Extending the frame: An Interview with Susan Meiselas
Susan Meiselas has represented difficult issues with innovative approaches throughout her thirty-year career as a documentary media artist. Her awards include the Robert Capa Gold Medal (1979), the MacArthur Fellowship (1992), and the Hasselblad Prize (1994). A self-described “human rights” photographer and filmmaker, Meiselas works with the images, voices, and histories of everyday people in global situations of conflict. Whenever possible she has stayed in the affected communities after her photojournalist colleagues are pulled away to another story. This long-term approach allows her work to reflect the complexity of issues in a way rarely permitted by the news media.
Meiselas does not limit her work to the effects of conflict on people but extends her visual investigations into her own role as an imagemaker. Her first book, Carnival Strippers (1976), resulted from a three-year immersion in the culture of striptease acts at New England country fairs. The representation of the images and voices of both the women performers and their voyeuristic customers could be seen as a parallel to the roles of photographer and consumer. One of Meiselas’s more recent projects is a sixty-year visual history of the effects of the cultural encroachment and exchange between western outsiders and the Dani, a people indigenous to the highlands of Papua, New Guinea. The resulting publication, Encounters with the Dani (2003), repeats images of the phenomenon of the camera-toting stranger, an admission of the broader issues of the effects of western media on global cultures.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Meiselas completed a master’s degree in visual education at Harvard University. She taught in schools in the South Bronx and rural southern United States from 1972-74 and developed an approach including photography as an integral part of the curriculum.
Soon after the 1976 publication of Carnival Strippers, Meiselas joined the Magnum Photos cooperative. In 1977 she went to Nicaragua during the early rumblings of opposition to Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship, which soon thereafter erupted in revolution. Nicaragua (1981) contains unforgettable, iconic photographs of the conflict, many of which were also published in the New York Times, Life, and Paris Match. Meiselas returned to Nicaragua in 2004 to install nineteen mural-size prints in the sites where the images were originally made. The ReFraming History project is dedicated to the preservation of the visual history and collective memory of the revolution through creating dialogue between Nicaraguan youth and the older generations who lived through the events.
As part of an effort to raise consciousness at home about the United States’ complicity in the civil war in El Salvador, Meiselas co-edited the book El Salvador: Work of 30 Photographers (1983) and developed an exhibition of the same name including some of her own images. (The work was exhibited again in November of 2005 at the International Center for Photography [ICP]). Meiselas also edited Chile From Within (1991), a collection of photography by Chilean nationals from the time of the coup through the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Another project, Pandora’s Box (2001), explores a New York City sadomasochist club and was exhibited in Amsterdam and published in book form. Documentary films she has co-directed include Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1986) and Pictures from a Revolution (1991), both with Richard Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti.
Meiselas’s photographic work in the aftermath of the destruction of Kurdish villages by Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign led to a six-year exploration of the visual history of Kurdistan called Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997). The Web site akaKURDISTAN.com: A Place for Collective Memory and Cultural Exchange is continually evolving through contributions from site visitors including Kurds around the world.
Rather than becoming immobilized by self-critical documentary theory, Meiselas has reinvented her work to acknowledge questions of the roles and obligations of the imagemaker in society. Through her skillful framing of humans in inhumane circumstances – from the terrible effects of war on communities to the hidden lives of sex workers – Meiselas works with her own idealistic vision, unswayed by the changing seas of “product marketability.” Whether documentary photography, text, film, or interactive media, her work unflinchingly probes the complexities of human rights issues and the ethics of work behind the lens.
Joanna Heatwole and Mariola Mourelo: In two of your earliest projects, Carnival Strippers and Nicaragua, the primary visuals were your own photographs. In some of your later work, such as Encounters with the Dani, your own images are part of the whole layering of information, time, and history. Do you feel that your approach to your subject/s has fundamentally changed in some way?
Susan Meiselas: I don’t think my approach as a photographer engaged in the field has fundamentally changed, but it has certainly evolved. It felt quite natural and in response to my experience, not just as an abstract idea or strategy. The shift began while working in El Salvador, with the project El Salvador: Work of 30 Photographers.
JH/MM: You edited El Salvador: Work of 30 Photographers and also Chile from Within, 1973-1988, which includes the work of regional photographers but none of your own photographs. What was your intention when you edited these books? Was this a way to make up for being an “outsider” or to serve, as you have described your own work, as “a bridge between cultures”?
SM: My work is very present within the El Salvador book, but I felt a collective testimony would be more effective than just my own witnessing of those four years. Together we could create a chronology of events and daily life to give a sense of that struggle. Unfortunately, it was too dangerous for some of the regional photographers to participate.
