The following is a transcription of a recorded interview (podcast) March 2018, in San Franciso.
Gary Hough (GH): I’m speaking with Maggie Siebert, internationally-known, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, here in San Francisco where you Maggie are giving a workshop. Good morning.
Maggie Steber: Good morning. I am so happy to have an opportunity to talk with you.
GH: Maggie, could you tell us about your Pulitzer Prize story, please?
Maggie: Well, the Pulitzer Prize that I received was actually a newsroom or a newspaper-wide Pulitzer Prize, and it was for our coverage in Miami of the Elian Gonzalez story. This was the little Cuban boy who came to the US with his parents on a boat, fleeing from Cuba, and his parents drowned and somehow he was rescued. There’s a story that actually the Dolphins came, the sea animals had surrounded him and lifted him up and delivered him to the shore, and now, there’s a lot of speculation if whether or not it’s a true story, but it’s a lovely story.
So, his US family took him in and were going to raise him. Then there started to be this great pull, back and forth, by the Cuban government to get Elian back. He became a real symbol of the struggle between Cubans in Miami and the Cuban government. And so there was quite a bit of coverage of this struggle, of the family, and of Elian as a little boy. He was tiny and he was very sweet. Finally, because it was causing such a problem, the US government decided that it was better to return him to Cuba. There was some pull from the family in Cuba to get him back until there was a terrible raid, a middle of the night raid.
GH: What period of time was this Maggie? What year was this?
Maggie: So, now let’s see, you would ask me that! It was probably 1999…no probably 2000 if I recall correctly because 2001 was 9/11, and I was a Pulitzer finalist for that as a photography feature. The newspaper, the Miami Herald, had really good photographic coverage. I was the director of photography at the time. We would stake out the house all night long because we weren’t sure if it would be raided by the police or the U.S. government, to come and take the little boy and send him back to Cuba. It was quite a difficult and emotional story. All of the people in Little Havana would surround the house to protect it, so it was visually really interesting. But it’s nice to be able to share in the prize because it’s usually the sort of thing that’s given to one person – a writer or a photographer, but once in awhile a newspaper will win for their extraordinary coverage of an issue or story, so everybody involved with that newspaper gets a Pulitzer Prize.
GH: Very good, Congratulations.
Maggie: Thank you, and I would just add this if it’s alright: the staff at the Miami Herald was an exceptional photographic staff and they would go out and find stories that the newspaper wasn’t covering. We would decide to do projects and every time we found projects I was told by the writing side that we don’t do photo-driven projects. But we found two projects and we did them. We stayed on them and we photographed them. One was about Liberty City’s black area that had a lot of violence. The citizens there were taking back the streets from the drug dealers and they were planting things, they were having patrols by the people themselves, so it was a very hopeful story. Another story, which a photographer brought to me was about the new American Dream and how the new immigrants interpreted it for themselves. That was the year of 911, and it was one of three Pulitzer finalists and our other story on Liberty City – one of three Pulitzer finalists for photography. When you’re a finalist it’s almost as sweet as winning. I had to find a way to get the news side to give us a writer and they didn’t do it, but we just persevered and finally they gave us writers. I was ready to write the stories myself and I’m a good writer, but it was really sweet because these photo-driven stories, which are not always recognized as valuable in the newsroom culture, I’m sorry to say, were both Pulitzer finalists, and these were photographers who found the story. That’s why we’re photographers right?
GH: Yes, you should be proud of your work, Maggie.
Maggie: I’m so proud of these photographers! They’re amazing people.
GH: I have followed you for a number of years and I can see the empathy in your imagery. It shows the kind of person that you are and that you really embed yourself into the culture before you pull out your camera.
Maggie: Yes, it’s their story and they get to tell it as they should, and if they wish to and we’re just lucky that people let us into their lives because that’s such a privilege and it’s a very weighty responsibility. I feel like from the beginning of history and the recording of history, there’s the saying that the victors always write the history and the vanquished only get to read it. I think that’s been somewhat true, and so my aim is to always to make sure that the people I photograph have complete control over the story. It’s their story and I’m just so lucky to get to be there. I have the privilege of learning from them and I think that’s an extraordinary way to live.