During her Masters work in Costa Rica, Morea Steinhauer started contemplating the wide range of photographic applications, which inspired her to create and lead fascinating photography workshops with Columbian refugees in Latin America. Her effervescent personality lights up a room and hearing of her meaningful projects reminds us of the exciting impacts photography can have in people’s lives. Below, she discusses her experiences as a mentor in these programs, as well as their influence on her own photography.
What is your background in photography?
My journey with photography actually starts back in high school. I was a pet project of one of my dad’s friends that was at the time well into his 80s and had severe cataracts. He was an expert in all kinds of mechanical things, including photography. He no longer had the eyes to be able to photograph, but he taught me the mechanics.
I started my studies in the Art Photography program at MSUM (Minnesota State University Moorhead), where you spend the first full year not even touching a photograph; instead you spend your time drawing, learning the principles of design and those kinds of practices. I’m so glad that I had that disciplined foundation, even though my approach now is more documentary than artistic.
Partway through my studies I became frustrated, feeling there were components to my undergraduate pursuits that I was curious about that weren’t completely being met. I literally read the entire school’s bulletin from front to back, and that’s when I found a small blurb that said you could do an individualized major. So, essentially, I combined my Art Photography classes with Mass Communications and Business classes. I also double majored in American Studies and at the time that really fuelled what I was interested in visually.
From there it’s been an evolution in digging deeper into media and social justice work. After MSUM, I worked within the community and had a lot of eclectic jobs along the way to support the habit of photography. And that path led me to realize that I really needed a Masters education to further my career, especially if photography was going to be a component and not the main thing. That led me to the University of Peace (UPEACE) where I studied Gender and Peace Building. The university is located in Costa Rica and has a very fascinating dynamic of having just under 200 master students from over 70 different countries. I knew before going that I wanted to incorporate photography into what I was studying at UPEACE while incorporating photography. I find it challenging that the further you go up in education the more specialized you’re typically forced to become. But that doesn’t pay attention to the fact that we are multifaceted human beings with more than one interest.
Eventually, I ended up working with Columbian refugees living in Costa Rica and I was curious about how photography could utilized as be a means of empowerment, communication, and self-expression.
Was this project one of your own ideas?
Yes, this was my dissertation for my Masters. I proposed the idea to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which is the UN organization that works with refugees and there is a branch in Costa Rica. ACAI (Asociación de Consultores y Asesores Internacionales) is their non-profit arm. They help the UNHCR facilitate and implement many of their projects and was instrumental in finding participants from a cross-section of ages, gender, length of time spent in Costa Rica, etc.
The goal of this project was to analyze the impact of photojournalism as a research method – to understand how photojournalism can be an effective means of empowerment, self-expression, and form of communication. We had 17 cameras and so there were 17 participants that were selected randomly to participate in the 6-week workshop. The participants were taught basic concepts and principles of design of photography and were lent digital cameras, armed with the instructions to take photos of whatever they like as long as it is through the perspective of three questions. What is your life in Costa Rica like? What is good about your life? What should change?
Your introduction for this project discussed how photography could be used as a research method. Can you explain?
It could be argued that photography has the power to communicate compelling representations of realties that perhaps touch us more deeply and more directly then other media. It also has the potential to transcend beyond the boundaries of language. Narrative research aspires to capture the stories that people share about their lives because they are considered to be a meaningful approach for understanding the significance behind these lived experiences. So it’s about providing a glimpse into any particular community’s social realities.The project’s overall aim was to help give those that are voiceless, or often less heard, a voice.
The intent of this community-based approach makes room for an innovative space for the participants to tell their own stories of the significance behind their lived experiences depicted in their photographs. The goal is that they will have the opportunity to express themselves and be given the means to have a visual voice to shed light on their daily realities as they see them – not by what others project onto them. The value of including their verbal and written reflections was to compliment the content of their photos and helps to bring each participant’s voice to the surface. Inspiration for this project came from exploring feministic research methods that employed photography like Photovoice, andthe movie Born into the Brothels. I really had wanted to see what the refugees had to say. And I wanted to create a space for them to have their own voice.
What was your photographic participation in this project?
