Behind the Curtain: “The Story of a Face”

National Geographic Storytellers Summit panel on The Story of a FaceMaggie Steber, Susan Goldberg, Katie Stubblefield, Alesia Stubblefield, Robb Stubblefield and Lynn Johnson at the National Geographic Storytellers Summit in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Erin Schaff, National Geographic

For over two years, a team of National Geographic journalists was given unprecedented access by the Cleveland Clinic to document the journey of Katie Stubblefield, the youngest full-face transplant recipient in U.S. history. Writer Joanna Connors and photographers Maggie Steber and Lynn Johnson together spent hundreds of hours with Katie, her parents and her doctors, detailing the groundbreaking surgery in a way that had never before been seen.

picture of National Geographic September 2018 cover

The resulting story was the cover of the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine, and it is told with the unparalleled visual storytelling that National Geographic is known for, by uniquely connecting audiences to the deeply human story behind the science. “The Story of a Face” was National Geographic’s most read story of 2018 and it was the most engaging science and technology story of the year, according to Chartbeat.

In January 2019, Maggie and Lynn reunited on stage at National Geographic’s Storytellers Summit, to discuss their experience photographing Katie’s journey. They were also joined by Katie and her parents, Robb and Alesia, and Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic magazine and editorial director of National Geographic Partners.

Here are some of their most unforgettable quotes from the Summit:

“I was determined to always make beautiful pictures of Katie, because Katie is a beautiful person. She is an exquisite spirit. I would always try to make a beautiful portrait of her because I wanted to pay respect and homage to her courage and her lion heart.”

Maggie Steber, on photographing transplant recipient Katie Stubblefield,

“Both of us are very interested in bringing science off the pedestal and making it applicable to human life, and to help people understand and, I think, accept it. This story really shows how science can impact people in the most personal way.” 

Maggie Steber, on covering stories with Lynn,

“It sat for a moment, and it was kind of a spiritual moment where everyone was just kind of shocked by the reality of how an identity could be disconnected and reconnected. And in this moment, it belonged to no one. And then it was passed to Katie in the next operating room.” 

Lynn Johnson, on seeing the donor face in the operating room,

“In addition to being able to witness the incredible transformation that was both surreal and kind of sacred in the operating room, a high point for me was being able to leave that room and find Katie’s family… I felt a deep responsibility, as important as taking the photograph, was to tell Katie’s parents that everyone was going ok and to give updates from the surgery.” 

Lynn Johnson, on covering the transplant surgery from the operating room,

“From our vantage point, to you who do this all the time, is that when there is that relational aspect with that photojournalist, it translates not just in their skill of taking a picture, but it translates into the reality that this is humanity, that these are real people, that these are not just the subject matters of a story. And I think that was one of the great things that allowed us to be very open.” 

Robb Stubblefield, Katie’s father, on his family’s relationship with Maggie and Lynn,

“The face is becoming more and more my face. I almost got used to not having a face. It’s just an incredible gift.” 

Katie Stubblefield,