By Bruce Young
For Susan Meiselas the still frame is her “point of engagement, where it all begins but not where it ends.” Her love for photography is rooted in her deeper love for exploring, understanding, and sharing cultures at the edge of change.
Her first project was photographing New England carnival strippers. At the time she wasn’t really a Photographer, a professional with a capital P. She was someone with an idea, a concept born of her interest in anthropology. She discovered still photography while studying for a master's degree in visual education at Harvard, on her way to becoming a teacher in the New York City public schools. Photography became her medium almost by default. “It could just as easily have been a compact video recorder,” she told Harvard magazine in 2010, “if such a thing had existed at the time.”
At first carnival strip show operators wouldn’t let her shoot. She stuck at it – she worked during the summer carnival season for three years – and slowly gained the trust and access she needed to fully explore and capture the complex “multiplicity of views” that fascinated her.
From the start Meiselas wanted the voices of the people she was photographing to be heard. So she made audio recordings of her interviews with the women, their bosses and even some of the patrons. “I don’t think the photograph in and of itself tells all,” she said at a 2011 lecture at Parsons The New School for Design, “I … wanted the voices of the people who are the subjects to participate and to shape our understanding of how we see them.”
Carnival Strippers was first viewed as an exhibit in 1975. Although the gallery wanted a traditional show of framed pictures with captions, she wanted the interviews playing in the background as gallery viewers looked at the photos.
Published as a book in 1976, Carnival Strippers got the attention of the legendary Magnum photo agency. Meiselas was invited to join. She was 27 years old. “I don’t think I realized what a big deal it was and I didn’t really know what being a professional photographer, so to speak, was going to mean,” she said later in an interview. “I sort of landed and discovered a world that I became immersed in very fast.”
It was Magnum that encouraged her to cover the revolutions in Nicaragua and later El Salvador. She went at her own expense, and she still laments the magazine industry’s drift away from that time when a photographer with an idea and some passion could get a commitment to cover a story on spec along with a bag full of film from an interested editor. That journey produced what is perhaps her best-known book, Nicaragua, in 1981.
When she organized an exhibition of her pictures from that work, she again decided to defy conventional gallery form. “So I ripped up the book,” she said in the Parsons lecture. Literally. The display showed several lines of framed pictures, magazine tear sheets, galley proofs and outtakes. “I felt people didn’t know what they were missing, meaning what they weren’t seeing being in a magazine, or what the process had been to arrive at a narrative.”
However, it sometimes seems as if Meiselas isn’t really a “photographer” – or at least a still photographer – in the traditional sense at all. She seems to approach nothing with the mentality of just making pictures. Her love for photography is rooted in her deeper love for exploring, understanding and sharing cultures at the edge of change.
Often, she has done this at the sacrifice of chasing the hot story – as she indicated when explaining her choice to stay in Latin America rather than rush to “Peru or Haiti or South Africa.” Speaking with The Brooklyn Rail in an extended interview in 2008 she explained why she hadn’t chased the high profile story of Yugoslavia’s extended dissolution.
“Since everyone else went there I didn’t feel I needed to be there,” she said. Later in the interview, on how she relates with the locations of her stories: “It’s a psychological violence that you put yourself through, to disrupt yourself, to uproot, throwing yourself into places where you don’t belong and you try and find a reason to be there that makes that act coherent and justified and that’s what I mean. It’s not just about pictures; it’s about the whole role.”
“I still find these boundaries very blurry,” She told The Brooklyn Rail. “The differences between ethnography, photojournalism, and documentary had already been raised from time to time.” But she has slipped back and forth.
“I think about my photographs as fragments of relationships,” she said at Parsons. “There are photographs I continue to think about and want to find the people in those photographs,” like she did in Nicaragua. “Sometimes assignments helped get me somewhere or help me to stay,” she said. But she would rather move in with a story for the long haul … and with her own agenda.
Over the years, the multimedia has remained part of the organic whole of her approach, if not grown to overtake it. Returning to Nicaragua in 1991, she made a film in parallel with her photographic journey, searching out the subjects of her photos to see where they were and what had happened a decade after the war they shared.
“We take pictures away and we don’t bring them back,” she told The New York Times. “That became a central quest for me – relinking, revisiting, the repatriation of work: it’s become a kind of motif in my thinking.”
In 1991, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, she traveled to Kurdistan with Clyde Snow for Human Rights Watch. Meiselas found she “couldn’t photograph the present without understanding the past,” as she told Harvard magazine. She began a six-year project to curate a hundred-year photographic history of the region encompassing northern Iraq, eastern Turkey and western Iran. The result was a website (an exhibit, the book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History and a multi-screen show of her pictures with narration.
“What I suddenly see is that there’s a whole timeline of people like me,” she explained.
Again, in 2004, Meiselas returned to Nicaragua and hung billboard-sized prints of her pictures at the locations where they had been made, reminding a new generation what had happened there. And then she made a film of that … which she included with a reissue of the original book, Nicaragua.
“Am I preoccupied with whether my projects will be designated Art with a capital ‘A’ or a small ‘a’?” she asks herself in an ASX.TV interview, before reviewing her unusual choices when organizing exhibitions. “It is not easy to reinvent new contexts for images and make them matter,” she says later. “Images are generally, still, trapped in limited ghettos. As a consequence rarely do images have any kind of effect. So in a quiet way that’s why the Kurdistan project was important. The images were embraced by communities for whom the project was a meaningful process and exchange. In the broader scope this is a small thing but I do wonder just how much change images can effect. Probably not very much in the end.”
“But enough to matter,” interviewer David Campany says.
“Yes, enough to matter and want to continue making them.” After all, as she said elsewhere: “The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don't belong. It gives me both a point of connection and a point of separation."