Within the Costa Rica project, I photographed very little, which was different from how the project has been duplicated in Nicaragua and Haiti. Especially in Haiti, I photographed a lot more than in the others.
My presence as an artist was more about mentorship and consultation. In the beginning we did a crash course of fundamental of design and what makes a good image – repetition, composition, harmony, balance, line, etc. The slideshow had just the one word with an example image and we would talk through the concepts. But as far as my photographic participation went, I did the group photos and headshots of the participants, as well as documentation of the project in action.
What did you learn about how people see and what they want to represent themselves through photography? And could you compare your observations from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Haiti?
As a whole, there was always more than one individual that had a really fantastic visual eye. We barely cover concepts like the rule of thirds; yet, so quickly some would make such strong images employing these concepts by climbing on something, taking images from a unique angle, etc.
All three groups had a very different collective voice. Each projects asked essentially the same questions. The Columbian refugees were very positive and thankful. Some of their challenges were addressing that they sometimes get a bad rap with the assumptions that they’re associated with drug cartels. However, their biggest statement was that it was for this very reason that they leave their country. But overall they were very thankful for their experience in Costa Rica, being able to become small business owners, having an opportunity for advanced education for their children, etc. We really had to challenge them to focus on the ‘negatives’ or what they wanted to change in their lives.
In Haiti, it was so different. We had to really challenge them to focus on the positives. Even in utilizing the word “community” in Creole was very foreign to them. They took images about garbage and sanitary issues, latrine uses, etc.
The Nicaraguan community that I worked with was largely a shantytown, located in a place of the city that flooded frequently. They were working really hard to even get electricity. That specific community had a history of working with their elected officials, which perhaps had an effect on their focus of really trying to make changes.
The difference from community to community perhaps are connected to the different cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, etc., but with just three projects, it’s really too limited to make any real correlation.
How have these three projects influenced your personal work?
When I take images of individuals, I find so much more consciousness about whether I’m doing it as accurately as I can. Am I representing what their life is really like? I feel the weight of the responsibility so much more profoundly. I always try to question my assumptions, the conditions from which I come from and how those affect my emotional reactions to what I see.
For example, even with the two projects beforehand, Haiti was super challenging to photograph and to see the disparity between those that have and have not. As a photojournalist and fellow human, it was difficult to view well-intended mission groups photographing the people like zoo animals, while driving by in their buses. This treatment is coupled with the history of dictatorship, corruption, and disasters. To me it was no wonder why they would look at me with such disgust and distrust – there was really no reason why they should trust me to not marginalize or victimize them further.
Are you planning to continue this project in other countries?
Yes, if opportunity allows. There is another NGO in Haiti actually that is interested in doing it again. Even the Italian NGO Cesvi that I just worked for is inquiring about working together on additional projects.
I recognize, however, that this approach to the project isn’t applicable in all circumstances. For instance in Haiti immediately following the disaster, when people are struggling for basic needs of food and water, you’re not going to stop people to ask them to take pictures to tell what their experience is like. That wouldn’t be appropriate or helpful.
Can you talk about some of your other personal work?
In the Fargo-Moorhead community where I live, I’m working with the Hospice Project, which is a correlation between Hospice, MSUM, and the Plains Art Museum. They are looking at end of life care and all the different faces it can have. Overall, those experiences can get a negative wrap. But my personal journeys with death have been overall very positive, so I’m not intimidated by the project. I seek and enjoy meaty or difficult projects such as these.
The person I’ve been photographing, Evelyn, is 105 years old. She is so spunky! It’s amazing to be mentored by her really. I’ve so greatly enjoyed being a part of this project.
Otherwise, the different dynamics of my personal work in Haiti will be showcased, in coalition with the project’s participants, in Haiti, the airport in Italy, and part of it will go in NDSU’s (North Dakota State University) Diversity Center this coming spring.
I also work with Milestones Photography. My role has changed into being more like a consultant – I come in when needed. It’s a great learning ground for more intense situations elsewhere, but I easily get burned out! I don’t know how they do more than 50 plus weddings in a year and still be engaged. I really enjoy doing that type of work on occasion, but I want it to be meaningful and so a handful a year is perfect!
Interview by LG