A man wearing a white Cowboy hat, vest and white dress shirt poses for a photo
Springfield's Steven Spencer traveled the world photographing ballet dancers. For his next project, he wants to take pictures of construction workers at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. (Photo: Larry Shaffer)

You’ve probably seen Steven Spencer and mistaken him for a Civil War ghost. He often wears an overcoat and glasses, long silver hair spilling out from under a vintage Stetson Open Road hat.

He’s a photographer who doesn’t like to market his work, but will sell it if you ask. He calls photography his “walking meditation.”

“I do photos for me,” he said. “If I did it for money, it would suck. If you ask for a print I’ll sell it to you, but I did it for me.”

A retired Navy vet living on a small pension, he travels when he can, often hopping on free flights on military planes. Back in 2016-17, he traveled around the world for 11 and a half months photographing ballet dancers.

You can find a print from that trip on display at The Royal on Cherry Street, a bar that becomes the Sleepy Opossum Café during the day. The photo features a young woman in flight, leaping off of the brick floor in front of old clothes racks.

Spencer took the photo near a ballet studio in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The city didn’t have ballet schools between 1979 and 2012 because the Khmer Rouge killed off so many artists. Then Steven Bimson, a British dancer, traveled through on vacation in 2011 and decided to open up a studio the next year. He began by teaching orphans.

In 2016, Spencer was given permission to photograph the young dancers for his project. Turns out, the orphanage director was from Springfield.

“It was my best work there,” Spencer said. “We were walking around with these kids following me and these two little girls in white tutus.”

The girl featured in the photo is Synaet Nin, who eventually became the first non-royal Cambodian to attend the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in the United Kingdom.

“She is gonna be a huge inspiration to children; an ambassador,” Spencer said.

The Ballet Dancers

Spencer first photographed ballet dancers when visiting a friend named Ishmael — a former Drury swimmer – who was dating a ballerina and living in Panama, back in 2012. Spencer stopped by the dance studio and took her picture.

“This girl starts screaming,” Spencer said. “And Ishmael says, ‘No, he’s a famous photographer from the US!’ — and she loved the pictures.”

Spencer was invited to the ballet that night and took backstage photos, which he posted on Facebook. Soon after, Meredith Stewart James mentioned on Facebook that she had seen photos of ballet dancers photographed in everyday situations in New York. Spencer suggested they try to do the same thing in Springfield. He was ready for a challenge.

“I’d photographed every rock in this town and the flip side, and I was uninspired,” he said.

James, a dancer, and Spencer coordinated photo shoots around town in 2013-14.

“It was such a fun collaboration and Spencer really just made it happen,” James said. “He has such a free spirit and an amazing eye, which made him the perfect person for the job.”

They created the Ballet & Modern Dancers in Random Situations Photo Shoot Facebook page and posted the photos. One day, Spencer noticed someone with a unique name had “liked” a picture.

“I don’t know how she ran across it, but I found out she was a dancer in the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, and friended her,” he said. “Then a month later a friend of hers liked a photo — and he was a dancer with the Paris Ballet. Then it was someone from the Athens Ballet.

“And they think my photos are killer and they’re like, ‘You must live in a beautiful place.’”

He got an idea: what if he could photograph these dancers in their own beautiful places?

A black-and-white photograph of the Bistrot de la Gare in Paris, France.
Steven Spencer takes photographs around the world, like this one shot in Paris, France. (Photo: Steven Spencer)

Around the world in 11 and a half months

“I went to a train station in Kansas City and went west, and I didn’t stop until I came back around,” he said.

He started in 2016, bringing two art pieces each from 10 local artists. He planned to trade the works for pieces made by artists he met while traveling. That way he could share local work and make connections.

“I was knocking on doors,” Spencer said. “I met these people from Facebook, and they were real. I knew if I could find artists I could get in.”

He did his first dance shoot in Sydney, Australia, where someone asked if he planned to go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“Oh, that’s my next stop,” Spencer said. And so on.

“I just became a tumbleweed,” he said. “I went where they sent me. I just showed up all around the world. The ballet world is small and they recognized people in pictures.”

