By David Gonzalez May. 25, 2012
To much of the outside world, the image of Haiti — when it pops up at all — is one of catastrophes, both natural and man-made. Violence, grinding poverty, flood, earthquakes all leave a lingering image of a benighted nation bereft of tender moments.
Maggie Steber thinks that’s nonsense — and she has the pictures to prove it.
Ms. Steber has made more than 80 trips to Haiti since 1986, venturing far and wide from the slums of Port-au-Prince, through the Artibonite Valley and up to Cap Haitien. She did this at great personal risk — not that she would brag about that. For much of this time, she covered a lot of the breaking stories and chaotic events favored by editors. But there came a point when she felt that was only half the story, and not even the most interesting one.
“Some years ago when I first started working in Haiti, I realized I had to go when it was quiet, when there were moments of peace, not danger and violence,” she said. “We don’t take the time to see it because, mainly, people are not interested. But you see glimpses of beautiful things in the countryside and the slums. There are moments of beauty that are exquisite. They are profound. But you have to be in tune with things when you see them. Those are the moments where pride lives, where life is lived.”
Those sentiments inform “The Audacity of Beauty,” a Web site that showcases 25 years of her Haiti work. The title itself is a provocative spin on how she now looks at Haiti — where I worked alongside her in the 1980s when I was a correspondent for Newsweek, receiving a crash course on how to understand a very complicated and misunderstood place.
“The idea came about in the last couple of years,” said Ms. Steber, who lives in Miami. “This idea of the audacity of these people to have anything beautiful in their lives.”
Of course, the Haitian people showed no small measure of audacity when a slave uprising cast the French from the island in 1801. But in the decades since that historic moment, she feels Haiti has been vilified, in the international arena, in how it’s portrayed and how it’s understood. Too often, she says, how Haitians see themselves is overlooked. If anything the country — which once far outpaced its neighbor the Dominican Republic, culturally and economically — had a vibrant intellectual and creative class whose members were driven to early graves or exile by the dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalierand his henchmen, the Tontons Macoutes.
Her first trip to Haiti was in 1980 to cover the wedding of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, who had unsteadily taken power after his father died in 1971. She did not return for her second trip until 1986, to cover food riots that were part of the simmering protests that would eventually end the family’s despotic rule.
From then on, she visited the island six or seven times a year, cutting back in recent years. Yet, as anyone who has worked in Haiti knows, there is never enough time to cover all the things you want. In some ways, it became easier for her to go there when she did not have to cover breaking news.
The 2010 earthquake, she said, strengthened her resolve to follow a different path.
“I was brokenhearted and stunned by what had happened,” she said. “And then came this onslaught, like flies swarming over a corpse. It was wild being there. Some people did good and important work, but others were looking for one thing: violence, death and suffering.”
She preferred to look for the small moments that conveyed a big truth: that there was not only beauty, but times when people came together to help each other despite the odds. Her images render those scenes well. A little girl in a blue lace dress dancing against the barren landscape in Gonaives (Slide 3). A man wracked with grief at his mother’s funeral, held by a circle of friends, as if he were being lowered from the cross (Slide 1).
“It’s biblical, so sad and tragic, yet it is exquisite,” she said. “Maybe I feel that way more since my mother died. That even in pain, there is this exquisite experience that reminds you how much you love somebody.”
As you might imagine, she’s been busy. In addition to her work overseas for The Times and Newsweek, she also served as director of photography at The Miami Herald. More recently, she has been contributing to National Geographic.
Her busy schedule might also explain why it took so long to get the Web site going. At the urging of Kim Grinfeder, a colleague at the University of Miami, where Ms. Steber has taught, she collaborated with students in a Web design class to produce her Haiti archive.
The result is a site that not only covers her quarter-century of work, but includes multimedia components in which she discusses the images she has made over the years.
Now that she has more freedom to follow her heart, she has some plans for projects that had eluded her. Later this year, she is hoping to find a small village and do a formal portrait of every family. It will be accompanied by short videos of the families. She hopes her subjects will determine how they want to be seen.
“I’m into demystifying everything,” she said. “Except myself. I want to remain a mystery, but everything else can be open.”