Leif Steiner’s creative transformation – from consumer advertising to soulful art

Leif Steiner may be a relative newcomer in photography, but he is a seasoned professional in the creative world. Having left his 20-year career in advertising to pursue photography with the mindset of a cultural anthropologist and the heart of an avid traveler, Leif invested in a Phase One Camera System to accompany him to some of the most remote tribes in the world in an attempt to preserve the culture and the people for future generations. Intrigued by his change from corporate consumerism to soulful art, we caught up with Leif to hear his story.

What skills from your career in advertising have you brought with you into photography?

I worked as a creative director in the advertising industry for 20 years. It was my job to help our clients sell as many widgets to as many consumers as possible. It’s problem-solving.

Photography is also problem-solving. More photos are captured every 24 hours than were captured in the entire 20th century. Out of the billions of images created every single day, what makes certain ones iconic?

Not every photo needs to be iconic (or even memorable), but it’s certainly something to strive for. The advertising industry teaches you how to analyze and understand the human psyche. Whether you’re launching a new alcohol brand in China or photographing landscapes in Patagonia, humans notice and remember things they haven’t seen, felt, or experienced before. We’re rational and emotional — If we want an audience for our photos, we need to create work that stimulates the heart and mind.

What do you believe makes a good photo?

It takes 1/250 of a second to shoot a good photo …and the same amount of time to shoot a bad one. If we’re going to dedicate our lives to this art form, we better have some opinions. Here are mine —

1) Is the photo new, fresh, and different? Does the audience stop, look, and engage? Think of the last time you went to the grocery store. Do you remember anyone? What if you met a woman who was 5 meters tall? You would probably remember her for the rest of your life. We become desensitized to things we see every day and when something is different — it stands out. Remarkable photos are impossible to forget.

2) We’re wired to react to stimulation; intellectual or emotional. Does the photo tell a story or incite an audience to think on a deeper level? Does it invoke cognitive curiosity? Can you hear a photo? Smell it? Taste it? How many senses can we engage? Does it engage our own emotions? The more layers we add, the more likely an audience will remember the image. And a week later, does the memory still linger?

3) Aesthetics. Humans are funny creatures; we spend days doing a cost/benefit analysis before buying a new dishwasher, but then fall in love with a stranger on the subway. No matter how much we intellectualize a photo, the best images have a certain impossible-to-define quality. We can force this a little, but the best photos scratch an itch deep inside our subconscious that’s hard to quantify.

What subject interests you most?

Cultural anthropology.

A month ago, I was in one of the most remote corners of the Andes, photographing and interviewing an indigenous community living at 4250m elevation. When I asked if the world was flat or round, I received blank stares. No one knew. They lived in a world of mountains, and that’s all they ever considered. There were no oceans, no deserts, and certainly no cities; these people knew the seasons and could navigate by the stars.

Within our lifetime, people like this will no longer exist. In 500 years, the mountains around us will still look the same. But cultures evolve and change. Sometimes rapidly. 100 years ago, there were thousands of tribes, languages, and unique traditional customs. We are quickly losing this diversity; within the next 100 years, most indigenous cultures will be gone or assimilated. With every distinct way of thinking that is lost, the world loses a little bit of richness.
Globalization is ultimately a good thing; it’s helped spread technology, elevate millions out of poverty, and bring education to the masses. As a whole, globalization has enabled today’s population to collectively live healthier, longer lives and have a better standard of living than ever before.

But globalization is leading to homogenization. In the coming decades, civilization will transform into a one-world monoculture. Along with this progress, we will lose vast quantities of knowledge, diverse ways of thinking, and cultural differentiation.

Two hundred years ago, much of the world was still relatively isolated and inaccessible. A century from now, the entire world will be interconnected; isolated and distinct groups of people will no longer exist. This moment is an extraordinary window of opportunity to document some of the last remaining independent traditional communities before they’re gone forever.

By definition, I’m a photographer. But I’ve got the mind of a scientist, the heart of the poet, and a camera to capture it all. When the lights go out, what really matters? People, relationships, and our interconnected humanity.

When did you decide it was time to put a stronger focus on your photography?

