December 27, 2014 AT 4:00 am

Maggie Steber and Lynn Johnson discuss the woman photographer’s experience


From National Geographic:

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.

Read the rest of the interview, view Maggie Steber’s work, view Lynn Johnson’s work.

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