Renowned Photographer

Arts, business, Life

“Sometimes failure is in the cards. The deck is stacked against you. You start out to do something but sense a feeling in your bones it’s not going to work out, no matter what you do.

Maggie Steber, Humanitarian  and National Geographic Photographer

This happened to me on a photo assignment with an important magazine I worked with for decades. The day came when an assignment I was given was destined to fail and I knew it going in. There were signals. The picture editor hated the writer and scoffed at the story’s validity which was about the legacy of the Taino Indigenous people in the Caribbean before the arrival of the Europeans. There were few artifacts outside of museums or drawings on cave walls…. or so the picture editor thought. In fact, we found young Puerto Rican Taino descendants who identified with their culture holding a run across their island to rekindle the Taino spirit; there were extraordinary cave drawings in the Dominican Republic; in Cuba, we found direct descendants of the Taino people in rural villages or spiritual leader. But I also struggled, not only because of the picture editor’s constant negativity and determination to sink the story, but also because the signs were not as vibrant as they needed to be for this particular magazine….I felt like even if I was a warrior for the story, this was not my kind of story and I feared I would fail it.”

“Halfway through the assignment the magazine editors looked at what had been shot to decide if the story was continuing. By that time I was so frustrated and so bewildered by the picture editor’s constant attacks on the writer and story, I was hoping for a merciful killing of the assignment.

The picture editor sent me a selection of my photos she had put together that basically looked like I had only shot in Havana and only on one day and it was street shooting that had nothing to do with the story subject. She made me look lazy and uncaring.

Maggie Steber, Humanitarian  and National Geographic Photographer

It was slanted and just plain wrong. I re-edited my photos and sent her my selection, asking her to show that I had tried to find something to photograph. I told her that her edit made me look really bad and that if my boat was going to sink, I would be sinking it with my edit that I felt were superior. I insisted she show my work because she could have really affected to preserve my future with this magazine. In the end, the story was killed and I have no idea what she showed to the editors or what she said.

I was glad it was over but the picture editor refused to speak to me or respond to emails.
I thought that was it for me, the end of a lovely and happy relationship with the magazine of my dreams.

I thought that was it for me, the end of a lovely and happy relationship with the magazine of my dreams. And for several years, I didn’t get any assignments until one day, the magazine called. I got an assignment that was very well suited for me: a tough but heart-felt story along with a note from the assignment picture editor that I was the first one to come to her mind when the story proposal was accepted. It was so unexpected and I’m still pinching myself as I continue to work on this very challenging but intimate story.

For several years I would run into the picture editor who sunk my ship, or so I thought, and she would refuse to speak to me until one day I stopped her and took her by the shoulders and hugged her. She calmed down and hugged me back. I never saw her again.

Failure is such a broad term. Success can be filled with failed attempts and vice versa.

Sometimes failure is inevitable and sometimes it’s not our fault and has nothing to do with our efforts.

Maggie Steber, Humanitarian  and National Geographic Photographer

In the end I failed to change the mind of someone who was not going to change her mind, I failed to find the things for the story to succeed, and I failed to make my own feelings understood.
But in the end I succeeded in moving on and moving past and it paid off in ways I never could have suspected.”

Maggie Steber: Multi-award winning documentary photographer known for her humanistic stories of people and cultures. As a National Geographic Woman of Vision she has worked in 66 countries.
Her work can be found in multiple collections, including the Library of Congress. Judge on many competitions and grant panels including the Pulitzer Prize Committee for Photography for 2015 and World Press Photo.

Category Arts, business, Life


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