INTERVIEW: “Susan Meiselas in Conversation with David Campany”

Carnival Strippers, 1973

Susan Meiselas in Conversation with David Campany

DAVID CAMPANY: Much of your work seems to be based very much on process, particularly more recent work such as the Kurdistan project and ‘Encounters with the Dani’. Obviously work has to surface, one way or another, but do you have a sense of the likely outcome of things, or whether it’s important to not consider that at all when you are at the beginning?

SUSAN MEISELAS: That’s really interesting, I don’t go in with a concept, the concept evolves and becomes self-evident at a certain moment in the process. In time one accumulates ideas of what’s possible. With each of my projects I’ve come to the idea of what they should be in the midst of them. This has been so from early projects like ‘Carnival Strippers’ right up to ‘Encounters with the Dani’. And of course very often, between shows and books, they have slightly different forms.

DC: A book has to be finite, although you’ve recently reissued the book of ‘Carnival Strippers’ in a different format. And making one’s way through the book of the Kurdistan project one gets to the final page and realises this is by no means the end either of the project or of the political struggle.

SM: Quite often I find things are inappropriately fixed.

DC: Still, your working process is often so reflexive that the reader knows that the ‘endings’ of your work always strike one as pragmatic or highly contingent

SM: But it does feel definitively arbitrary. And infuriating. Actually with ‘Kurdistan’ I had a concept that I couldn’t achieve, looking back on it. At that time, in the early 90s I was thinking less about a book and hoped to make a CDrom, which back then was incredibly expensive to produce, around half a million dollars. There was no-one sufficiently interested in Kurdish history to invest at that level. But by 1994/5 just as the web was beginning to shift from being data driven to carrying images this notion emerged that a CDrom could have a link to the internet. The idea was that there’d be the book, with a fixed nature, a CDrom with everything from the out takes from the research as well as video material and then through the CD a link would connect to the internet to tie the reader via active websites to an ongoing history. It was the perfect concept for that project. But I could never get the sponsorship to make it happen. It was a problem of marrying this cutting edge information technology with the story of the Kurds, about whom people cared very little.

The Nicaragua project also had a natural parenthesis or point of suspension following the triumph of the insurrection in that I went back and made a film ten years later, as does my work from El Salvador and Chile. Books and films are by necessity finite and exhibitions are forgotten so what’s the perfect form? I don’t know.

DC: Well, one might say that all these formats coexist and they do carry different cultural weight. Looking at the book of the Kurdistan project one does feel that it should be a published entity, of a certain size. It has a certain gravitas, it goes to libraries, it doesn’t rely on a big apparatus or electronic technology to access it. It’s also a history book, of a certain kind, although unconventional in its form. The visual material is made up of archival and contemporary photographs along with document facsimiles that have quite a physical relation to the page. The book as a physical object in the world which can’t be erased simply by wiping a hard drive or unplugging a computer. Plus of course books do have a status, for good or bad, that CDs and the internet don’t as yet. So it seems important that a book exists for practical as well as symbolic reasons. It marks a presence where there was once an absence.

SM: Certainly for the Kurdish community. That’s critically important. It’s important to be aware of the differences of formats in the ways they address you and hold attention, hopefully.

DC: Audiences are faced with certain problems. There is often a moment of hesitation or apprehension when they begin to engage with the archival projects of others that they are getting into something that they’ll never be able to get out of in a consensual way. Sometimes the sheer volume is so overwhelming. With Gerhard Richter’s monumental Atlas project [1962-] for example, we marvel at the scale of the enterprise before we engage with any one part.

SM: There is certainly an abyss, an enormity. Many of my projects live in more than one community simultaneously and the challenge becomes slightly different. For the Kurdish community they are seeing their own representation which means there is less persuasion needed. For another community, the Western audience let’s say, one confronts the question the audience is asking ‘Why am I being dragged into this huge, ever growing, complex history?’ (Even with the book on Kurdistan I was always pushing for another folio of pages from the publisher to accommodate the constantly gathering material). In many ways that project was trying to find a community. It was a project that overlapped history, photography, cultural studies and politics and I’m not sure it ever really found the nexus of any of them. Perhaps because it was trying to form it’s own nexus.

DC: That is a very much a characteristic of a lot of your work. The process is about constituting, forming audiences. There isn’t the comfortable position of making a known, finite project for a known, finite audience. Just as your work wrestles with different forms of address it wrestles with being in different places in the world and the shifting nature of audiences.

