Interview with American photographer Maggie Steber

In 2021, the Leica Oskar Barnack Award (LOBA) enters its 41st edition, and for the second time the participants have been chosen by nominators. This group of around one hundred photography experts from over 40 countries includes, once again, a considerable number of photographers. Many have themselves been LOBA winners in the last 40 years, or are accomplished advisors, who contribute with their experience and knowledge of the photography scene. In a new episode of our LOBA Insights Interviews, we spoke with the multi-award-winning, US documentary photographer, Maggie Steber, about her assessment of currents developments in the world of photography.

Since Leica plays a significant role in your photographic equipment, did you ever apply to or were you proposed for the LOBA in the past?

I have never applied for LOBA, although I often meant to do so and wish I had. Of course, it’s never too late, since Leica cameras are the long-time “companions” of my photographic work. They are the only 35mm cameras I use for both my professional and personal projects and assignments.

“LOBA enjoys a long history of honouring some of the highest quality and strongest photographic work.”

What is special about LOBA from your point of view?

In my opinion, the works equal the high standard of quality that is already reflected by Leica cameras, even if the winning work most often was not made with a Leica. I’m always deeply moved or surprised or informed by the visual stories that merit this award. But to be honest, I personally find it very regrettable that the LOBA is now selected through a nomination process. I think this idea closes it off to many people who have done great work, but who do not get nominated because they might not know the “right” people in this business. But still, I am, of course, grateful to be part in the new process and to be a nominator.

What particular efforts should be made to ensure that the range of nominees is as diverse as possible?

Making sure that a variety of people know about this competition. Sharing this information with people around the world and in different cultures. Even setting up a nomination situation doesn’t always guarantee a wider diversity, but at least at this moment it seems that people are more mindful of Majority World photographers, and of bringing them into the fold. Photo editors are especially well-suited to nominate or to encourage and inform photographers about these opportunities, because they tend to see more work on a regular basis than anyone else.

Can you give us any insight into how you have proceeded in selecting your proposals for the LOBA?

Throughout the year, I look at work by a myriad of photographers from all over the world. Many people send me their work looking for advice, comments, asking for some help editing it; and while I can’t help everyone, it gives me a real insight to what work is being done around the globe. I’m a visual storyteller and I’m looking for stories that can be told in new ways, stories that are being photographed in innovative ways, and that address the human experience. Work that can be surprising and beautiful, empowering. Because this is something I do all the time, I always make notes and save names and bodies of work for this sort of competition proposal.

How have you experienced changes in the photography scene over the last year, marked by Covid-19?

Actually, I think we have seen some very creative work from around the world, including very personal projects. I feel that this particular moment in history is being recorded in a variety of important ways, and my hope is that there is some way to create an international archive of work centred around the pandemic, to put it into a collective arena so that it becomes a historic collection. I don’t know who could do this or where it could be housed (online of course), but I think it’s well worth an effort by someone or some organization.

“I see a new photographic democracy, because of digital apparatuses, and I love that; but I also see that there is an even greater need to educate people about the rules of photography.”

What do you think about the photography scene will change most over the next few years?

The changes have already occurred, and they were happening even before the pandemic. More younger photographers, more Majority World photographers, more access for everyone to being seen, published, exhibited than ever before. While I am overjoyed by this, because it gives us a real sense of what everyone’s point of view and what their world looks like, I also see work that lacks depth and fails to go beyond the obvious. That said, there is also a lot of work being done that is surprising and new. I also see a new photographic democracy where, because of digital apparatuses, everyone can take pictures, and I love that; but I also see that there is an even greater need to educate people about the rules of photography and especially in documentary or photo-journalistic fields.  Conceptual work allows any kind of ideas done in any way the photographer sees fit, but when you are telling the stories of others or covering issues, you have to photograph the truth, no matter what visual approach you take: you have to talk to people—something that seems so difficult for many photographers; you have to listen to learn the truth, and you have to write the truth, and write captions or text because you are recording history. And finally, photography is a business that is already overcrowded; so to make it in this business you have to understand how it works, and this is information what is still not always shared.

So, despite all, you are also optimistic about the future?

Yes, it’s a time of real change in photography and it’s fascinating to watch. I would say the best thing about the changes, which aren’t always good, is that now we hear many voices from many cultures, and we see how many different people are seeing themselves and the world, and I find that fascinating.

Thank you very much for your time. We are looking forward to your nominations.

Maggie Steber

Maggie Steber born in 1949 in Texas, USA, is a Guggenheim Fellow, Pulitzer Prize finalist, documentary photographer who has worked in 70 countries photographing stories about the human condition. She is a contributing photographer to National Geographic Magazine and was named by the magazine as one of eleven Women of Vision in 2013. Her ongoing personal project is “The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma”, supported by a two-year grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Other honours include the Lucie Award for Photojournalism 2019, Overseas Press Club President’s Award 2019, Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award in 2020, the Leica Medal of Excellence, and World Press Photo Foundation. She is a member of VII Photo Agency, and also a member of “Facing Change Documenting America”. She currently lives in Miami, Florida, USA.

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