FROM industrial Ohio to New York, the slums of Paris to the refugee camps of Tunisia – and finally Sussex, Marilyn Stafford has had a wide-ranging career in photography. Now 91 and a Shoreham resident, her work between 1950 and 1960 is being displayed at the Lucy Bell Fine Art gallery in St Leonards. “I don’t know if what I’m going to say is relevant, but I’ll get it all out anyway,” she said before speaking to The Guide.

“I WAS very aware from an early age that things were not very happy in the world. Refugees from Germany would come to the family house [in Ohio], but I didn’t know what that meant. My mother would just say “this person had to get out of Germany”. Every Saturday we would go the cinema and they would show newsreels showing the breadlines and poverty during the depression.

That made me aware that my child’s world of pretty dresses and ribbons in my hair wasn’t all that life was about. These pictures posed the problems of society – I remember thinking “how awful, how terrible”. I was a creative kid and was always dancing, singing and performing, as children do.

Later, I had some friends who were documentary film-makers. They wanted to make a film about Albert Einstein, to get him talking about the use of atomic bombs. They wanted him to come out against it, and he did. On the car journey there I was just given this 35mm camera in the back seat. I was rather gobsmacked, but I couldn’t have cared less who I was photographing. I remember very vividly reaching Einstein’s house in Princeton, New Jersey. He came to the door wearing a sweatshirt and baggy pants.

He sat in a big chair and was very quiet and modest – not a flamboyant person. He and our director got talking about how many feet per second the film goes past the camera. Einstein sat there very calmly and then said thank you to the director for telling him this information. Out of the whole day of being with him, it was this humility that made me stop in my tracks.

This was a great man, a great mind, and if he could be so humble and down to earth ... well, it really impressed me. From then on I haven’t suffered fools lightly. When I had moved to New York, it was with the idea that I would become a great American actress. I had a very small role in television with the ex-husband of Hedy Lamarr. Big news, right? I had started to show promise as a photographer, and it was suggested that it would be a good to get some experience working with a professional. I got a job working as assistant to Francesco Scavullo, who went on to work for Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

I wanted to go out and take pictures in the street, but Scavullo only wanted to do women and fashion. I wasn’t concerned about fashion. An an actress, I was always told you have to go to interviews looking as though you have a mink coat at home. It was this weird phoney game. Moving to Paris happened almost by chance – I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. I went on a voyage of discovery, I suppose. I had a women friend whose husband was having an affair. She moved to Paris and took me with her. I never would have thought of going on my own.

At the time, I simply knew that in order to be a photographer I had to take pictures. I would get on a bus, go wherever was at the end of the line, and that’s how I found myself at the Bastille (see above pictures). I wasn’t looking to denounce the slums or anything. The kids I took pictures of were so lovely, I didn’t have to ask them to do anything. I think I was in a state of awe – I’d never seen surroundings like that. Everything happened so fast.

I wasn’t working as a photographer at that time; I was an apprentice to myself. It was only later I realised the pictures might be interesting. Tunisia was different – I went with the intention of taking pictures of refugees [Algerian people displaced after fleeing France’s “scorched Earth” attacks]. I was five or six months’ pregnant at the time.

When I was growing up, the displaced masses from the depression weren’t called refugees but that’s what they were. From childhood I had this feeling of wanting to help these people. I knew [renowned photographer] Henri Cartier-Bression so I took all of these Algerian photographs to him. He sent a selection to The Observer and they used two of them on the front page. I was very proud. The picture I loved most is of a refugee mother (see above). That image meant more than anything else. It was very moving to see the people living as they were.

The FotoReportage Award [named after Stafford] was launched by the mayor of Brighton on International Women’s Day. We have a lot of interesting ladies who will be judges, and applications are open until May 27. Sometimes women need a little bit of help. I’ve said what I’ve had to say with photography. But every once in a while I see a photograph and think, ‘oh my, I wish I still had a camera’.”

Marilyn Stafford: Stories in Pictures 1950 to 1960. At Lucy Bell Fine Art Gallery, Norman Road, St Leonards, from May 6 to June 24. 01424 434828