In Conversation: Maggie Steber and Karim El Maktafi
After being awarded the PHmuseum 2017 Grant New Generation Prize, Karim El Maktafi had the opportunity to engage in a year-long mentorship program with American photographer Maggie Steber. We went to talk with them to offer an insight into their experience.
We recently launched our new PHmuseum Educational Program, offering tailor made online one-to-one sessions with different mentors. It's not the first time PHmuseum has invested in offering online educational opportunities to photographers from around the world. Last year, Italian-Moroccan photographer Karim El Maktafi had the opportunity to be involved in a long-term mentorship program followed by Maggie Steber. Karim's work was eventually published on National Geographic. In this double interview, the two participants tell us about their journey.
PHM - Hello Maggie! You have a long and successful career behind you as a photographer. When you started working, what valuable advice did you receive that had a major impact in your early career? What helped you grow as an emerging photographer?
M - The best advice I received to be frank was about how I was going about shooting and showing my photographs. I would show single images and I showed the work to Robert Pledge at Contact. He told me I was like a little butterfly lighting on first one thing and then another but never telling stories, and that if anyone took enough photos, they would get a good one. From that moment on I started trying to learn about storytelling and long-form projects.
No one really mentored me but lots of people helped me by acknowledging how hard I was working to be a better photographer and giving me work to help support my projects… countless editors, even if it was a business portrait assignment - they figured that was some way to help support my larger projects. And I realised early on that you have to earn the respect of people, not only your subjects but of people in the industry. One might not be the best photographer but there was a lot of encouragement and support while I tried to learn to be a better one than when I started out.
PHM - Ciao Karim! Your career as a photographer has been formed by different educational experiences. You graduated from the Italian Institute of Photography in Milan in 2013; you enjoyed a year-long scholarship program at Fabrica in 2016 and after that you were mentored by Maggie as a result of winning the PHmuseum 2017 Grant New Generation Prize. How did these different experiences shape you as a photographer?
K - All the experiences that you mention have shaped me. They were different experiences, but each in their own way gave me the teachings I needed to be able to move forward on my path. For example, the IIF trained me from a technical point of view, Fabrica on research, where I was able to work on Hayati, and Maggie on editing and output.
PHM - Maggie, not only do you work as a photographer but you also dedicate a lot of your time and energy to mentoring and teaching young photographers. What makes you do this? Mentoring involves a lot of ‘giving’, but can you share with us what you receive and get from these experiences?
M - I mentor a lot of photographers, some I know, some I don’t, some who ask, and some I reach out to when I see their work and find out about who they are and what they do. It gives me great personal joy to do this although it can become overwhelming at times and exhausting, and sometimes I have to pull back for a while. But I think it’s so hard to get someone to look at your work and ask questions and because I have had some good fortune - because I worked hard - I try to share it and encourage people.
A lot of people want to be photographers but they know nothing about this business, they struggle with editing and with sequencing, and then they don’t learn what their market is… in other words, who do you want to work for and do you look at the magazines online only or also in print - something I think is critical if you want to work for a magazine because in print you see how pictures are used and what kinds of photographs they use and why. I believe it’s important to invest in the younger generation and I get to see all kinds of beautiful work I might not otherwise have seen. I decided a long time ago I wanted to be a generous and encouraging person in this business.
PHM - The development of technology has changed the way education is delivered: online courses have become the norm in several major university institutions worldwide. What do you think are the major advantages of online teaching and long-term mentoring, especially for emerging photographers?
M - Many photographers can’t afford to actually go to a physical school to learn, and online education reaches a huge number of people. But the best part is long term mentoring… if you can find it. There are countless people to whom you can reach out to but there are important aspects about this: editing and selection is subjective so what’s right and good to one person may not be so with another; figuring out how this business works is key.
If you want to make a living as a photographer you must realise it is a business and learn about the business and that’s harder to learn because even if you take workshops many photographers don’t teach that… I always have a biz session at the end of my workshops and some other photographers do to. But finding a mentor can be daunting.
When someone reaches out to me, I try to at least look at their photos, sometimes re-editing them, and telling them where I think the work might fit and how to reach editors. And do a long term project - this is the key that unlocks many doors and I know countless people who have moved their careers forward with this but I also have people asking me what that is so I have to explain it and send them or show them examples. But sometimes I’m inundated and I just can’t help everyone. Some people are very impatient and don’t understand I am a working photographer and if I don’t get my own work done, I’ll be in trouble nor do they realise how many people I mentor in one way or another. Only on a few occasions have I found people to be very pushy and aggressive so don’t do that, don’t be that person with anyone because you’ll regret it when they cut you off.
