Susan Meiselas

Over the past couple of weeks I have seen a lot of photography on the walls of various galleries. Some of it good, some of it bad. Here is one of the good...


NICARAGUA. Santo Domingo. 1979. Main street in rural town.

Last week I went to the opening of the new shows at the ICP museum but as always with openings it was difficult to take in the work properly, so today I went back to check them out, specifically the Susan Meiselas retrospective. I call it that because there is work from the most famous projects of her almost 40 year career on the walls and the accompanying catalogue is a weighty tome featuring beautifully reproduced photographs, essays and interviews, pages from her published books and all manner of notes and clippings which cover a lot of the work she has done so far.

Like many people, my introduction to Meiselas work was through the photographs she took during the Nicaraguan insurrection of 1978-79. Quite simply they are stunning. I said recently to a friend that in looking at those photographs I wondered that even if I were in that situation, would I be able to record it in images as powerful as Meiselas'. I think that is the mark of a truly great photographer; that the content is carried to the fore by the aesthetics so that there emerges a synthesis of style and substance that transcends either.

Take for example the following image, shown here in the annotated copy of 'Nicaragua' Meiselas used when trying to track down the people in the photographs years after they were taken. (More on that later).



This man is Pablo 'Bareta' Arauz, for a long time known simply as Molotov Man. Though not perhaps the greatest photograph in the book, the appropriation of the image points to the power of the synthesis of style and content I am getting at. One room in the ICP exhibition deals with how the images from Nicaragua were used and published. One entire wall is devoted to Molotov Man, showing how the image was reproduced on posters, painted on walls, made into stencils, printed on matchboxes and even became the subject of a copyright debate. The image is striking and it's appropriation for various causes is fascinating.




The interesting thing here for me is the way Meiselas brings this iconic image back to it's original context, cleverly using the appropriations to add to rather than diffuse the power of the original.

In the essay 'On The Rights Of Molotov Man' Meiselas states that

'...it is important to me-in fact, it is central to my work-that I do what I can to respect the individuality of the people I photograph, all of whom exist in specific times and places.'

In fact she works so hard on this that her projects are infused with this personal connection. Her photographs contain that element of collaboration I find so important in the debate about journalistic exploitation. Her journey back to Nicaragua years later - documented in the film 'Pictures from a Revolution' to track down the people she photographed and give them the oportunity to speak about those times and what had happened snce is compelling and poignant. The ICP show has put these testimonies on display alongside the photographs and the 2008 edition of 'Nicaragua' includes a DVD of the film.

It is obviously important for Meiselas that the people in her photographs are given a voice. This is something she often takes literally, as evidenced not only by 'Pictures from a Revolution' but also through the audio interviews she conducted for her earlier 'Carnival Strippers' project. Extracts from these recordings echo though the room displaying the photographs from this project and enhance the reading of these photographs wonderfully, grounding them and giving them - there's that word again - context.


Also on show are various images and artifacts from her 'Kurdistan' Project. I have to confess that this project overwhelms me a bit. A sprawling website and a scholarly publication on the Kurds is something I wish I had the time to explore and as a contribution to the history of the Middle East it would seem to me to be an essential addition. I look forward to reading the section about this project in the exhibition catalogue and learning more about it.

In all, Susan Meiselas seems to regard the photograph as first and foremost a document, and moreover a document that should be used in conjuction with other documents (written, filmed or recorded) and properly placed within a context.

I admire this greatly. It is both a recognition of the photograph's power and an admission of it's limitations. From what I can see, Meiselas seems to work with commitment, integrity and respect. I come away from her work more knowledgable than I was before and as a photographer I am inspired not only be her photographs, but by everything that goes into making them - and perhaps more importantly - what happens after.