Picture images of developing countries in American media and you’ll likely think of a few recurring tropes — photos depicting squalid living conditions and political strife.
“We always end up looking at poor countries as being fraught with tragedy and poverty,” says documentary photographer Maggie Steber, in a video trailer for her new solo show opening in Coral Gables on Thursday. “We don’t recognize what is beautiful. We don’t equate what is beautiful.”
Steber’s show, Audacity of Beauty, upends all of those tired visual cliches with a series of arresting color photos culled from over 25 years of shooting in Haiti. While she’s worked in over 62 countries, Steber’s returned frequently to the island country since the early ‘80s, when she first went to document the Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier dictatorship.
Though she arrived, first, with the mission of capturing societal and governmental upheaval, over time, she found new themes for her work there. Beauty survived, in everything from the landscape to the small joys of people’s everyday lives.
It is these moments that make up the body of work in Audacity of Beauty, which sprawls throughout the Leica camera store on Coral Gables’ Miracle Mile. The cool, minimalist store just opened this past March, and besides a full range of Leica products, promises lectures and more exhibitions like Steber’s.
In advance of the opening reception on June 6, we reached Steber by e-mail to ask about her work in Haiti. And Audacity of Beauty, actually, is just one of two bodies of work she’s exhibiting — photography buffs in New York will find another Steber series, Rites of Passage, on view at the local Leica store there. (Click here and then here to read an interview about it on the Leica site.)
WLRN: How did you first start traveling to Haiti? Was it specifically for photography purposes or something else?
Steber: I lived in Africa from 1978 to 1980 and missed it terribly. My agent at Sipa Press, a French picture agency, suggested I go to Haiti because they needed a story on the dictatorship and widespread poverty. He claimed it was just like Africa and it was. The reason for this is that it is the only successful slave revolt in world history. African slaves in Haiti rose up against their French masters and the world turned its back on Haiti, isolating it so the word of a slave revolt that established a country would not get out (or) encourage others.
WLRN: The web site for the exhibition features a section called “My Favorites” where you’ve picked out nine photos from among those on view. Of these, which are your top three, and what are the stories behind them?
Steber: This is in the slum of Rabato outside the dry dusty town of Gonaives, Haiti. Out of a barren landscape a young girl comes singing and dancing. In Haiti, beauty like this is what you see out of the corner of your eye; it's always unexpected though you know it's there. It's not obvious. The girl represents an elegance and spirit, even in poverty, a dignity.
Steber: Here a young Haitian man rises up in grief at the burial of his mother, who died during pre-election violence, in the National Cemetery in Port-au-Prince, November 1987. The elections were the first held in 30 years after the Duvalier dictatorship was toppled in January 1986.
Steber: In this photo, Haitian soldiers rush in with rifles and batons to stop a boy and hundreds of others from taking food from an aid warehouse in Cap-Haitïen in January, 1986, after a full day of demonstrations against steep food prices they could no longer afford. Hundreds of people covered the warehouse like ants on a piece of candy. With so much chaos, the army finally pulled back and let the starving people take the food.
Demonstrations like this one occurred throughout the nation, trickling down to the capital and isolating the dictatorship. One week after this demonstration, the regime fell and flew into exile, liberating Haiti from the 30-year dictatorship of the Duvalier family and the dreaded secret police, the Tonton Macoute.
WLRN: Is it hard for you to really pick “favorite” images, or did these stand out easily for you?
Steber: It's really hard but these photographs represent major events, startling moments, and surprises, and I think they spell out a lot of recent Haitian history since the fall of the Duvalier regime. But it's also the stories behind them that I love or think are important. I would choose more than nine as favorites, but I just love the number nine. It's my number, so there you go.
WLRN: Haiti is a country facing many challenges. Over the years of visiting, was there ever a time at which you felt you might stop shooting there — at least for a long while?
Steber: I stopped shooting in Haiti in 1988 for about six months. And since the earthquake, when I was there quite a bit, I only go twice a year at most. I'm hoping to change that.
In 1988 I quit thinking I would never return. I was doing a story on a Catholic priest whose church was on the edge of a slum. One Sunday, during a special mass in which everyone wore white and the church doors were locked with chains, just as the mass began, there were loud noises outside the church. Suddenly a gang of about 40 men burst in with guns, machetes, and clubs and began shooting at everyone.
The priest, who was popular among the parish faithful for his criticism of the government, the wealthy and U.S. interference in Haitian affairs, was whisked away. People were shot, the pews were flying — it was terrifying. I was trying to take pictures and finally realized I could be killed.
I ran to the only open exit by the altar, but was blocked by people trying to escape as the men continued to work their way forward. I panicked and ran down the center aisle right into the arms of a man with a machete. He grabbed my shoulder and raised the machete. I looked into his eyes and I saw nothing, no soul. That scared me so badly I turned and ran. He lost his grip on my very old dress which gave way, thank goodness.
I ran to the blocked exit and pushed everyone forward as hard as I could and by some chance, we fell through and escaped to another area. We were stuck for three hours as the men would come and shoot at us from the walls. They set the church afire. There were bodies everywhere.
Finally, it was quiet and when I went out to get into my car, it had been burned. I hailed a taxi, got back to my hotel, and called the Associated Press with an eyewitness report. I left the next day and thought I would never return — but I did, six months later. Haiti gets in your blood and you can't stay away too long.
WLRN: Why exhibit this particularly body of work now?
Steber: The new Leica Store on Miracle Mile has a fine gallery space and they want to exhibit the work of premier Leica photographers. Mine will be the second exhibition in the gallery. David Farkas, the manager, likes the Haiti work and [Haitian culture] is a very, very rich part of our community, with fine people who help each other settle into a new land as immigrants here. It makes some sense as we hope the photographs will help the viewers leave knowing something more about their Haitian neighbors here in Miami,
what they escaped from, what they had to leave behind.
WLRN: Why do you shoot Leica? How has the brand helped your style?
Steber: I have shot Leica cameras most of my career. The lenses are the key to their value and they render color in the most precise way. I have both film and digital cameras, both rangefinders and SLRs, and I recently had the occasion to shoot with the new S2, which is an amazing camera. It’s really lovely.
But I'm not an equipment geek. I just want to use something that will see what I saw, and I love the idea that the cameras are my buddies out on an adventure. Silly as it might sound, I think they make me a better, more careful, more subtle and braver photographer. They are my partners in crime!
The opening reception for Audacity of Beauty is at 7 p.m., Thursday, June 6 at the Leica Store Miami, 372 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Admission is free with RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 305-921-4433 or visit leicastoremiami.com