By Miriam Grotte
I first met photographer Susan Meiselas soon after I moved to New York City in August of 2008. I had begun an internship at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in midtown Manhattan and, among other projects, was asked to spend a day every week at Meiselas’s studio, assisting her with preparations for her upcoming retrospective at the museum. On my first day, we shared a lunch of tuna sandwiches above the studio in her apartment. When we finished, she laid out prints, tear sheets, and pages from her book on the Nicaraguan revolution of 1978-79, documenting the Sandinista overthrow of the Somoza political dynasty. Dispersed across her hardwood oak floors, the treacherous maze provoked fears of a carelessly misplaced foot.
She asked me to walk through and respond to the cohesiveness of the narrative, wondering if I could parse the story of this political rebellion through photographs alone. I weaved my way through, considering the images. I read the story her images told, aided by the sunlight spilling through the nearby 6-foot picture window. Walking amongst the prints that August afternoon as a whole emerged from the carefully scattered particulars, I was given a privileged glimpse into Meiselas’s artistic method. 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? A year later, when her retrospective was finally on view, each photograph initiated a chapter of a broader story, or stories, a commentary not limited to the represented subject matter but commenting on the very practice of photojournalism.
In History presented three major bodies of Meiselas’s work – her work from Nicaragua, her ongoing work in northern Iraq, which began in 1991, and her images documenting the lives of women working as side-show strippers along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard in the late 1970’s. Her pictures from Nicaragua opened the exhibit, introducing the audience to the exhibition. These photographs are strongly characteristic of Meiselas; they are simultaneously violent and beautiful, repulsive and seductive. One of the first images the viewer sees depicts a mountainous Nicaraguan landscape; in the foreground is an exposed spine protruding from a pair of disembodied, denim-clad legs. This photograph was taken at the Cuesta del Plomo, a site outside Managua that Somoza’s National Guard often used for political executions. The photograph immediately challenges its viewer to orient themselves in an uncomfortable conceptual space between the subject matter and the removed perspective from which it is viewed. Its placement reflects an intentional curatorial choice that designs a challenging and compelling entry into one of photojournalism’s central problem: negotiating the intersection of activism, journalism, documentation and art making.
Meiselas embraces these ambiguities, creating a multi-dimensional narrative that employs video, framed prints, large-scale hanging banners, and tear sheets from magazines in which her images have been published, aiming to engage the audience in a dialogue about the photojournalist’s overlapping and sometimes incompatible roles. The dynamic spectrum of media on display articulates a broader context from which the audience views Meiselas’s work. These images refuse to be taken out of context; we must view her pictures as such not to aestheticize the sufferings of a war-ravaged nation. The photos provoke empathy with the stories of the individuals living under conditions that are difficult, complex and ambiguous.
Meiselas’s multi-layered presentation demonstrates not only her skill across many mediums, but also an engagement characteristic of her work throughout her career. In one of the videos on view, “Pictures of a Revolution,” Meiselas returns to Nicaragua 25 years after the insurrection to reunite with the subjects of her images. The video documents Meiselas installing banner-sized reproductions of her photographs at the locations where they were originally shot, an eerily commemorative public exhibition that contrasts the country’s past and present, upending received categories of subject and audience.
Another section of the exhibition presents Meiselas’s ongoing work in northern Iraq. Delicate glass vitrines are filled with personal photographs, mementos, trinkets, and letters Meiselas collected from Kurdish families she met while photographing the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s anti-Kurd military campaigns in the late 1980’s. Meiselas’s tendency to immerse herself deeply in the lives of her subjects and to champion their cause is especially evident here. Her original project photographing Hussein’s genocidal al-Anfal Campaign developed into the compilation of objects from the local community and the creation of a book, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. The book is a cultural and social history of the Iraqi Kurds and ultimately creates a documentary record that legitimizes the Kurdish people’s independent, self-defined identity. Since the dawn of the modern nation-state, the excluded—whether the Armenians, Palestinians, or Jews—demand their place in history and geography through the construction of such narratives.
