Still Life

A veteran photojournalist reflects on her itinerant career

Besides capturing Indira Gandhi’s public image as she toured the country following the 1971 war, Stafford’s collection also includes a private Indira, relaxing at home and doting on her grandchildren. courtesy marilyn stafford
01 December, 2019

The year is 1972. From a poppy-red podium, Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister of India, addresses a large crowd in Srinagar. She cuts an imposing silhouette against the void separating her from an audience of thousands. A few metres behind her are the reporters. Nestled among them, an American photographer in her forties captures the scene using a 35-millimetre camera.

Marilyn Stafford never set out to become a photographer. Trained in acting as a child, she was destined for a life in front of the camera, not behind it. Through a series of chance encounters, she found herself drawn to the storytelling potential of photography, championing the form’s power as both witness to life and catalyst for change.

Stafford, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, was 23 years old when she took her first photograph. It was November 1948, and she had accompanied friends to Princeton University to film the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein at his home for a documentary in which he spoke out against the atomic bomb. On the drive from Manhattan, she was handed a Rolleiflex camera and informed that she would be the “stills lady.” Einstein greeted them at the door, bedecked in baggy grey sweatpants, and posed for Stafford while the others set up.

The stills Stafford took that day marked the beginning of a prolific career as a “humanist photographer.” She was influenced by Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the famines in the American dust bowl during the Great Depression. Employed honestly, she told me, photography is a documentation of the human experience. She drew on the Stanislavski method, which she had learned as a young actor, to immerse herself in her subjects.