Down East 2013 ©
Photographs courtesy of Samantha Appleton/noor
Seven years ago, Samantha Appleton was tending bar at the Waterfront Restaurant in Camden. Today, she is one of the world’s foremost photojournalists, winning a Pictures of the Year award for her photographs of the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks and subsequently covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for Time and The New Yorker.
Samantha Appleton’s rapid rise speaks volumes about her personal ambition and visual acumen, but it also has a great deal to do with growing up in a small town in Maine, an upbringing that gave her both self-confidence and a desire to see the world.
Sam Appleton, who co-owns the Waterfront Restaurant, would rather see his daughter “doing weddings than running around Iraq,” but he says she has always had a taste for adventure, recalling how three-year-old Samantha wandered off one day from the family home on Saturday Cove in Northport, precipitating a frantic two-hour search.
“After that close encounter,” he says, “it was off to the races.”
The thirty-three-year-old Appleton herself recalls sitting on the shore of Penobscot Bay and watching the contrails of international flights disappear out over the North Atlantic, wondering where the planes were going and wishing she were on them. For Appleton, though, her family’s restaurant served as her window on the world.
“Camden and Rockport are an unlikely nexus of people from all over the world,” Appleton explains. “There are people from the CIA, CEOs, great writers, and the element of people coming in on boats. As a child, I saw these people coming into my world and knew there was something outside this area.”
Samantha Appleton’s urge to be where the action is first led her to Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts following her sophomore year at Camden-Rockport High School. When it came time for college, she selected a school about as far from Maine as possible. At the University of Washington in Seattle she became the news editor of the campus newspaper and, although she photographed all her own news stories, she thought she was on the road to becoming a writer.
Photography, however, had already become part of Appleton’s life, beginning with a class at the Maine Photographic Workshops in 1988 at age thirteen. Upon graduation from college in 1997, Appleton won a fellowship that she used to shoot a photo-documentary in Romania. Afterward, she returned home to work at the Waterfront and to assist Camden documentary filmmaker David Conover.
In 1998, at the age of twenty-three, Appleton moved to New York City where she landed a coveted internship at Magnum Photos, the world’s premier photo agency. She then secured a position as an assistant to James Nachtwey, arguably the world’s most famous war photographer. That is where Appleton learned how to capture the scenes of crisis that have become her specialty.
“Conflict photography is what I do now,” Appleton says. “Working for James Nachtwey, I learned his commitment to the work. It’s a skill you have to work at very, very hard.”
What looks in retrospect like Samantha Appleton’s meteoric rise to the top of photojournalism was not without its setbacks. In 2000, she spent “a strange three or four months” as a White House photographer assigned to the office of vice president and presidential hopeful Al Gore. When Gore lost the election, Appleton lost the plum assignment of photographing the next president.
As it happened, Appleton was home visiting her family in Camden when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, but she quickly headed back to the city. One day she was helping out at the Waterfront, the next she was photographing the devastation at Ground Zero. The photo essay Appleton made on the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse for the Portland-based Aurora and Quanta Productions agency won her a Pictures of the Year award in 2002, the same year her mentor James Nachtwey was named Photographer of the Year.
Despite the attention her World Trade Center photographs received, Appleton found she did not yet have the credentials to get embedded with a military unit during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Undeterred, she purchased a flack jacket and a BGAN satellite phone to transmit pictures and traveled on her own to Amman, Jordan, entering Iraq from there — much to her family’s dismay.
After the initial three weeks of shock and awe, many of the frontline photographers in Iraq rotated home, figuring the war was almost over. That created an opportunity for freelancers like Appleton, who found herself getting work from magazines such as Time and The New Yorker.
“Samantha’s photography stood out from many of the people who began to cover the Iraq conflict,” says Alice Gabriner, Appleton’s editor at Time. “An editor wants to be sure the photographer is intelligent, and level-headed — particularly in a war zone. Good judgment is key. It’s important to be able to trust that they have good instincts and their information is accurate. This, combined with a heightened visual aesthetic, is what makes Samantha special.”
Now at the top of her profession, Samantha Appleton remains a Maine girl at heart. Frank, friendly, and plainspoken, she dresses simply in jeans and jerseys and wears her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her angular features evince a native intelligence and diligence. She lives in a spartan third-floor apartment on Portland’s West End with a wide-angle view of the industrial Fore River and close proximity to the Portland International Jetport.
To maintain her grip on the midcoast of her youth, Appleton owns a small piece of property in Rockport covered with blueberries and apples. Maine has taken on the role of refuge from the troubled world she photographs.
“When I get up here,” she says, “it’s the first time I can shut things off. I come home for a little solace.”
Sandy Shapiro, a wedding planner in South Portland who has been Appleton’s best friend since they both showed up for kindergarten wearing the same dress, says, “When she’s in New York she’s a whole different person than she is when she’s here. She’s so much more relaxed in Maine.”
When Samantha Appleton photographs in Maine, she chooses projects that have a special meaning for her, including the Maine Handicapped Skiing program at Sunday River.
“I could not believe it. It was so cool!” she says of her first exposure to handicapped skiing. “The kids were just glowing. For some of them, it’s the first time they felt like they belonged to anything. There isn’t an ounce of sadness in that place.” She has also created a portfolio of photographs of Lubec, a town seemingly in transition as tourism reaches all the way Down East.
“Tourism in Maine is a double-edged sword,” says Appleton. “Most Mainers along the coast are completely reliant on it for their income, yet it drives up the living costs for year-round residents, and summer is when they must work the hardest to make enough to last the whole year. That is certainly true of my family. Camden is not the town I grew up in, but tourism paid for my education and bartending supported my first few years of freelancing.”
Indeed, Appleton says she hopes her work will help preserve the forces of community and family that shaped and launched her.
“I feel so fortunate,” concludes Appleton, “to have grown up in a small town that attracts so many interesting people.”
And now she has become one of them.