SM: That’s very true. Audiences shift across time too. Even when revisiting ‘Carnival Strippers’ I had to think back to the context at the time – the debates in feminism about such women, the idea of giving voice to the women from the inside, and so on.

DC: Many photographers and photojournalists were working with book projects in the 1960s and 70s. In some ways ‘Carnival Strippers’ seems very much of its time in that it’s an experience of photographs that forms a universe in which the reader is immersed. That immersive quality is a characteristic of many of the photo-books of that period. But even at that point you were using extensive texts with images and making sound recordings of places and people you photographed, hinting perhaps that the photograph was not enough even with text. This was at a time of a split in documentary between a classical faith in the descriptive powers of the image and a sense that the image needed to the supplemented .

SM: Yes, supplemented, complemented, undermined. I did have that sense early on in my work. I didn’t really come through a pure photographic or documentary background. There were reference points and I’d seen certain works whether it was Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand or Robert Frank but then closer to me were people like Danny Lyon and Larry Clark who had approaches I identified with. Recently I discovered that Danny Lyon also made sound recordings while working on ‘The Bikeriders’ [1968]. Lyon and Clark also moved towards film, as I did, and both preceded me.

DC: In a recent interview the photographer and writer Allan Sekula spoke about the fact that he always found documentary film to be far more willing to engage with radical, experimental practices and formal innovation. Documentary photography has tended to congeal into knowable forms that fit the conventions of conventional magazines.

SM: Yes it’s often very static. Although there are ways in which documentary – whatever that is, we’re being loose here – has shifted. When I started out I felt there was not much exploration into what to do with the image once you had it. My early work with ‘Carnival Strippers’ was concerned with bringing forth their voices as a part of the overall ‘picturing’. I felt that if I was in someone else’s world, they ought to be given the space to participate and collaborate, even though they didn’t become partners in the making of it.

DC: Moving through your projects from the 1970s to the present – ‘Carnival Strippers’, ‘Nicaragua’, then jumping to ‘Kurdistan’ and the Dani project – it seems your authorial voice becomes less and less evident as the projects become more involved and elaborate. Clearly process for you is very much about collaboration and assembly, giving voice and choreographing. In the book ‘Encounters with the Dani’ you are absolutely there and hardly there. At the same time the Dani themselves are absolutely there and hardly there because the book is structured around those outsiders coming in, their assumptions and expectations of the Dani people.

SM: I’m not sure about this question of the authorial voice. If I were a writer, which I know I’m not, if words came to me the way photographs do, my presence might be different. In all of the projects I am weaving them together so my presence is there. The difference is that it is my primary experience in Strippers, let’s say. But I didn’t live one hundred years in Kurdistan, so I draw from my point of intervention in that history. It’s true that other photographers sometimes look at me and wonder why I’m wasting my time on other people’s images and other people’s histories…

DC: What you do does stand apart from a lot of the ways that the shortcomings of documentary photography have been addressed. I’m thinking of art’s deconstructive critique of objectivity on the one hand and the highly, overtly subjective documentary approach on the other. Yours is a third, perhaps more radical position.

SM: Those debates about whether one can speak for or on behalf of the ‘other’ are very important. But I find myself working in areas where not all the pieces of the puzzle, or the argument are there. My projects are authored but I’d like to think they are not authoritative. I feel uncomfortably comfortable acknowledging I am one of those others, who like all others have trespassed and also treasured those experiences and feel that they should be rendered and revealed. In ‘Kurdistan’ one of the many aims was to move the reader into thinking about how I’d come to do the project. I don’t do that in the Dani project. I just dive you right in. Whether I can carry a reader through fragmented accounts and fragmented imaginations as if they were there, that’s a challenge. It’s not a continuous narrative. Much is left out. Can the audience fill in gaps?

DC: This raises complicated questions to do with how a work is received ‘as a work’ or whether it is a less authorially announced occasion for thinking, engaging and reflecting where the question of whether or one is engaging with ‘a work’ doesn’t even surface. Obviously in the context of art the idea of ‘the work’ is inescapable, since the author function regulates so much along with the commodity status of things. Art’s audience is attuned to form and structure and method so art as a context can immediately make a project quite reflexive and quite authored. It is a space in which people think about how things are put together, be it an image, a series of images or a combination of word and image. One could read ‘Kurdistan’ not even perceiving you as a photographer or historian or ethnographer but simply engaging with that material, not even grasping it as a work in an overtly authored sense. It’s a little like the film writer Manny Farber’s distinction between ‘white elephant art’ – art that aspires to be great art, and ‘termite art’ – art that just gets on with doing its thing and isn’t so bothered about being a great or even a work.

