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Susan Meiselas
Susan Meiselas, Sandinistas at the walls of the Esteli National Guard headquarters: “Molotv Man” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16th 1979© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

Susan Meiselas on how she took photographs that left a mark on our world

The revered documentary photographer has been capturing the decisive moments of social and political turmoil across the world for 40 years

Upon entering the exhibition rooms at Jeu de Paume in Paris, a large, imposing self-portrait of a young Susan Meiselas greets the visitor. It’s an unusual choice for the American photographer, who has spent 40 years documenting the lives of others – sometimes in battle zones like in Central America in the 70s, but also in familiar places like the boarding house where she lived on 44 Irving St, or, even, the intimacy of a New York S&M dungeon. The presence of Meiselas in the photograph is striking: 23-years-old at the time, she stares down the camera lens while sitting on a massive wooden chair. Visible, but the effect of a long exposure gives the impression that she is not completely there. “It’s an acknowledgement that I am present, but prefer to be invisible,” she explains.

Born in Baltimore in 1948, Susan Meiselas is a documentary photographer revered for capturing social and political turmoil around the world. Breaking with the black-and-white tradition of war photography, her colour images of the resistance against the US-backed dictatorship in Nicaragua are some of her most celebrated works. Ongoing until the end of May, a retrospective highlights the icon’s unique approach and asks probing questions about the practice of documentary photography.

“I didn’t have a clear sense when I was in college that I wanted to be a professional photographer,” she recalls. “I had no role models to get there.” Without formal training, Meiselas’s engagement with photography shaped itself gradually. She began photographing her surroundings, making portraits of her flatmates, and accompanying the images with texts they penned. “It wasn’t a plan to do it... it wasn’t a project. There wasn’t a purpose and it was never published until relatively recently.”

“I’m sure many young people today are engaged in photography similarly. It’s what they do with their friends,” she adds. “Photography is when you sort of shift what you are looking at to what else other people might find interesting.” For Meiselas, her shift occurred when she produced “Carnival Strippers”, a series about a group of women who performed stripteases for small town carnivals in New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

“I wanted the voices of the people who are the subjects to participate and to shape our understanding of how we see them” – Susan Meiselas

During the summers of 1972 until 1975, the photographer followed the shows from town to town, portraying the dancers both on and off stage, while recording interviews with them, as well as with their boyfriends, the show managers and the customers. “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.” Taking notice of, and exploring what the photographs don’t say is central to Meiselas’s work. In the exhibition, audio recordings of interviews, video footage, and field notes accompany some of her most famous photographs – forging the understanding of each of the stories the photographer has committed herself to share.

“Carnival Strippers” opened the door to Magnum Photos, the photography collective founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson that Meiselas joined in 1976. Since then, she has covered difficult issues around the world – including the people’s revolution in Nicaragua, which resulted in her most acclaimed work and seminal photobook.

“I clearly remember landing in Managua filled with anxiety,” she writes in her photo-memoir, On the Frontline. “I had no idea where I was going to go, or what I was about to do.” Again, questions about her role as a photographer arise. “How does your own experience lead to things that are happening far from where you live?” Meiselas wonders. “When I was reading about it at the time, in January 1978, it was not that different to what had happened in May 1968 in my country in student movements and protests against the Vietnam War. What was happening in Nicaragua was against a dictatorship – that wasn’t my experience, but those students were what intrigued me.”

Though she is known for her coverage of conflicts, her work goes far beyond war reporting. One of her early works is a series of intimate portraits of the inhabitants of Lando, a small village in South Carolina where she first taught photography after graduating from university. Back in her apartment in Little Italy, New York City, she documented the synergy of a tight-knit group of girls, which she named Prince Street Girls. As part of Meiselas’s interest for “exceptional women”, “Pandora’s Box” explores an elite S&M club in Manhattan.

One lesson she has learned over a career of four decades is knowing when not to go forward with a project. “You don’t always know at the beginning whether there might be an opportunity,” she explains. “There are places I don’t go, situations I don’t sense that I can have a particular contribution to.” As a photographer, she adds, it’s about “whether or not you can touch the subject sufficiently, the conditions are such that you’re welcome and that you feel there’s value to the work you might produce.”

And while the creative process remains under the photographer’s control, the impact of one’s work is often uncertain. In 1982, Meiselas photographed “El Mozote”, the worst massacre in modern Latin American history and army-led killing of an estimated 1,000 people during the Salvadoran civil war. “The reporters that I worked with, both on the Washington Post and The New York Times, declared it was a massacre,” she says. “Yet, 35 years later, we’re still exhuming graves and no one was held full responsible.” To this day, the investigation of the brutal massacres is still open.

Meiselas also knows about the seemingly smaller, subtler difference a photograph can make. “Having someone have a photograph of themselves over their lifetime in a particular moment”, she says, “whether that’s Prince Street Girls looking back at themselves when they’re 50, or someone who took to the streets with a machete and is now known by his children as having been brave, these are psychologically affirmative.”

In fact, its’ Meiselas’s concern with collective memory and her wish to give back that led her to return to Nicaragua on multiple occasions after the insurrections she first documented in 1978 and 1979. Ten years later, she tracked down her subjects and interviewed them for her documentary Pictures from a Revolution. On the 25th anniversary of the revolution in 2004, she returned once more, this time to display 19 mural-sized images of her 70s photographs, inviting Nicaragua’s younger generations to engage with the powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births. Her photograph “Molotov Man” became a symbol of the Sandinista revolution and would be reproduced on murals, t-shirts, in other people’s art, and even advertising. An installation in 2009 explored the history and subsequent uses of Meiselas’s iconic photograph.

Forty years on, at 69-years-old, Meiselas remains an inspiration for any self-conscious photographer. At the centre of her work is a perpetual discussion around the purpose and relevance of photography, the use and distribution of images and their effects on history and memory. Why should one take a photograph of this scene and not another? Is an image enough to tell a story? What is the subject getting from this photograph?

She continues revisiting her archive and finding ways to approach her work with fresh eyes. “Very often you’ve had this experience I’m sure,” she says. “Someone says, ‘Oh, you look so different’ and you don’t feel different.” The secret, she claims, is to be “visually attuned to differences”, to stay open and to create space for new forms of knowledge.

“Mediations” is on show until May 20 at Jeu de Paume, Paris