, yeah, I mean, sometimes you do have to show the suffering so that people realize, this woman is constantly in pain. She takes 15 pills a day through a hole in her stomach. And I think sometimes, I wish we had shown a little bit more of that suffering in the story. In the magazine, I don’t feel like we really had one picture that spoke to the suffering on a daily basis of this young woman and her family.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I think it was explaining the story quite a lot more. Right. Am I right? I think the story, in the story, it was explained in the written words, story.


Maggie Steber: Man, you want to read some great writing— that story— that was one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Beautiful.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Okay, we are going to go to the next question, because there’s quite a few left. And we have about eight minutes left. So let’s see if we can get to the bottom of the q&a. Sayan Hazra says, when you work on this kind of emotional story, how do you manage your own emotion? Oh, we just answered that. In the previous clip. Sorry, Sayan. Thanks, Sayan as well.


Maggie Steber: I think you need to go home and cry sometimes. Yeah.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah, yeah. And nothing wrong with that. Right?


Maggie Steber: No, it good cry once in a while. Just set you right back up. It gets it out. You know, it’s like, yeah…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I totally agree. Let me see. Okay, let me just read…Oh, yeah, you kind of just— I think [inaudible] asks about the fact, I have been working with cancer patients for three years, and it’s still still ongoing project. And I also entered into the epicenter of COVID-19, in the beginning of the pandemic, and it was so hard to be in the hospital and having a relationship with patients. And it makes things easy and also hard. You kind of just talked about that. But the question is how, Maggie, did you handle this— the best way to stay close in relationship or keep distance? We kind of talked about that. But what I wonder, because I have the same thing, of course I in my job I, in all the assignments I do and the projects I work on, you get so close, but you’re also going to move on to a next story. Don’t you sometimes have that problem that? Yeah, you I mean, just just start to love the people you photograph. Some of them you work with for years or months or weeks. And then there’s the next story. And it just I mean, the group grows right? Am I right?


Maggie Steber: Well, I always thought about it as an opportunity to make my own family. Because I had no siblings and just my mama. And I always thought, well, the people that I photograph, will be like my family. And so some I did stay in touch with because oh, like, I was photographing this full blood Cherokee family for 10 years. And Oklahoma, the Wildcats and, and they adopted me. And so I really loved that. They, in a ceremony, they adopted me. And so I’m still in touch with them from time to time. And some people, I mean, yeah, you go on, and you lose touch with a lot of people. But sometimes you become friends. And sometimes you’re able to stay in touch with them. And it just depends, you know.  I mean, yeah, you and you’re not going to be friends with everybody, either. But sometimes, yeah. And you always you remain friends with the ones that are supposed to be, you’re supposed to be involved with, to some degree, is it’s a two way street as well.


Yeah, that’s very true. That’s so true. Do you do feel there’s any use to keeping a distance? Because that was what the main question was about? I think you answered earlier by saying it’s the nice part is to get close, which I agree too, but is there any? I mean, staying a bit distance, does it sometimes have you used to do that? Do you sometimes do that?


Maggie Steber: Yeah. It depends on the person and what I’m supposed to do with them. Like if I was photographing Donald Trump, I would certainly keep a distance, physically and in every way. If I had to photograph somebody, and they were being a bit difficult, I would, I would just be very professional. And, you know, very, okay, let’s get this done. Here’s what I need. And you agreed to do this. So let’s do it. I mean, this is everybody. I think a lot of people who know me think she’s so sweet and da-da-da-da-da, but don’t get on the dark side.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Right. Oh, Maggie. Yeah. Yeah,


Maggie Steber:  can be tough. Boy, I can be tough. But I’d rather be nice if I can be. It just is better health wise.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah, true. But you need to be tough as well. You know, you need to have both. You can’t…


Maggie Steber: You have to. Yeah, I mean, especially, yeah, you can be in some very dangerous situations, and then you better really be tough. Yeah,


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: I agree. So there’s two more questions. One of them is from Sarah Leen. Really nice seeing you here, Sarah. Yeah, it is right. Where do you get your ideas for Lily LaPalma? And how do you so easily switch back and forth from photojournalism to art? That’s a great question. I wonder how how you do that as well.


Maggie Steber: I just have a really lively imagination.


Maggie Steber: Well, you know, after many, many decades, actually, of telling the stories of other people, um, I just started to, well, there was that, and then there was this influx, there was Instagram, there was this influx of younger photographers, we love them so much. And it’s about time, and a lot of wonderful changes have occurred in photography. So I welcome everybody, but I still need to make a living. And I thought maybe it’s time to reinvent myself in some way. And I can use Instagram for this, because it’s so immediate, and people are looking at it. And so, but then I thought, well, what can I do? And I thought, maybe I need to tell my own story. But in way, in a way that’s not so obvious. Because I, I have such a big imagination. And I have so many stories to tell sometimes they’re the stories of others, but it’s my engagement with them. And so I decided, okay, I need to make a secret place where everything is safe, and I can plant ideas. And I’m not going to tell anybody about it. Because people are so quick to say, oh, that’s been done 25 times or, you know, oh, that’s a stupid idea. Or, oh, yeah, I like that idea, too. I think I’ll do it, or something like that. So I made the secret garden and I planted these ideas and I didn’t mention them to anybody. And I just started making pictures. And that was making pictures that were not like what I normally do for, you know, documentary or photojournalism. I was just letting myself do things that I hadn’t done before and running into things. And I would see something or I’d be with a friend to lay down there for a minute, play dead or something, you know, I don’t know, I just decided to have fun with photography.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Playful with your…


