The work that most closely resembles the lyricism and depth found in Susan Meiselas’ body of images is The Country Between Us (1982), the American poet Carolyn Forché’s second book of verse, which centres on the atrocities she witnessed as a human rights advocate in El Salvador during the civil war of the late 1970s: ‘A boy-soldier in the bone-hot sun works his knife to peel the face from a dead man / And hang it from the branch of a tree flowering with such faces / The heart is the toughest part of the body. Tenderness is in the hands.’ As a photographer, Meiselas also negotiates the space between ‘response’ and ‘responsibility’, demanding the first from her viewers and the second from herself.
Born of the 1960s’ street photography tradition (Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon et al.), Meiselas is a straight-shooter with a humanitarian twist, drawn to turbulent, traumatized regions – in particular, Latin America during brutal military dictatorships. In 1978 she was one of the few women to be invited to join the élite Magnum group. Like her male predecessors, Meiselas has faced the difficult ethics of photographing suffering and social upheaval and has chosen a committed reciprocity in her work: exploring other avenues to make the work more equitable, doing extensive interviews with her subjects, sometimes years later, taking Polaroid photos of mothers and babies in regions without access to self-documentation.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed the gaze to be a binding social contract, in that the powerful range of emotion displayed on the human face forces the recognition of intersubjectivity (of the two subjects – I and you) that requires looking away in order to disavow. Levinas was writing about Nazi death camps and documentary practices influenced by his own experience in forced labour, but Meiselas’ work follows closely along these lines, explicitly advocating social justice and change through her long-standing commitments to the places where she has worked. This puts her profoundly at odds with the ‘gaze’ of her own era: the Freudian discourse thrust on photography in the theory-driven 1980s, borrowed from feminist film theorists such as Laura Mulvey and Constance Penley. This discourse worked to canonize a generation of feminist photographers concerned with surveillance, archetype and gendered critiques of power: Merry Alpern, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger.
Interestingly, Meiselas also made an early foray into this realm within her first body of work, the notorious ‘Carnival Strippers’ series (1976), where she followed the summer carnival circuit in New England, photographing and interviewing both strippers dancing on cheap plywood stages under makeshift tents and the men who promoted and patronized this little-known world. True to form, within the exhibition, ‘Carnival Strippers’ is buried in a little back room, and the portraits (heavily influenced by Diane Arbus) radiate a kind of soulful burnt-out melancholy. After ‘Carnival Strippers’ was published, Meiselas was offered an assignment in Nicaragua, and her world has since expanded exponentially into what has come to be known as ‘conflict management’ – staffed by non-governmental organizations, full of professional relief workers, translators, medics and journalists. Such professionals do not have the time or energy to parse the fine points of academic discourse.
If there is a surprise raid by a guerrilla army firing into a crowd of poor villagers, split-second decisions are made, and photographers too are implicated in these debates: click the shutter or help. Luckily, Meiselas is forthright about these issues and is committed to exploring them fully. In a room-sized installation she re-presented her original photographs and commentary, side-by-side with the copy that appeared next to them in mainstream publications such as Time or Newsweek. Because Meiselas is not a Conceptual artist, the presentation was straightforward and occasionally self-consciously arty, betraying a tentativeness in the museum context. But because of the grave nature of her work – which makes other conceptually driven photography seem somewhat self-indulgent – it is hard to hold her to the same standards of presentation and display. Her films, however, are impeccable, combining high-quality production with the fantastic narratives provided by the artist herself. One film on Kurdistan was like a high-tech slide lecture, captivating in its simple strategy of the single reveal, one image at a time.
Regrettably, this exhibition focuses on only three bodies of work: ‘Carnival Strippers’, ‘Nicaragua’ (1978–9) and ‘Kurdistan’ (2001–ongoing). Since there are so many other series, including further work throughout Latin America and intriguing earlier series such as ‘Prince Street Girls’ (1976–9) – documenting teenagers in New York’s Little Italy – it would have perhaps been preferable to see the range rather than the depth of this photographer’s commitment.
First published in Issue 120