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Inside Haiti: A photographer’s vision

For more than 20 years, photojournalism alumna Maggie Steber has documented Haiti’s people, history and culture.

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“Haiti is dreamlike, magical, evil, heavenly. It seems as though the fates pointed to Haiti and decided this is where they would put the portal between heaven and hell.” — Maggie Steber, from The New York Times Lens blog

After the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, documentary photographer Maggie Steber returned to Haiti, as she has countless times before, to bear witness to the latest tragedy in a nation’s tumultuous history.

Born 200 years ago when a slave revolt ousted their French colonial oppressors, Haiti was shunned by slave-holding nations that feared its example might inspire similar uprisings elsewhere.  This dual legacy of liberation and abandonment is the backdrop to recent decades marked by violence, dictatorships, coups and devastating poverty.

Maggie Steber


Steber, an alumna of The University of Texas at Austin, has traveled there to document Haiti’s history and culture for the past few decades, from the Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship in the 1980s through the bloody elections that followed, as well as to the installation, and then forced resignation and exile, of President Jean-Claude Aristide.

Despite the ongoing strife, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere has endured. The recent earthquake dealt perhaps the most devastating blow of all though. The sheer magnitude of destruction — 300,000 dead and countless homeless — exacted an unparalleled toll, not only on lives but, Steber fears, on the cultural underpinnings.

So, as she always has, Steber went to Haiti to make images, this time of the earthquake, not just to bring back news photographs but also to capture images that reveal the people on an even deeper level — images that will help the international community understand the effect of the devastation on a rich and complex culture, lest their rebuilding efforts destroy the very essence of the nation that they hope to save.

Many of her pictures of the earthquake are emotionally and psychologically intimate. Others show the massive physical devastation. With the nation’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, reduced to rubble, Steber created a monumental photograph, a 65-foot composite image of the main downtown commercial and historical street, the Grande Rue. The photo was made by adjoining more than 250 single images, one after another, conveying a sense of the epic dimension of the destruction.

Her many years of documentation have created a very nuanced study of a people, as well, that includes the social and cultural complexity, with glimpses into the day-to-day life, the Vodou traditions and even the hope and strength that emerge, despite the disaster.

An exhibit of her images of the earthquake, “Haiti between Destruction and Hope,” including the 65-foot Grande Rue print, will be on display at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. The exhibit is being held in conjunction with the 2011 Lozano Long Conference, a broadly interdisciplinary group of scholars and students, from UT and internationally, who will gather to discuss this topic. It will include a panel discussion with Steber called “Haiti: From Destruction to Hope.”

“This is a rare opportunity for our photojournalism students to be inspired by one of our program’s award-winning alumni,” says Donna DeCesare, professor of journalism and documentary photographer. “Exposure to the power of images expands appreciation for the critical role that documentary photojournalism plays, not only in an intellectual setting but for an informed society.”

As a student at the university, Steber studied photojournalism under such legendary mentors as Russell Lee of the Farm Security Administration, Gary Winogrand, who revolutionized New York City street photography in the 1960s, and Professor Emeritus J.B. Colson.

She has worked as a documentary photographer in 61 countries. A collection of the Haiti photographs was published in “Dancing on Fire: Photographs from Haiti” by Aperture. She was a contract photographer for Newsweek Magazine for four years and has worked through several press agencies, as well the Associated Press in New York as a photo editor.

She served as assistant managing editor of photography and features at the Miami Herald from 1999-2003 and guided the photo projects to become Pulitzer Prize finalists twice and a third time as winner.

Her work appears regularly in National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Guardian of London and many other American and European publications.

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