The idea for the Chile book was different. I had not been present at the time of the coup in 1973. As I was working during the period of the referendum that voted Pinochet out of power, I met a lot of young Chilean photographers who had been documenting life there for years. We began to spend time together looking at their work. I felt it was important that the world see Chile through their eyes, rather than those of us who had come from afar. I found a publisher and began to edit the book with a small group of Chileans. I would never have done the project without them. I was certainly questioning my role as an “outsider” throughout the process of working in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Chile, and one way I found to respond was by creating books, which I felt served as bicultural “bridges.” Over time those bodies of work have had different lives, but continue to be valuable today. Just last night I met a Chilean who had bought our book fifteen years ago–he simply wanted to embrace me, saying it was so important for him while living in exile all those years to have some record to remember. Two weeks ago I was in El Salvador where we began discussions about bringing the work back to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Peace Accords. The Chilean photographers were honored a number of years ago with an exhibition of their work in the Museum of Bellas Artes. We could never have imagined that would happen twenty years ago.
JH/MM: You seem to deal very well with the sense of guilt that many photographers feel when portraying other people’s lives. Instead of letting that guilt undermine your work it has actually made it greater.
SM: I think one knows when you are simply “taking” and perhaps it is those very feelings that have led me to engage and find some way to give back. But these are values that come from further back than my life as a photographer. My mother was deeply involved in the black community that surrounded the white enclave where I grew up. She assumed her life was one of service and that certainly influenced me.
JH/MM: Encounters with the Dani was included in the ICP “Strangers” triennial exhibition. Was this the first time that you exhibited the interactive media element work in a museum or gallery space as part of a show?
SM: In fact the interactive digital display was developed for a larger show about the Dani that was first at the Nederlands Foto Instituut and then traveled to Montreal as part of the Mois de la Photo in 2001. I had gathered many of the original materials for that exhibition, which was installed in a dark space, as fragments of “discovery.” ICP supported the book’s publication, which involved more research but brought all the work together in a more permanent form. In the context of the triennial, it made the most sense to excerpt from the earlier, larger exhibition. The idea of “Encounters” is about witnessing–many kinds of relationships are explored–but each image records an exchange from a different perspective, which is what I became most fascinated by in researching for the Kurdistan project. To contextualize my own photographs, I wanted them to interact with the older material from the film Dead Birds (1964) by Robert Gardner as well as the original photographs that had been made during his 1961 Peabody Expedition. So the interactive digital was an experiment within the larger project.
JH/MM: What do you think of the approaches represented in “Strangers” as a reflection of a new documentary? Is the idea of witness changing in some way?
SM: As for “new documentary,” I find some of these approaches of interest, particularly the focus on a more distanced “aftermath,” rather than “decisive” moments of engagement. I still feel the dividing line is when photographers re-enact, which is closer to the tradition of docudrama than reportage. Sometimes it is very effective but defining the difference is still important to me.
MM: The “Strangers” exhibition was focused on promoting documentary and photojournalist work in the “concerned photography” tradition – though named differently, these two “categories” seem to often go together either in theory or in practice. Your own work can be described as both documentary and as photojournalism. However, this relationship is not always clear and documentary photographers and photojournalists make great efforts to clarify that they are in fact completely different practices. For instance, I was once told while doing a work placement in a local newspaper that there is in fact a big difference between documentary and photojournalism: “documentary photographers take pictures for themselves and photojournalists for the readers.” Do you agree with this statement? Would you say that you take pictures for yourself, for the readers/viewers, or for the magazines and newspapers?
SM: This is an essential question, and perhaps a confusion of practice. In some ways I agree though it is a bit too simplistic. For example, in my case, though my work has often been published in magazines and sometimes in newspapers, the work was not produced for them. My first project, “Carnival Strippers,” was a very personal project that was initially an exhibition and then became a book. However, I wanted readers to engage with the words of the subjects. The work itself was totally self-assigned and only once published in a magazine during the time I was shooting.
In the next decade working in Latin America, I felt that I was documenting history, not simply “news,” though clearly many of the photographs were seen first in magazines such as Time or Paris Match. My vision was always to observe and portray a process that meant committing time that was not supported by the resources or interests of any one publication. That again was a specific personal choice that felt right for me. Many other photographers made photographs and moved on, while I stayed as long as I could. So magazines were the first medium and then I gathered the work together into exhibition and book form. I was always thinking first of “history,” then both readers and viewers.
JH/MM: So do you think that documentary and photojournalism refer to different approaches? Does the media and art market influence the way photographers work?