Photographs like Meiselas’s, which focus directly on victims of institutionalized violence and war, are vulnerable to criticism. Often, such work is decried as opportunistic insofar as it represents the dire conditions of another community in an aestheticized and abstracted manner. This is a familiar critique of photojournalism that documents people living in poverty, war, neglect, or abuse that is as old as the practice itself.
Recall Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, “Migrant Mother” taken for the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, which depicts a starving mother in central California flanked by her dirt-covered children. This photograph, one of the most celebrated from the FSA project, has for decades been subject to similar criticism. Photojournalists document extreme conditions from an inevitable “outsider” perspective, creating a difficult tension pertaining to many forms of documentation. Critics argue that the subjects of such images are romanticized, beautified, and photographed as some exotic ‘other,’ creating an exploitative disjunction between how their situation is represented and the subject’s lived experience. As a result, the audience (whether casual museum goers, art critics or historians) encounters the troubling idea that documentary images unavoidably misrepresent their subjects.
In Meiselas’s case, this vein of criticism takes an alternative form. In his review of In History, New York Times art critic Ken Johnson accuses Meiselas’s work of being too self-referential, too much about her own ego, experiences and difficulties as a photographer. Discussing Meiselas’s trip back to Nicaragua in Pictures of a Revolution, Johnson writes: “Ms. Meiselas’s impulse to return, reconnect and try to give a bigger historical picture seems at once admirable and self-serving. It is good for her image as a moral heroine, but it’s hard to see what difference it makes in the long run for the people she talks to. You feel like saying, “Susan it’s not just about you.”1
Johnson’s criticism is facile and refuses to engage the aim of In History and Meiselas’s work in general. It is understandable to respond to the unavoidable difference between the photographer’s life and the lives of those she photographs, her mobility next to her subject’s restrictions. Johnson charges Meiselas with smugly selling herself as a “tireless champion of the dispossessed,” complaining that her work is ego-driven. But it is impossible to accept such an interpretation after viewing her work as she presents it to us.2 The exhibition reveals how deeply Meiselas engages with her work and her subjects—how works like “Pictures of the Revolution” challenge the dynamics of representation and exploitation—while at the same time recognizing the incommensurability of their positions.
In the bodies of work on view, Meiselas is not temporarily dispatched by a news or photo agency, but rather develops longstanding relationships with the communities she photographs and continues to work amongst them, sometimes for decades. She revisits and expands her bodies of work over time, developing them and pushing them further. Her artistic practice is more conceptually grounded than mere war photography—her images function as catalysts for engagement and discussion. Meiselas uses her camera to become a member of, and an advocate for, acting in solidarity with communities under assault. Her photographs serve as a form of testimony for victims of political and social injustice; her enduring visual products constitute a recalling and retelling of personal and national stories, forcing them into the public sphere.
Meiselas’s oeuvre challenges the very reductive perception of photojournalism that Johnson espouses. Meiselas goes beyond the role of image-maker; she is an activist alongside the individuals chronicled in her work. The exhibition’s installation forces the audience into a deeper examination of the cultural and political contexts from which these works were born and which they continue to serve. In the small, labyrinthine space of the exhibition, we cannot look at these images individually. Instead, they surround us and we recognize their violent world, as Meiselas has done. Meiselas asks us to look further than the frames of rich colors and heart-wrenching expressions and develop an understanding of what implications this documented world has for its inhabitants – the viewers as much as the individuals depicted.
1. Johnson, Ken. “Lives in a Danger Zone, Captured and Revisited,” The New York Times, September 25, 2008
Miriam Grotte currently works at a contemporary art gallery in New York and lives in Brooklyn, after stints in Portland, Oregon and Chicago.
ASX CHANNEL: Susan Meiselas
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(© Miriam Grotte, 2009. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)