National Geographic photojournalist Maggie Steber remembers one of the first times she was confronted with the real possibility of danger on the job.
"Once in Haiti in a church that had been attacked by a gang with machetes and machine guns, and it was the church of Father Aristide, who later became president, and many people were killed, and there was only one way out, and I realized I had to get out, and I panicked," Steber recounts from her Miami home. "I ran down the middle aisle of the church and right into the arms of a man with a machete, and he raised the machete." An old, worn trapping of femininity ended up saving her life.
"When these things happen, it's a split second, but when you replay them in your mind, it's in slow motion, and I looked into that guy's eyes and I didn't see anything, and that scared me so much. That day, fortunately, I wore an old dress, and he had me by my dress, but the dress tore, and I was able to get away because of it. But then there were several other times where something bad could have happened after that."
Having been to more than 62 countries in her career, Steber is one of a select group of photojournalists sent on assignment to cover political upheaval, child marriage, war zones, natural disasters, genocide, and many other breathtaking but non-headline-making moments in between for the magazine. The scope of Steber's group narrows even further to female photojournalists -- a category she happily shares with several women involved in the traveling art show "Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment."
The exhibition opens Thursday at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre, a nonprofit visual-arts organization dedicated to community programs, workshops, and other educational activities that promote the arts of photography and digital imaging.
Steber, along with Lynsey Addario, Kitra Cahana, Jodi Cobb, Diane Cook, Carolyn Drake, Lynn Johnson, Beverly Joubert, Erika Larsen, Stephanie Sinclair, and Amy Toensing, has more than 100 photographs on display at the center during FOTOfusion's 20th-anniversary festival this week.
The project, curated by National Geographic Senior Photo Editor Elizabeth Krist, covers a wide range of landscapes and social issues, including everything under the lens from trophy hunting in Zambia to the packed beaches of Jersey Shore.
The show's impetus came during an anniversary planning issue, when the magazine's editors began selecting some of their favorite pieces and realized that many of the most influential of the photographs were taken by their female photographers, so perhaps it was time to take note of this accomplishment. The show opened in Washington, D.C., in 2013.
It may come at a time when it seems like journalists' safety has been weighing on the collective American psyche, but Steber says that the dangers have always been there but that with modern technology, we are just able to see it unfolding in front of our eyes. When asked whether being a woman journalist added any considerations to the job, Maggie said that in many cases, people's perceptions of what a woman could accomplish is actually what helped her get more imbedded.
"I love being a woman," she says. "I have found that it is helpful more than hindering, and partly because we don't seem as imposing, we are not threatening in any way. And also because I don't think people, especially in foreign countries, think of women as photographers, so they don't take us too seriously, which is OK, because that allows us to do our work. So it can work for you. I mean, there is always the fear that something can happen to a woman anytime anywhere."
But Steber says that in spite of any risks or considerations, she feels a duty to the people of the places she visits as a journalist to tell another narrative, one that is often outside of the spectacle they are being sent to cover, one that tells a story of the immense beauty and culture of a place.
"In Haiti, there was violence, and so I was covering that, but then I realized... it wasn't a fair depiction of Haiti, because there is this huge other side that is beautiful and exquisite and tender and gentle and loving and magical, so that's important to not be overlooked... So I've made it my mission to do."
Steber herself realizes what a rare and unique path her career has taken. She cautions students to begin working on long-term projects to have something to show editors and to get ready for hard, unglamorous work. When you go to a destination to cover it, go in with a child's-eye view, she says, and talk to everyone.
"Sometimes they say no, I can't take their picture, and that's fine, but sometimes they invite me home, you know?" Steber enthuses.
It is easy to get caught up in a Secret Life of Walter Mitty moment, but access to scholarships and money to get your first project going can often quell the fantasy for photojournalists just starting out. This is where Palm Beach Photographic Centre's president, Fatima NeJame, hopes this year's FOTOfusion scholarships can come in handy. It's something the center did years ago but was able to bring back fully only this year.
NeJame traveled to the 2013 D.C. opening for the "Women of Vision" exhibition and met with a photographer she had helped many years ago who said, "You gave me a scholarship the first year you had Fotofusion, [and] because of that, I was able to show my work to editors, and it really helped me out."
Now, NeJame says, "We are hoping it's going to be an ongoing thing."
The overarching theme of this year's FOTOfusion is the power of women photographers.
With the help of the center's classes and scholarships, NeJame is hoping to inspire future Maggie Stebers to enter into the field. In addition to the National Geographic exhibition, several other activities are planned for the five-day event.
"It's our 20th anniversary, and there are so many women in photography that have not been recognized," she says. "Women are making such a significant contribution to photography, and we haven't done something honoring women in photography before, so I thought it would be a great chance."
"Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment." Opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, January 22, at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre, 415 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Free and open to the public. Besides Steber, photographers Kitra Cahana, Erika Larsen, and Lynn Johnson will attend public discussions. Visit facebook.com/PalmBeachPhotographicCentre for a full list of FOTOfusion events this week.
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