Samantha Appleton was standing in the “floating slums” of Lagos, Nigeria, where hundreds of thousands of impoverished people live crammed into tiny shanty houses, when she began to appreciate on an even deeper level just how challenging her job was — and how little people knew about the worlds she, as a journalist, was able to document.
“It was a very satisfying assignment, and very eye opening, but incredibly difficult,” said Appleton, a 37-year-old Camden native and award-winning photojournalist who has freelanced for the New Yorker, Time Magazine and others. “It’s something that so many people have no idea about. If I can bring some light to something like that with my work, then I feel like I have accomplished something.”
Appleton — the daughter of Sam and Annie Appleton, who own the Waterfront Restaurant in Camden — has traveled all over the world to photograph a variety of people and places. In 2007, she decided to stay put in America, and crisscrossed the country shooting the 2008 Obama campaign for the New Yorker. The following year, the Obama administration asked her to become one of four staff photographers, a position she held until fall 2011. Some of those photographs will be on display in a new exhibit, “Here From There,” from Aug. 4 to Sept. 22 at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport.
For Appleton, shooting the aftermath of a bombing in Iraq and taking a casual photo of President Obama, on board Air Force One or with his daughters, are all part of a great continuum of stories. The stark simplicity of a black-and-white picture of a young Lebanese woman weeping after a bombing leads, in some convoluted way, to a warm, light-filled photograph of the president greeting supporters at a campaign stop.
“I always go with what’s compelling and interesting, and what feels historic to me,” she said. “When I first covered the Obama campaign, I got the same kind of feeling I got in Iraq, that this is one of the biggest things that will happen in my lifetime. I can’t help but get swept up in that.”
Appleton grew up in Camden, where her interest in journalism began early, and was cemented after she attended the Maine Photo Workshops — now Maine Media Workshops — in Rockport. In college at the University of Washington in Seattle she wrote for the school newspaper, where her focus shifted eventually from writing to photography.
“I realized that I liked being behind a camera more than being out in front, engaging directly with people,” said Appleton. “In college I really learned a lot about Vietnam, and how that war was covered in the media. I was very influenced by the work that came out of that era. And at the same time, Rwanda and Bosnia were happening then, and I really absorbed those stories and issues. Looking back, that made me want to go there. That made me want to cover stories like that.”
From capturing images of workers in sapphire mines in Madagascar to photographing illegal immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, Appleton has never been afraid to put herself in dangerous situations. One of her first major assignments was covering the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; she recalled in a 2011 New Yorker story the feeling of walking around in the rubble on Sept. 12 as rescuers searched for survivors. There was a stint in Lebanon, covering the 2006 war, which was extremely challenging to document due to its complicated political nature.
From 2003 to 2005, she photographed the Iraq War, an extended assignment that has stayed with her through the years, and through sustained contact with her guide Salam, who drove her around and translated the language for her. So much so, that she’s in the midst of writing a book about her experience and about how war journalism has changed with the dawn of the Internet age. She returned home to Camden earlier this year to begin writing.
“This felt like a really good time to write this story. It’s about a journalist’s responsibility to a story, and it’s also about [Salam’s and my] relationship,” said Appleton, who still speaks with Salam, now a refugee in Cyprus. “The overarching story is the American responsibility to Iraq, and our relationship is that in microcosm.”
Though she still has the bug to report on conflicts and other major international stories, she also is interested in working on longer-term projects. She’s worked on projects based in Maine before, such as the Somali immigration story, a topic she hopes to revisit if another opportunity arises. Wherever she goes, Appleton’s eye is trained on the issues and places that have worldwide significance, regardless of its seeming magnitude.
“I’m always attracted to that kind of story,” she said. “The kind of story that’s just so much bigger than me.”
“Here From There” opens Saturday, Aug. 4, and runs through Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 162 Russell Ave. in Rockport. Appleton will give a free, illustrated lecture at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27, at the Rockport Opera House, 18 Central St.