SM: I do think these words “documentary” and “photojournalism” refer to different approaches but are rarely thoughtfully used to distinguish the work that is self-generated vs. assigned. Of course there are other distinctions worthy of much more discussion, such as the degree to which the work is intended to be “illustrating” text or reflecting a process of investigation and discovery by the photographer. Sadly, the latter is much more difficult to sustain now with diminishing means of support for independent work. Rather than publications paying to present photographs, photographers seek print sales from private collectors to support the production of new bodies of work.
JH/MM: Following your recent experience with new technologies and the internet and looking at the current proliferation of e-zines and Web galleries, do you think that documentary photography and/or photojournalism will find a new and more “democratic” space? By “democratic,” I mean a diverse and accessible space for new and established photographers as well as for editors and journalists to develop ideas and projects that might be difficult to fit in the limited and often restricted media and art market. But what consequences will this virtual space have on viewers? More people will have more access to images and information; however, will this virtual world be able to provide the same experience as physical galleries, books, and magazines? Is it important to look at an image as a physical object?
SM: I definitely feel that we are already seeing many examples of this new more “democratic” space. It is accessible to anyone who wants to take the time to think about how to use it well. For me, www.akaKURDISTAN.com was the first exploration and it has continued to create a cultural exchange that I find fascinating, though it is more often in words than with images.
Many photographers in Magnum are now producing digital essays with pictures and sound that are being seen on slate.com which has ten million monthly viewers–that is more than any print publication can provide. We are totally determining the content, with editorial or aesthetic control. This is what one hopes for with galleries, books, and magazines where control is negotiated, but rarely fully achieved. Of course it is not the same experience: in some ways it is more intimate, and I often miss the physical materiality of the work in digital form. But the sound alone is a very compelling element that profoundly shapes the reading of the work. One needs to think about whether a physical space or virtual one is right for a particular work, but at least there is a new environment to experiment with and learn about.
JH/MM: Do you have a new long-term project in mind or are you focusing on adding depth to your past work and connections at this point?
SM: The last project in Nicaragua, following the film Pictures from a Revolution is perhaps where my mind is now, rethinking the work again with the community from which it came. “ReFraming History” brought the photographs from the popular insurrection as enlarged murals back into the landscapes where the pictures were taken twenty-five years earlier. It was a collaborative effort with the Nicaraguan Institute of History, and a provocation in some ways. The installation was very powerful for me. We attempted to capture the response of Nicaraguans in video and sound (work that resulted in an exhibition now traveling in Europe), to further explore questions of memory and history making.
JH: I remember thinking during your talk at the George Eastman House last year that the Kurdistan issue might be challenging for those in the audience with anti-war leanings because the book and Web projects acknowledge the incredible complexity of the issues in Iraq by including Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses. Are arts institutions or galleries more comfortable or interested in the Dani project–or even your Nicaragua images for this reason?
SM: It is of course true that it is easier to hang a single image or sequence of photographs from Nicaragua than find a way to represent the larger project of Kurdistan or the Dani. However the Kurdistan show traveled extensively in Europe for eight years, tying in with the exiled Kurdish community in each country, partnering with different kinds of institutions such as the Netherlands Foto Institute in Holland and the Museum of Ethnology in Hambourg. What has been more complicated for me is the use of the book to justify the necessity of the Iraq war, as it partially was fought on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses against the Kurds. Most of the Kurds I knew supported the war and they have benefited from it in many ways, though it has been so very costly for both American and Iraqi lives.
JH/MM: Do you have a sense of any change in the impact of war images in our culture from your Nicaragua photos to the most recent Gulf War? What do you think about the impact of embedded journalism?
SM: In Nicaragua and El Salvador, photographers were able to work across the front lines and fully cover the country, crossing between the guerrillas and government troops and portraying daily life for civilians. This is clearly impossible in Iraq. Freedom of access has definitely impacted the kinds of images we see. We do not know the “enemy” and they perhaps do not want to be seen by us. There is only a kind of self-representation that includes images of hooded men towering over their victims or the reports of anonymous suicide bombers whose victims are represented visually.
In the 1980s we felt that if the American people saw what was happening, they would mobilize and curtail the U.S. military support of the war in El Salvador. In fact the war went on for twelve years. I fear now that we know enough, even without the images, yet we simply cannot effectively challenge the politics of counter-terrorism within this climate.
MARIOLA MOURELO studied documentary photography at the University of Wales, College of Newport. She is at present undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate in Art and Design Education at the University of London, Institute of Education.
Susan Meiselas is represented by Magnum Photos and lives in New York City.
ASX CHANNEL: Susan Meiselas
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