SM: That’s a really interesting question. Am I preoccupied with whether my projects will be designated Art with a capital ‘A’ or a small ‘a’? This reminds me, in 1981-82 I was doing some exhibitions around the Nicaragua project. ‘Carnival Strippers’ had been conceived with images, text and sound. When it was exhibited in a New York Gallery they only wanted images with captions. It was never published in magazines in America, it went straight to book form. Six months later I joined Magnum on the basis of a portfolio of images from Strippers. ‘Nicaragua’ was a completely different experience as a subject matter and as an approach. I was inside the media in a way I hadn’t been, since Magnum distributed the work internationally. It was also a project where I was witnessing history unfold and I was in the thick of it. But as time moved on and the media would come and go, I essentially stayed. Then when I came home I saw how the media chose and dispersed similar images in various territories. I started to become fascinated with the trafficking of those images. I would see the images I had taken come back to me and go out to the world in magazines. At the end of that process I did bring the work together in book form and tried to make sense with multiple kinds of texts in the back – everything from poems to statistics to voices. At the same time I had a show at PS1 in New York of colour Xerox images pinned to the wall. Then in 1982 I had a show first at Side Gallery in Newcastle and then at Camerawork in London. The sense I had for the English exhibitions was to show how I had made selections of images for the book from the mountains of contact sheets and to show the images that I hadn’t selected myself but which were used by the media. It was an attempt to de-mask for readers, and for me myself too since I was a reader of my own images as they appeared in the media. Could I reveal to people what they don’t usually get to see, rather than just showing a fine print of an image used on the cover of a magazine? Could I show the choices that determine why an image might be reproduced two-by-two inches or as a double spread? Could I show the different cultural resonances of the image choices around the world? Which images are used in Brazil or Germany? So I exhibited tear sheets with my pictures from magazines that paralleled the images I’d chosen for the book (seen as actual book pages) and outtakes of images I had eliminated. The viewer walked into the room and saw three lines, charting out and making the processes of the media and my own mediation visible in a way that it very rarely exposed for us.

DC: People quite often expect ‘de-masking’, ‘demythologising’ of images or the media to be the domain of those not directly engaged with the media – critical writers, critical artists and so on. If we look at the history of critical writings on culture as they take form in the late 1960s and 1970s along with politicised conceptual art of that time, the critiques were coming from spaces outside of the media. These were were slightly removed spaces of criticism. In a sense this led to confusion over your Nicaragua project because it straddles those spaces – the mass media and the critical domain. It is a documentary project that is at the same time a highly reflexive project.

SM: It has always been a problem and a challenge for me. That kind of criticism or risk became more acute when I was working on Kurdistan. But that project could only come to me from being in the field working in a certain way, a way based on exploration rather than conceptual assumptions. Even my interest in the repatriation of images of the Kurds – few other even paid mind to it. Who seems to be interested in following what happens to an image over twenty, thirty, a hundred years?

DC: Plus of course the history of photography, rather than the history of photographs, is so bound up with print culture that is by its nature ephemeral. Yet, photographs persist, they hang around, to be reused in other ways. So the challenge is twofold: to try and look again at the ephemeral printed matter that has been the basis of visual culture for over a century now, and to track the ‘careers’ of photographic images across time through that ephemeral culture.

SM: I can do that but not as a writer/thinker. If I were I’d be writing the kinds of important texts Allan Sekula has been writing. I approach it in primarily visual ways. My method is to say ‘Let’s just put it up, or out there and think about it’. When I emerged I was working in a critical vacuum. These questions were just not asked. At least in England you had the beginnings of things with Camerawork and Ten8 magazines. Instead I found myself with colleagues who were galloping off to the next war. I went with them but then I ended up detouring off from those guys. And they were mainly guys. The whole time I couldn’t get this critical, reflexive thinking out of my mind.

DC: This false opposition seems very particular to the way documentary and photojournalism have evolved, which is that either it is reflexive and unmasking or it is ‘getting on with it’ (whatever ‘it’ is). I rigid line is enforced between inside and outside the working practice.

SM: Yes, and sometimes it seems an unbridgeable distance!

