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On Being a Woman Photographer With Maggie Steber and Lynn Johnson

Walking through the National Geographic Society’s latest exhibition, “Women of Vision,” one is instantly surrounded by exhilaration and pain, beauty and longing. Although all of the images are courtesy of 11 female photographers, once their images grab you, gender falls by the wayside.

And that’s how it should be, says Lynn Johnson, a photographer whose work is included in the exhibit. “In some ways, this conversation about what does it mean to have a women photographer’s exhibit is kind of obscuring the whole issue, which is just that these are powerful photographs.”

Photographer Maggie Steber, whose work is also included in the exhibit, says she worries more about whether she’s capturing the real moments in someone’s life rather than gender when she’s out in the field.

Learn the story behind the “Women of Vision” exhibition

But Steber and Johnson also acknowledge that gender does play a role in what they do and, sometimes, in how they do it.

Both photographers have experienced the sexist and patronizing manner of colleagues and bosses. Yet they have used those experiences to their advantage.

I sat down separately with Johnson and Steber to talk about being women in a traditionally male field and some of the advantages their gender has given them.

“War Letters,” 2005. Photograph by Maggie Steber
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

We hear a lot about the obstacles that women have overcome in the workforce. But surely there are advantages. What are the benefits of being a female photojournalist?

MAGGIE STEBER: I did this assignment on war letters. It’s about how the truth about war really comes out in the correspondence that people exchange.

And there was a lady who had lost her son in the first war in Iraq in 1990, about a year before I photographed her. And she was still in deep mourning.

I spent four days with that woman. [But] I wasn’t sure what I needed to do. She had not changed her son’s room or anything, and I photographed that and I photographed her going through his things, and I was just trying to get this sense of mourning and longing and loss. But also, she was trying so hard to move on and it was so hard, so hard.

And so around the third day we sat at her kitchen table and we were talking for hours and hours and we just wept together.

I’m sure a man could [have done] that, but there was something about two women talking about the loss of a child—it was such an intimate moment.

And after that, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I could talk to her about it because we [had] shared this very intimate moment.

So I did a very simple picture where she’s on her bed, I’m standing right over her, and there’s a picture of her son and she’s looking away. She’s turned away from it.

[My editors] loved that picture. It opened the story. It was about her understanding that she had to move on and leave that sadness behind—a very simple picture with a very powerful idea. But I don’t know if she would have responded to a man in the same way—I don’t know.

LYNN JOHNSON: From my perspective, you can delude yourself and think, Well, [gender] doesn’t matter. But, I mean, you always create from who you are. And gender is an essential part of your identity.

All of my career of 35-plus years (started as a newspaper photographer), I noticed that because I was a woman I was really not taken seriously.

But I understood almost immediately that that was an advantage because I could be invisible in the room. And that’s how you can witness people at their most true. So I think being underestimated and being as invisible as possible can be an advantage.

Some of the bias or sexism these days can be quite subtle. Have you encountered that, or has it been more blatant?

LYNN: I started in the business a long time ago and the guys were incredibly sexist and patronizing. I think I had a chip on my shoulder for a long time.

[But] operating out of anger is just not healthy. And so I finally understood that a number of years ago. And understood that it was a question of maturity to not make that a part of the equation in how I communicated about the power of the story that I was hopefully bringing in from the field.

It didn’t matter what the gender landscape was wherever I was working—the story had to lead. Your anger, your past, whatever you carry inside cannot lead.

And of course, all the women photographers working, who are shown here, have not only dealt with that in their personal lives, but are witnessing the inequality of women’s lives every day they go out and shoot because we’re in countries where that is a critical part of what we’re documenting.

So it can trigger you. It always has you thinking about how women can still be bought and sold in a lot of countries.

“Dubai: Sudden City,” 2007. Photograph by Maggie Steber
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How has your experience as a female photographer changed?

MAGGIE: In terms of the business, I know that for a long time when I was a young photographer, the boys, the male photographers, [were] really patronizing, really ignoring, just excluding me. And that was OK because I figured out really fast that it was better that they didn’t take me seriously because it left me alone.

They were all trying to take the same pictures. So they would busy themselves with keeping an eye on each other.

And so it taught me a good lesson that it’s always better to work alone if you can as a photographer because then you get your pictures.

And that’s changed now, but I think it still happens.

And then the other thing that’s funny is that it used to be that all the picture editors at magazines and newspapers were men.

Now at magazines—and I’m actually not talking about this magazine at this moment—a lot of picture editors out in the larger magazine field are women, but they’re not always that supportive of women photographers.

That’s always startled me, that sometimes women picture editors still prefer to work with men. There just still seems to be this propensity to hire men and I’m not always quite sure why that is.

Now, that’s gotten much better too, I would say in the last decade. But it was always very surprising to me as a younger photographer.

Austin, Texas. 2008. Photograph by Lynn Johnson
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Photographers immerse themselves in the community, culture, or habitat they’re capturing. How does that jive with a journalist’s sense of trying to be neutral and just reporting what they see?

LYNN: I really don’t believe in an objective viewpoint. I don’t think there’s any possible way to be objective. I think you bring this package which is your life and your life experience and who you are to the story. And hopefully that’s why we are hired to do certain stories, because we do have certain sensibilities.

But I do think you need to be fair and balanced in your investigation of the story information and present it to the reader so that the work has credibility.

MAGGIE: It’s completely impossible to be objective.

Words and pictures are a very powerful tool together. Together these are the most powerful things in the world, actually. Even more than swords and guns because together they can inform, they can change minds.

But I think when you’re writing about something, you have to report in a certain way so that people can learn something and determine for themselves.

Photographs are a completely different thing. Pictures speak to a different part of your brain.

Nothing is ever going to describe in words what your mother looked like at 20 when the moonlight just fell on her face in such a way. Only a picture can show you that.

[But] there’s no objectivity. We each are influenced by all kinds of things from the time we’re born, by our parents [and] what their beliefs are and how we are raised, and by our experiences, what we read, what we buy, what we eat, what we wear. Everything is a decision that is subjective.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


Jane J. Lee is a news writer and editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter.



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