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Women of Vision: Maggie Steber

Lessons in managing money and risk.

Article03_Spr14PNC is proud to sponsor “Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment,” a new traveling exhibition that celebrates the careers and photography of 11 talented female photojournalists who have made a significant impact with their images. In conjunction with the exhibition, Insights will present a series of interviews with the featured photographers. For the inaugural interview, we ask photographer and documentary filmmaker Maggie Steber about risk and reward.

Tell us about a time when you had to assess the risks you were willing to undertake against the potential rewards.

That’s a tough question to answer. In Haiti, where I have photographed for over 25 years, I have often been in trouble without ever meaning to be because trouble pops up out of nowhere there. Once I was in a church in Haiti photographing an outspoken liberation theology priest during a mass that I had been warned could be dangerous, and suddenly a gang of about 40 men burst into the church with machetes, machine guns and clubs and began shooting and killing people. It was sheer panic, people running everywhere, screaming, trying to escape. I started shooting pictures but realized pretty quickly that I should be more concerned with escaping myself. When I realized there was no way out, I panicked and ran right into the arms of a man with a machete. He grabbed my shoulder and lifted his machete to kill me. At that moment, I looked into his eyes and I saw nothing, no soul, nothing. That scared me more than anything, and I managed to wrist myself from his grasp and run for the one door that everyone in the church was trying to escape through. I put my arms out around the people at the back of the crowd and pushed with all my might and somehow we fell through the door and into the sacristy where the priests would robe. Then we ran out into the schoolyard of the church-school compound. I ran to a wall to jump over but saw that as people were jumping, men with machetes were hitting and killing them. For three hours, I was trapped, along with many Haitians. Bodies were everywhere, and the men would peek over the wall and shoot at us. A bunch of us gathered rocks to throw at the men if they came at us again, but they didn’t. And finally it was quiet. I snuck into the school and broke out a window and jumped out, running to the front of the church where I saw that my little car had burned. I managed to flag down a taxi, run back to my hotel, and I called the Associated Press to file an eyewitness report. It was later that evening that I had the full realization that I could have been killed so easily and that the reward was not any photographs I took, which could never show the chaos and catastrophe, but it was my life. After that, I took much more measure of whether any photograph was worth my life. I’m sure this is a very dramatic circumstance, but in truth, in some places, I am sure just being a woman can be a very risky thing. One learns how to sense danger: There are signs, almost like a smell in the air. One’s instincts become very honed and especially in covering dangerous places, you have to learn to recognize the signs.

What are the filters you used to make such decisions, and how can woman use these filters in other professions?

I found that patience and belief in what you were doing was invaluable. I would replace the word filter with instinct. Your instincts become very keen as a photographer, largely because we are observers.

I must say it is a thrilling thing.

So I think if women can watch and listen, they can help people solve a lot of problems and they themselves can solve problems. It helps one gain the confidence and trust of people who long ago lost those things. And I found that if you say something and make it happen, it can change someone’s life. I think whether we are men or women, making that a goal, especially as a manager of talented people, is essential.

What has your work in photography taught you about how to manage and consider business risks?

How people perceive you and how they respond to you makes a huge difference in whether you will succeed or not. Whether it’s investing your own money in doing a project or whether it’s deciding the degree of danger you are willing to risk in order to do your work, you learn over time. I’ve also learned this: You can be the world’s greatest photographer, but if you don’t have a keen sense of business, and every aspect of it, it doesn’t matter. Your work will not be seen, remain unpublished and you will remain unrecognized. You have to understand how magazines work, how publishing works, that a great deal depends on advertising, that publications have budgets and space budgets (the number of pages they can print each year), and the role that both photo editors and writing side editors play in making decisions and you must learn who your audience is and what their interests are. In other words, learning about the business you are in will help you avoid the pitfalls, help others be better at their jobs and gauge which magazine is right for which idea.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about taking risks?

No photograph is worth your life. Being away and especially being in dangerous situations causes great worry in your loved ones. Human contact can save you—sometimes just touching someone who is about to do you harm can save you. Understanding both sides of a story or situation, even if you consider the other side to be wrongdoers, makes a difference. Understanding the motivation of others can help you avoid conflict and come up with a better plan. No one really works alone. Making someone else look like the hero throws light back on you. Their success is also yours. A generous spirit and patience can change things immeasurably.

What’s your favorite story you tell about yourself and risk?

I guess I told those stories above, about the attack in Haiti and about the Pulitzer finalist stories at The Miami Herald. If you can just be patient, you might outlast those who do not value your ideas, as long as those ideas are solid and not just about your ego but actually have a larger value.

Any last advice?

I would say this to women: Enjoy being a woman but be businesslike at all times when dealing with men and other women. People appreciate it, and they trust it. There are immeasurable benefits in being a woman at the right times. Don’t do business in a cutthroat manner. Be honest, don’t play games, and be the example. BE SMART but not a smart-ass (sorry for that language). Don’t make promises you cannot keep, and if you do make promises, figure out how to make them come to fruition in the most honest and direct way. You can become known for that and you will rise through the ranks because you win the trust of people that way. Remember that old saying: Be careful how you treat people on your way up because you might meet them again on your way down. And I would add this: Don’t reveal everything, especially your personal issues. A little mystery is a good thing.

To learn more about “Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment,” please visit wovexhibition.org.

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