DC: But as we said in documentary film it has been far more acceptable to be both committed and engaged with the world while also being committed and engaged with thinking about representations of the world at the same time, with a certain critical distance or reflexive distance. Somehow the way the institutions of photography have evolved it seems we can’t do both. But you are doing both.

SM: I struggle with it, being told one can’t do both. I do find that in getting projects done there is always a little erosion. Erosion is a funny thing.

DC: The eroded material turns up somewhere else.

SM: And it keeps my projects churning. Coming back to your point about oppositions between direct commitment and reflexive critique, I think this has a lot to do with form and I’m not sure I’ve figured out the best forms by any means. I know ‘Kurdistan’ is difficult. I know the Dani project is a little bit more accessible in some ways, but still layered with detours. In neither project do I summarise in an efficient way to get the paraphrased essence.

DC: Because there isn’t one. You detour around and around and piece things together. It’s like the invisible man – you can’t see him straight on so instead you throw bits of paper and fragments toward and around until something is made manifest.

SM: Yes. With the Dani project, the Dani are largely absent but are revealed and shaped through the ‘bits of paper’, the images and texts made in relation to encounters with them. The few places where Dani voices do come through they are partial because they are a small community that has done relatively little work on their own oral history, own remembrances. Whereas the Kurds already had Kurdish scholars and archaeologists, and they were a larger community (24 million Kurds dispersed versus 50,000 Dani isolated in a remote village). But more importantly, my going back is still restricted, and to an extent I must live now not knowing how they would receive and perceive that work But if there were to be a second edition of the Dani book it’s there in my contract that the book will change, it will not simply be reprinted without the opportunity to update and include recent developments.

DC: This is quite an issue with photographic publishing now since a number of influential books have been recently reprinted.

SM: I thought about this a lot. Robert Frank has made a couple of little changes to ‘The Americans’ that nobody really sees. Well, a big change from the first French publication with all the writing to the American edition with Kerouac’s text, but then subtle changes after that. With ‘Carnival Strippers’, the first change is the printing technology. The original book was printed in halftone. I literally can’t reproduce that book now as a facsimile. It’s not technically possible. Also the designer determined a number of things I wasn’t happy with then. I was in my twenties and had no clout. I didn’t have the dialogue I should have had. So this time I thought about whether I should go in a direction that had nothing to do with the original at all. I tried that. I dummied up a vertical book with many double spreads. But I had to pull back. It didn’t feel right. I did want to keep the feeling of the period of the original design and do something closer to the book I wanted to do through the sequencing of images.

DC: That impulse may not fit with what we have discussed about accepting that things change. In some respects the most thorough facsimile books seem the oddest. ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’ from 1976 has been reissued right down to the corny photo album cover and green paper for John Szarkowski’s essay. In fact the printing is now better. History seems to improve with the passing years! It asks us to go back in time but we just can’t so we are left, in some respects, with this strangely beached artefact.

SM: At first I wanted both to return to the book I had envisaged but to update it as well by following up with the people from the girl shows and adding contemporary essays. I think somebody picking up the book now needs to understand how the book was seen then. It needed to be a book that showed that it was within its time – the time of photographic books as they were then and the time of the carnival strippers as they were then. So one of the book’s essays deals with history, while the other discusses women and carnival strippers as they were seen by feminists then. Culture moves on.

But it was a huge disappointment not to be able to find the people in the pictures, the people who could report that change best. Two of the key people I was connected with in the making of the book were owners of the shows who had already passed away before I came to reprinting. How do you live with the necessity of closure? For example when the reissue of ‘Carnival Strippers’ was a possibility I was trying to locate those women I photographed in 72-75, but only found some of them too late, when the book was already on press.

I don’t know if there’ll be a third edition, but in my mind it’s ongoing. Along the way there are points where things have to be finite. You let go. I did get to include the original sound recordings collaged on a CD [included in the new edition of the book] and this helps contextualise the images within along with an early interview of me when I had just finished the work.

DC: This is interesting. ‘Carnival Strippers’ originally came out in 1976 and now it reappears within a format that you could never have conceived of: sound within a book.

SM: Yes, the first showing of the work had voices of the participants playing loudly in the space and the pictures without the book’s text. The book had no sound, only edited transcriptions, but now the book has the photographs, the text and the sound.

