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'Women Of Vision': Making Pictures In All Corners Of The World


Eleven women, 11 photographers making pictures in all corners of the world. There are photographs of reindeer herders in the Sami region of Sweden, who sleep on snow; portraits of prostitutes in Mumbai; and images child beauty pageants closer to home in the state of Georgia. A new book and exhibition by National Geographic is called "Women of Vision." It crosses a broad span of geographical terrain and talent.

Amy Toensing and Maggie Steber are two of the photographers in the "Women of Vision" project. Steber is a veteran shooter who's documented life in Haiti for more than 25 years, as well as her own mother's passing. Amy Toensing has been published 14 times with National Geographic, much of it from Australia and aboriginal homelands.

Maggie and Amy spoke with me to talk about their careers this past week. Amy started the conversation by telling us about her first assignment with National Geographic. She visited an island off the coast of Maine where she met two elderly brothers, Doug and Harry Odem, who she was determined to photograph.

AMY TOENSING: I would go every day to their house at the end of the day. And they'd be playing cribbage and they like to drink their fair amount of rum. And one day, Doug wanted to show me a picture of the ship that he was on during World War II. And so, he took me into a back room which was actually this room that this photo was taken in. He was showing me the picture and I was very interested.

But then I turned around and I saw those two beds and the portraits hanging over them. And I said, Doug, whose room is this? And he said: This is Harry and mine's room. This is where we sleep.


TOENSING: And then I asked if I could come back right before they go to sleep, to document them at bedtime. And they looked at me like I was crazy. But I came back and this is the picture that I got.

LYDEN: What does this picture say to you? It's an incredibly intimate photo of two brothers.

TOENSING: To me, it tells the story of brotherhood, of two men who have spent their entire life dedicated to this island and really had never separated except for during World War II. And that's what compelled me to take a photograph of them and how they sleep, because I thought that was incredibly telling to their lives - just something that surprised me. And so, if something surprises me then that's where I'm going to go with my camera.

LYDEN: You have said in print, Maggie Steber: I can't believe I've had this life. What do you mean by that?

MAGGIE STEBER: I've been able, because of photography, to travel all over the world, to live in Africa to cover wars, to do fashion, to do these longer documentary stories. And so it's not a life I had imagined for myself. I worked on a small paper right out of school in Galveston, Texas and then I moved to New York to become a picture editor for Associated Press. I thought I would always be a picture editor. I loved looking at everybody's photographs and it was very exciting.

But after a few years, I got the itch to travel and I started following this war in what was then Rhodesia. And I went over on my vacation...


STEBER: ...to check out the war, and decided that that's what I wanted to photograph.

LYDEN: You've been taking photographs for many years all over the world. Is there a different sensibility, would you say, if you're female? I mean, certainly there are places that only men can access, but there're places only women can access as well.

STEBER: In a way, doesn't matter if you're a man or woman. It's really more about how you connect with people and everybody does that in a different way. And I don't think that you can look at a photograph and know whether it's taken by a man or woman. But I do believe that we can get into things and in a different way than sometimes men can. I did a story on war letters for National Geographic and it was a portrait story.

The premise of the story was that during times of war, the real truth about war is found in the correspondence between people who are fighting and the people who are left at home. And she had lost her son in the first war in Iraq. Gloria Caldas was her name. And I was photographing her because she had lost her son and, you know, what a terrible thing for a parent to lose their child - it's the worst thing that can happen to you, I suppose.

And so, I was photographing her over several days and sort of day-in-the-life. And we even went into his room and I thought, oh, this is where I'm going to make this picture, but it wasn't quite coming together. And it wasn't until we sat one morning at her kitchen table over coffee. And we were talking and she was talking so much about her son and then how much she needed to finish mourning, if possible, because she was so deeply into it.

But that she realized that her life had to go on and we wept together. And after that there was this sort of bond that gave me permission to make a different kind of picture, that spoke to this idea of having lost a child and being in mourning but having to move on and live your life. And I don't know, I don't know if that would have happened with a man, but I do want to say that it wouldn't have. We're patient and we're curious and we want to have - I think we want to have that intimacy. Wouldn't you say so, Amy?

TOENSING: I think so, definitely. And like you said too, though, I think that men can have distinct access to certain things as well.

LYDEN: I wonder what you thought when the magazine said, well, we could do 11 women of vision. Did either of you think, huh? What was your reaction to that? And I would like to know what you learned from each other.

STEBER: You go, Amy.

TOENSING: I remember being in my 20s and listening to Maggie Steber give a lecture at a workshop and just being blown away by her work. And so, for me to be included in exhibit that's in the company of someone like Maggie, it's pretty amazing.

STEBER: Oh, well. That's very kind of you.


STEBER: Well...

TOENSING: Well, it's the truth.

STEBER: ...I tell you, Amy, you have two photos that are in the book that I really love. Well, I love the brothers sleeping in the same room. I think that's the sweetest, most intimate, powerful photograph. And it's - for picture like that that makes you remember certain things.

And then she did this really wild, wonderful story on the Jersey Coast. And there is a great picture of people out in the ocean, and the wave is rising and it was a wonderful, funny sort of quirky story. And she did a great job. It had such a sense of humor to it. And, you know, that's a big challenge to put a sense of humor into your photographs.

So - but we really, I think all of the women really admire each other and we, I don't use the word feed off each other, but we are inspired but it's sort of when we can look at each other's photographs, I think we're encouraged. We get new ideas. We think, oh, I never would've thought of doing that but what a good idea, I'm going to take that idea.

TOENSING: You know, being a freelance photojournalist is a very independent, solo existence. So this has been, I think, for all of us, a really wonderful opportunity to get to know each other and feel some community.

LYDEN: Amy Toensing and Maggie Steber, thank you both so very much for being with us today.

TOENSING: Thank you, Jacki. It was a pleasure.

STEBER: It really was. Thank you so much for your interest.

LYDEN: The exhibit, "Women of Vision," is at National Geographic in Washington until March the 9th. It then goes on a multi-city tour across the nation.


LYDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.