Our lives are the cumulative sum of every decision we’ve ever made. After twenty years helping market brands to consumers, I decided it was time to do something more soulful.

I love to travel, especially to remote corners of the planet. I also love culture. In 2005, I hitchhiked the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, right through one of the most dangerous regions in the world. The trip changed me for life — it felt like I had walked up to the edge of the known world, closed my eyes, taken one step further, and hadn’t fallen off.

About a year ago, I decided it was time to walk up to the edge again. I handed the keys to my company over to several employees and left. If you’re not living, you’re dying. And after twenty years of success in one industry, I was ready to be hungry and scared again.

Why have you chosen to photograph in black and white?

I love color photography, but I photograph in black and white for three reasons:

1) Humans are rational creatures, but we’re also emotional. We love color, and we react to color. It’s powerful. Maybe too powerful. Color has a lot of personalities; even good color photography bears the imprint of the era in which it was created. All photography is susceptible to stylistic trends, but I’d like to believe that black and white is a little less corruptible. Color can add meaning to an image, but it’s frequently nothing more than a beautiful seductress. You can fake a good color photo; black and white is brutally honest.

2) On a more pragmatic note, I want consistency across my body of work. Earlier this year, I spent nine weeks in Peru shooting in the hot sun, dark clouds, rain, snow, wind, and mist — different lighting and very different colors. When photographing the same subject again and again over several days and in a wide variety of conditions, shooting black and white helps achieve a degree of visual continuity that isn’t possible with color.

3) Color can be saved digitally, but no color print is truly archival. Whether in 5 years or 500 years, color inks eventually fade. Black and white carbon-based inks from a standard inkjet will last 30,000 years under the right conditions. The same is true of traditional platinum prints. Color inks are improving every year, but if you want physical prints that will last forever — black and white is your only option.

What is it like to photograph cultures who have had minimal contact with the outside world?

I photographed a man in his 70’s. He’d never seen a photo of himself; he didn’t own a mirror, and didn’t quite know what he looked like. As you can imagine, he was excited to see his portrait. At dusk, with a valley below, mountains above, and beautiful light filtering through the clouds… I took his photo. He was profoundly disappointed — ‘Who was this old man in the camera? Surely it was not him! How could any woman love that ugly old man?’ He was beautiful, but not in the way he’d always envisioned.

Humans are all the same. Our languages, customs, and life experiences vary, but we’re all the same. Mostly good, a little vain, occasionally flawed, rarely evil.

Darra Adam Khel is a small town in Pakistan’s semi-lawless tribal territories. I was there in 2005 when the Taliban would regularly cross over from Afghanistan to buy weapons. At one point, I was in a room full of militants negotiating to buy a large pile of Kalashnikovs. (Undoubtedly to fight the Americans.) I was semi-expecting to be kidnapped, but instead, everyone wanted to pause and have tea together. I set my camera on a bench; one guy bumped it, another guy lunged to catch it, a different guy pretended to steal it. Everyone laughed. It could have been anywhere in the world.

We come in a thousand different shapes and colors, but underneath that thin layer of skin, we’re far more similar than we are different. Even the most remote and isolated groups of people share the same basic kindness, the same intellectual curiosity, and the same empathy we’d expect from our next of kin.

Why do you shoot Phase One?

This is the easiest question of the day. Phase One is simply the best; their cameras produce some of the highest-resolution, highest-quality images in the world. Cameras are tools. Lenses are tools. But if you’re going to put thousands of hours into your craft, you should work with the best tools available. Beyond that, Phase One’s customer service, support, and general happy/positive attitude is unrivaled. Several brands are producing great cameras right now, but for my needs — Phase One is a dream.

You can follow Leif’s adventures through his photography on Instagram.

Learn more about the XF IQ4 150MP Achromatic Camera System here.

Filed under: Portrait


Leif Steiner spent 20 years as a creative director in the advertising industry, working with brands all over the world. In between 90-hour weeks, he hitchhiked the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, traveled across the Sahara with the Bedouin, spent time in a Mexican jail, and once ended up in a Colombian cocaine factory. Last summer he walked away from the industry to pursue his true passion — photography. He’s currently working on a multiyear project — photographing and documenting traditional cultures around the world.