DC: I’m reminded of Chris Marker here, who has been photographing, writing and making essay films for over five decades. Recently he produced the extraordinary CDrom, ‘Immemory’. It is a summary in many respects, not just of the work he has done but also of his form of thinking and assembly. It is as if he had been waiting much his life for a technology that could allow him to map his views about, time, history, change, places, politics and images. He’s always been interested in the idea of the palimpsest, the overlap, the ways we recall things and the active role of the viewer or reader as they make sense of images. It seems his life’s work was always awaiting a technology to come that would render it all meaningful. You also seem to have made projects that were awaiting technologies.

SM: – that weren’t quite there!

DC: I saw your installation of ‘Encounters with the Dani’ at the International Center of Photography show (‘Strangers’, 2003): There was a glass cabinet containing many of the archival artefacts – letters, photos, small publications. There were also copies of the book and a Flash sequence of part of the book presented on flat screen monitors. A saw the audience plunge themselves in, doing a little detective work, beginning to feel themselves piecing together a history, reflecting on their own history and perhaps on yours. But when I came out of the exhibition just one or two complex images really stayed with me. Partly it was the conceptual strength of those images, partly it was an unconscious response the way data often seems to overwhelm us in such teeming archival projects. One was an image of a group of the Dani counting money earned from posing for photos with tourists. It seemed close to Walter Benjamin’s idea of the dialectical image: the image that appears to be an embodiment of the tensions of history, or of power, or of money. Yet I know that this response is the opposite of what such a project is – a reflection on the way all the components mesh together to form our thinking.

SM: You mean the essentialising of a moment or instant from the many? I don’t know. I feel something similar about that project. For me there is a moment where a group of older Dani men are sitting looking at photographs of themselves taken thirty years before by the anthropologist Robert Gardner. In the book it’s a single image but I present it as a loop of the eight sequenced photos within the Flash sequence as they pass the pictures along to each other and grimace and giggle at themselves. Similarly there is a moment in ‘Pictures From a Revolution’, the film I made returning to Nicaragua ten years later to look for the people I had photographed during the popular insurrection. A woman who had been carrying her dead husband in a wheelbarrow turns her head toward me and I photographed her there in the street. In the film I interview her and after the interview I make a Polaroid photograph of her on camera. I give it to her (you only see my hand). She doesn’t know which way is up, or what it is. It’s the first time she’s seen a Polaroid picture develop in front of her eyes. She’s mesmerized as she watches her image appear. Especially now, that’s such a rare moment to capture in any culture, we’re so overexposed to the media.

DC: It’s so extraordinary that both of the moments you describe are half way between the condensed, single image and the film sequence. The sequence articulates the photographic. They are also quite uncanny embodiments of Benjamin’s highly photographic metaphor of catching history ‘flash up’ before us as moments we can grasp dialectically.

SM: It certainly occurred to me to really reduce things, in a conceptual way for the ICP showing of ‘Encounters with the Dani’. I did say to my curators Brian Wallis and Kristin Lubben, ‘Well let’s just have that still animated. Only that. On a screen.’ That can be enough.

DC: But in a way, such moments have to be found by the viewer in the midst of a larger work. Quite often when such moments are singled out in advance, so overtly staged or presented, they can lose their effect. There is no discovery. They can become a little too theatrical, no?

SM: That’s true, it can be too self-contained in a way can exclude the viewer’s active role. Exactly, all one can do is admire. It goes back to the question of what is ‘the work’? Is the work the making people work? Hoping people will work?

DC: And so often documentary photographers in league with editors are telling us in advance what resonates. We are given the image and our response to them as one package.

SM: It’s the reductive way. It’s driven by reductive forces. On the other hand I think we still don’t know enough about it. When I think about the Nicaragua work which went from magazines, to book form, then exhibit to film form and so on in different configurations, they all seemed like different audiences and I didn’t really know any more about one than another. I could never assume or calculate which images or form will be be the most resonant. I really don’t think we know enough about what resonates and why.

DC: I often think this has a great deal to do with whether Photography with a big ‘P’ is being presented as the subject matter, as it is in certain authorial exhibitions or books, or whether attention to the photography itself takes a back seat.

SM: I think of the way, which was brilliant in some respects, that an image lost in a print medium could be used by Benetton. Suddenly attention was forced onto an image in an inescapable way.

It is not easy to reinvent new contexts for images and make them matter. 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 .

DC: – but enough to matter.

SM: Yes, enough to matter and want to continue making them.

BOOKS: David Campany

* Photography and Cinema (2008)
* Art and Photography (2007)

ASX CHANNEL: Susan Meiselas

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(© David Campany. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)

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