He found that after photographing people for a couple of hours they became lifelong friends. His trip took 11 and a half months and he visited 35 cities in 25 countries — and that ballet studio in Cambodia.

‘I want to see if I can beat the last trip’

Spencer was back home in Springfield, watching news reports of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, on April 15, 2019, when he got an idea.

“I immediately needed to go,” he said.

Not right away, exactly, but as soon as construction workers began rebuilding the stunning church.

“Everything I’d listened to on the news was from academics and politicians,” Spencer said. “Nobody was talking to the ones who were really gonna do it: the construction workers.”

He knew Notre Dame was in good hands when he finally visited later that year.

“Once I set foot in Paris after hearing global news reports about tearing the cathedral down — I knew they weren’t going to put a flat roof and a Starbucks in it,” he said.

Still, traveling, like the rest of life, rarely resembles Instagram, and Spencer struggled with the language barrier.

“It was hard, especially not speaking French and barely being able to speak English,” he said.

Spencer stood outside the cathedral for a couple of weeks, taking photos of construction: braces, brackets and buttresses. He watched workers traverse back and forth in a bus.

“Like a prison bus,” he said.

He couldn’t photograph the workers.

“Security was so freaking tight,” he said. “They wouldn’t let anyone take photos unless they were Magnum Photographers — the Green Berets of photographers. The badasses.”

He did meet someone outside the cathedral who suggested he visit a university where construction workers study before completing apprenticeships.

“They teach you how to be a sculptor, how to work stone, timber framing; anything to do with what keeps the city alive,” Spencer said.

Spencer is, among other things, a finish carpenter, and knew he could relate to the workers once he got the chance.

“I’m not a reporter,” he said. “But they’ll know I know what I’m talking about.”

He also realized — like most construction projects and creative works, too — that this was a bigger commitment than he thought.

“I started to understand what was involved,” he said. “It was going to be impossible — but why not? You’re in Paris.”

Construction work being done on a cathedral
Steven Spencer spent time in Paris, France, taking pictures of the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral. (Photo: Steven Spencer)

Meeting ‘The French Steven Spencer’

When he returned to Paris in the fall of 2022 he made a new friend.

“I was leaving the Shakespeare bookstore and bumped into a guy on the street,” he said. “I looked at him, and he looked at me and we started laughing. He was like the French Steven Spencer. He was smoking a cigar.

“I said, ‘Where’d you get the cigar?’ He said, ‘It’s Cuban. Come with me.’”

Spencer took a walk.

“It turns out he was really famous,” he said. “He was a poet, writer and editor. And he walked me over to Notre Dame and knocked on doors. He talked to people and I was like, ‘Now I’m in.’”

Turns out, he was Yan Céh, the former editor-in-chief of Playboy France. And he loved Spencer’s project.

Céh also invited Spencer to stay at his Parisian flat during Spencer’s next visit. Céh lives in Montmartre — a neighborhood where van Gogh and Picasso worked — near the white Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

Artists still hang out there.

“Paris is the place to be seen, but this is the place to be seen,” Spencer said.

Céh will also introduce Spencer to government officials, which may hold the key, as it were, to connecting Spencer with construction workers.

Spencer plans to visit Paris later this spring. He will carry his trusty Sony A9 — “all taped up so you can’t see the labels” — and a street camera. He has to hurry — the Cathedral is expected to reopen by the end of next year.

“By the time I get to talk to them, Notre Dame will probably be open — but that won’t lessen my interest in construction in France,” he said. “I’m infatuated by these workers and the fact that they are the last people to get any credit. When you hear people talk about Notre Dame it’s politicians, academics and historians, while in the background you see a guy with a helmet going thru asbestos and ash. Their only accolades are at the pub at night.”

In the meantime, he’s philosophical about his journey.

“Is it going to happen? I don’t know,” he said. “But it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t show up.”

Construction work being done on a cathedral
Steven Spencer spent time in Paris, France, taking pictures of the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral. (Photo: Steven Spencer)

Mary Ellen Chiles

Mary Ellen Chiles is a freelance photographer and writer based in the Ozarks. She graduated from Missouri State University with a bachelor’s in creative writing and a master’s in English, Creative Nonfiction Writing. More by Mary Ellen Chiles