UM student Gaelle Mortel honors photographer Maggie Steber with a certificate on behalf of Planet Kreyol, a Haitian student organization, during Steber’s February 20 talk at UM Libraries Special Collections.
By Sarah Block
Special to UM News
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 28, 2014)—Faculty member Maggie Steber, an award-winning photojournalist who has spent 25 years photographing Haiti, wants people to know the riches of the western hemisphere’s poorest nation.
“A lot of people think of Haiti as just another little country that is very poor, and very corrupt, and has a long history of hypocrisy,” Steber said last month at her discussion on “The Audacity of Beauty” at UM Libraries Special Collections. “But it’s also very important to understand that Haiti is a country that had the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world.”
That fact is a point of pride for the country, a pride that Steber’s photos reflect loudly, even those taken during Haiti’s 1986 riots over rising food prices. One of those photos shows a family sliding a box of food under a shuttered warehouse door. As Steber, the former art director for The Miami Herald, explained at the February 20 discussion, by week’s end, mounting pressure by the people forced Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier, whose dictatorial regime was the source of the protests, to flee the country.
“People rich and poor took to the streets hugging, dancing, and singing,” said Steber, whose work has appeared in Newsweek, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Sunday Times of London.
Steber dedicated herself to capturing the spirit of the country and its people, and today her photography of Haiti is valued for both its historical and artistic significance. “Maggie’s photos show there is beauty even in the face of great tragedy,” said Manuscripts Librarian Beatrice Skokan, who was involved with the Libraries’ inclusion of Steber’s work in the Collaborative Archive of the African Diaspora, made possible with a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida. A series of her large-scale prints are on display in “The Truth Marches On,” an ongoing exhibition through the end of March at the Otto G. Richter Library, commemorating Black History Month.
During her talk, Steber recalled how Haiti continued to be riled by political upheaval and gang violence through the late 1980s. “People were trying to vote and trying to change things, and they were killed for it,” she said, noting that survivors often asked her to photograph the bodies, to ensure that those who had sought change were not forgotten.
As a journalist and an artist, Steber places a high importance on knowing the subjects of her photography. She aims to blend into her environment, using modest camera equipment, and she learned to speak Creole from street children who would lead her to stories. “As a photographer if we can attach our pictures somehow to a larger idea than just the moment that we’re in, those pictures become more important and lasting,” she said.
After years of covering the headlines, Steber began visiting Haiti when it was quiet. One of the photographs she shared at “The Audacity of Beauty” is of a farm wife and her children posing for a portrait they requested after noticing Steber taking pictures in their village. “They put on their best clothes, and I fussed over them for a while, and even took out my tripod,” Steber said. “This was really a special moment for them.”
When the shoot was over, she turned around and realized the entire village had lined up to have their own portraits taken. “This is the thing about Haiti: it’s a place that is full of lessons. And if you will open yourself up to them, you will be changed by it,” she said.
When she returned with the prints weeks later, villagers came running from the fields. “They were laughing and they were crying, and rolling on the ground…and they were so excited because they had these pictures that could become heirlooms for each family.”
It was, Steber said, the first time in her already long career that she understood the real value of a photograph.
Today, aside from her UM faculty position, Steber is a mentor for young photographers in Haiti. At her talk, she announced that a proposal she had made to National Geographic on behalf of the nonprofit Fotokonbit had been accepted that day. The photographers for the story will be Haitian teenagers. “It will be Haitians showing us the beauty of their country, and that’s a great step forward,” she said.
At the end of the event, Steber answered questions from the audience about her experiences. UM student Gaelle Mortel was the last to raise her hand and took the microphone to present an honorary certificate to Steber on behalf of Planet Kreyol, a UM Haitian student organization. Steber has attended and spoken at the organization’s events, including a recent vigil on the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, from which the country is still recovering. Mortel then addressed the audience, remarking that Steber is one of them—if not by heritage, “by association, and by the heart.”