PHM - Did you ever attend an online mentorship and what do you think are the benefits of it compared to an in-person learning opportunity? In particular, in what way did the mentorship with Maggie stand out compared to the other learning experiences you've had?
K - I had never had online learning opportunities before, and I'm very satisfied with this one. Having the tools to communicate on the web, you can keep in touch and receive constant feedback during the work. I think that unlike other educational opportunities, in this case you have a mentor who focuses only on you and follows you. Specifically, the mentorship with Maggie has strong benefits due to her determination, passion and teaching skills. It's great to be able to constantly compare with someone who has a lot of experience and from whom you can receive valuable advice. I was able to share some of my long-term work with her, and I received the right advice to advance it.
PHM - Having a ‘connection’ and a positive and constructive relationship with your student/mentor is crucial to the success of a mentorship program. How do you manage to create this in an online environment?
M - I really love mentoring and as long as the mentee plays by my rules, we are going to get along. Luckily Karim was an ideal mentee: polite, grateful, hard working, full of ideas, inquisitive, patient, and he brought an intellectual as well as an artistic approach to his work. He had ideas to bounce off me and I love brainstorming. He didn’t make me chase after him in order to fulfil the requirements of the mentoring program. And his work was and is beautiful and gives me a chance then to show his work to editors on his behalf because it’s not only about the photographs but how someone presents themselves in a professional and kind and patient manner.
K - With Maggie it was easy. She was very good at putting me at ease and passing on to me her determination. It's a matter of character - with Maggie we found ourselves immediately. She understood immediately what direction to take with me.
PHM - What made mentoring Karim successful for you?
M - Karim would surprise me. He showed me things I knew nothing about; he didn’t work on things that had already been done many times but found his own unique photographic voice and worked on things that interested him. He gave me something that I could in turn introduce to editors to help move him along… he had a strong work ethic and great ideas and he carried through on them. He was a consummate professional and a kind person and was enthusiastic. He took his responsibility and opportunity seriously and it showed in his work and in the end, he got his work published because I was happy to try to move it forward.
That doesn’t mean everyone will be able to use his work but it found the right home and I feel he’s more than on his way. I think he’s great for so many reasons but the hard work, enthusiasm, a nice sense of humour, patience and a real feel about how to be professional. In this business that is not always something you find. It was like we were sharing a secret until it was ready to blossom and that always makes mentoring an adventure.
PHM - What advice would you give to students who start an online mentorship?
K - If you do it, you have to be determined and ready to give a lot, know that you have to stay focused for long periods of time and have clear ideas of what outcomes you wish to get.
Find out more about our PHmuseum Educational Program
Maggie Steber has worked in 68 countries focusing on humanitarian, cultural, and social stories. Her honours include the Leica Medal of Excellence, World Press Photo Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation Grant 2017, the Overseas Press Club, Pictures of the Year, the Medal of Honor for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri, the Alicia Patterson and Ernst Haas Grants, and a Knight Foundation grant for the New American Newspaper project. For over three decades, Steber has worked in Haiti. Aperture published her monograph, DANCING ON FIRE. In 2013 Steber was named as one of eleven Women of Vision by National Geographic Magazine, publishing a book and touring an exhibition in five American cities. Steber has served as a Newsweek Magazine contract photographer and as the Assistant Managing Editor of Photography and Features at The Miami Herald, overseeing staff projects that won the paper a Pulitzer and two finalist recognitions. Her work is included in the Library of Congress, The Richter Library and in private collections. She has exhibited internationally. Clients include National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, AARP, The Guardian, and Geo Magazine, among others. Steber teaches workshops internationally including at the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclasses, the International Center for Photography, Foundry Workshops and the Obscura Photo Festival. Follow her on Instagram.
Karim El Maktafi is an Italian-Moroccan photographer born in Desenzano del Garda (Italy) in 1992. In 2013 he graduated from the Italian Institute of Photography in Milan. He has collaborated with several photographers in various fields: commercial, fashion, editorial production and major advertising campaigns. His photographic research explores the concept of identity through documentary methods and portraiture. His work has been presented in exhibitions at the Brescia Photo Festival, the Festival of Ethical Photography, Fotografia Europea, Fotoleggendo, Area35 Art Gallery in Milan and YES Collective in Auckland, and has been featured in magazines such as Internazionale, Vice, Topic stories, Playboy Italia, C-41 and Spam, among others. He has also received the Alessandro Voglino Young Talent Prize at the FRAME Foto Festival. Between 2016 and 2017, during his residency at Fabrica, Karim realised the project, Hayati, winner of PHmuseum 2017 Grant New Generation Prize, and shortlisted for the Contemporary African Photography prize. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.