Maggie Steber: Yeah, and letting my imagination go wild. And that, from that I started making these pictures. And then I realized that this is, this is a project, and maybe I’ll have to pursue it. And so I did. And I have, and I’ve been really fortunate with The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma. And she’s my alter ego. And I got a very handsome grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Who would have thought? And that’s really thanks to Sarah Terry, who convinced me to apply for that grant. Bless her heart. I said, What? No, they’ll never give it to me, and she said, You’re exactly the kind of person they want. I said, Oh, yeah. Right. But anyway, um,


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: You did it. It’s amazing. I mean, work that came from it is…


Maggie Steber: But I feel like I learned. So in telling my own story, I learned how to do that from telling other people’s stories. And so this idea of going back and forth between photojournalism or documentary and art, is, I still think that a lot of the pictures that I make for The Secret Garden are kind of journalistic, but maybe not. I don’t know.   I don’t know. I think it’s just from having grown up by myself, and just having a really wild imagination and reading a lot and thinking a lot.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah, so thanks for that. Maggie. There are two more questions. We did run out of time, but I just feel bad for not answering them. Okay.They kind of came in time, like three minutes before.


Maggie Steber. I’ll be brief. I’ll be brief in my answers.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah. So the last, one of the questions from Lou. Lou asks, How do you become more confident in the photos you take? I sometimes feel insecure with my work.


Maggie Steber: Oh, well, we talked about, we talked about that. Lou Lou, it never ends, it never ends, you’re never completely confident. It never ends. And if it does, then maybe that’s the last picture you should take. But…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: That’s a good answer.


Maggie Steber: Yeah, that’s not bad. You just have to keep taking pictures and look at a lot of pictures and study the history of photography for heaven’s sakes. I’m sort of, that’s really what made me want to be a photographer, all of the things that came before us. It’s amazing. The kinds of pictures people were taking, amazing. So just keep working. Keep working, shooting. And then the last one…


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Is a longer one from Thomas, how then you do feel if your story, the one that people you photographed gave you is changed by the publishers, and you are not 100% satisfied anymore? How do you explain this to your subjects? And thanks for your answer. I guess it’s maybe referring to Katie and all the like medication she had to take. And that part really was or wasn’t really shown in the magazine as much as you may be hoped.


Maggie Steber: Yeah. As much as I hoped. There was maybe one or two pictures, but not not the really dramatic one. So if you’re going to work for publications, you have to understand that you’re not, you know, you’re one of a team, you’re just a part of a team, you’re part of a system. They, they have very talented people who are editing the work. I mean, first of all, somebody wonderful gives you thank you, Sarah Leen, for giving me that assignment. And having faith in me to do it. So somebody has to have faith in you. And it was a big assignment. So I’m grateful to Sarah Leen. And then I worked with a picture editor, Kurt Mutchler, who’s an amazing picture editor. And that’s very sweet sometimes. He’s a very wonderful person, and very excellent. And then there’s a designer and then there’s the word side. And then there’s the, you know, the editor of the magazine, and so everybody and then there’s the advertisers, I guess they don’t really get at all involved with the publication of things, but it’s a team and you have to understand that everybody has some input, and you can have a conversation and then sometimes fight in a smart way for something. But it’s never gonna be perfect probably. And but at least it it got published, you made some interesting pictures, and people got to read and learn something. And and then you just have to tell your people that you photographed, Well, you know, I really fought hard for that, but it didn’t happen. And I’m not the only one who can make that decision. But you know, at least it’s there. Let’s look at the bright side if we can.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah, that’s beautiful and solid advice, because very true. Never. Sometimes. Yeah, you’re part of a team. Let’s put it that way.


Maggie Steber: I did learn this, quickly. If you don’t want, I’m not talking about the Geographic where you have to send everything, but let’s say you work for, doing a daily assignment for a magazine or newspaper. So, and you’re editing the work, you know, selecting the work. Don’t don’t submit a picture that you don’t want to see in print.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Oh, that’s really good advice.


Maggie Steber: I always turned them in, because I want them to see how hard I worked. But inevitably, not the picture I wanted to have.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Yeah, I do too. I just think okay, let me send in this so they know that I’ve actually been there and I invested. Yeah. And then they publish that one. You’re like, no, no, no, I just put it in there so, you know, as an extra to kind of publish small and then it ends up to be the spread. It does happen like that. Sometimes it’s true.


Maggie Steber: And after all these years, I’m still telling myself, okay, just send 10 pictures. It’s enough. Anyway, so it will be thank you so much.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: Thank you. It was lovely learning so much from you. And I hope you read some of the lovely comments in the chat. There’s a lot of love coming in, renewed faith in taking pictures and yeah, there’s there’s a lot of love there for you and and very right, so. So thanks, everyone for being here. It was really nice having you all here. And please on the 25th of October. There’s another four questions on photography and that time it will be with Stefano de Luigi.


Maggie Steber: Oh, yes! Exactly! Very lovely person. So wonderful.


Ilvy Nijiokiktjien: He is a wonderful person. So please join us on the 25th of October. And thank you Maggie and thanks everyone and see you next time.


Maggie Steber: Thank you so much everyone for joining us.

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