Week Fifty Two
Susan Meiselas (1948-)
Teen Dream, Woodstock, VT, 1973, from the series Carnival Strippers
Susan Meiselas has spent her career documenting people in different situations, and in doing so, capturing historic moments in time. In the 1970s, over a three year period, she took a series of photographs of women who performed striptease in small carnivals as they travelled between South Carolina and New England. These images, along with a CD of interviews with the women, became the book Carnival Strippers.
She went on to document the Sandista Revolution in Nicaragua in the late 1970s. In 1989, she returned to Nicaragua and El Salvador trying to find some of the people she had photographed a decade earlier for a film, Pictures from a Revolution, released in 1991.
I was digitising part of my archive, and I was looking at all that work thinking, ‘Why bother? What value do these pictures have, and for whom?
So to find out, she went back and asked the people themselves. In 2004, the 25th anniversary of the revolution in Nicaragua, she returned again to create a project called Reframing History. She placed nineteen billboard-sized prints of her photographs from 1978 -1979, and placed them in their original positions on the streets and in the landscape.
In the 1990s, after seeing the exhumation of mass graves in northern Iraq, caused by Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds, she brought together documents, family pictures, maps, personal stories in order to build a public archive of the history of the displaced Kurdish people, resulting in a book, exhibition and a website to which people continue to contribute images and stories to this constantly growing project.
In 2001, she took a series of images documenting the rituals and activity within Pandora’s Box, a high-class Manhattan sex club run by a dominatrix called Mistress Raven.
Meiselas has won a number of awards including the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1979; a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992; and the Harvard Arts Medal in 2011. She has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1976, respected and revered by photographers and students. She continues to document issues around political change and social injustice around the world.
What others say:
News has a temporal basis…She’s more of a social scientist; she’s more interested in the historical record.
She does not present a photograph in isolation, asking what a particular image will impart or what aesthetic qualities an audience will respond to. Rather she seems to ask herself: how successfully do these pictures tell the greater story I want to tell about the event I have documented, the candid stories of the individuals who lived it? … Meiselas goes beyond the role of image-maker; she is an activist alongside the individuals chronicled in her work.
What she says:
I don’t want to relinquish the role and the necessity of witnessing and the photographic act as a response, a responsible response. But I also don’t want to assume in a kind of naïve way … that the act of the making of the image is enough. What’s enough? And what can we know in this process of making, publishing, reproducing, exposing, and recontextualizing work in book or exhibition form? … I can only hope that it registers a number of questions.
I used to get in the car as early in the morning as I could and just drive, looking for things that seemed unusual. One day I was driving on the outskirts of Managua when I smelled something. It was a very steep hill, and as I got closer to the top the odour overwhelmed me. I looked out and saw a body and stopped to photograph it. I don’t know how long it had been there, but long enough for the vultures to have eaten half of it. I shot two frames, I think, one in colour and one in black and white, then got out. The images I made of the body were powerful partly because of the contrast with the beauty of the landscape. For me [the photo] was the link to understanding why the people of Nicaragua were so outraged. [On the other hand] the American public could not relate their reality to this image. They simply could not account for what they saw. -S.M. from “Exposure 21,” no.1 (1988)
For me the essence of documentary photography has always been to do with evidence. When you’re working with evidence – say when you’re digging up grave sites – you don’t want people to think that it is conceptual art, an installation or it’s just invented.
Why I like her:
Her approach is not so much as a way to document history, but more of a socially engaged project across time. She is interested in people, their lives and their dreams, taking images with compassion and care.