Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources
Introduction & Biographical Essay
"Photography should not be about the photographer," photojournalist Susan Meiselas said when she spoke at the Library of Congress on March 4, 1999. Despite her desire to remain invisible, she has garnered international recognition. Throughout her career she has won awards for her intense images that are as much at home in newspapers and magazines as they are on museum walls.
Meiselas brings to her images an inquiring mind and a compunction to go back as many times as it takes to understand the lives of her subjects. From her first major project, Meiselas has delved deeply into the nature of her relationship to her subjects and explored not only the images but the ways those pictures relate to history, memory, and politics.
In her more than three decades of photojournalism, Meiselas has paralleled the transition of print photojournalism into film, video, digital, and social media, relying on her photographic and film skills as well as her strength of character, her contacts, and her prestige. Another of her important contributions is her effort to alter the nature of the practice of documentary photography. She challenges photographers to examine their relationship to their subjects, to consider the use and distribution of their images in the world, and to reflect on the relationship of images to history and memory. "Her tenacious engagement with these matters has made her a leading commentator in the debate on contemporary photojournalism."1
The Library of Congress collections represent Meiselas' work through several original photographic prints and numerous books and magazines in which her photos are reproduced. (See Related Resources)
Meiselas was born in Baltimore in 1948 and reared in a comfortable middle-class community on Long Island. She attended public schools until her senior year when she transferred to the college preparatory Colorado Rocky Mountain School with a strong work-study program. There, she balanced art and academics with sports and such community chores as digging ditches and fixing fences. Influenced by an anthropologist, she did photography as part of a work program at a Navaho reservation.
Meiselas went on to earn a B.A. in anthropology and urban education from Sarah Lawrence College (1970) and an Ed.M. in Visual Education from Harvard (1971), where she worked as a film editor (1970-1971) for documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman.
Meiselas traces her awareness of social issues to her mother who was from the South and who was active in the Open Housing movement that was part of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. Operating from an ever-deepening political conscience, Meiselas taught photography in New York public schools from 1972 to 1974 and in South Carolina and Mississippi public schools as an artist-in-residence to at-risk children. In 1975, Meiselas devoted full time to making pictures for her series on the girl shows that formed part of traveling carnivals. Her study of anthropology alerted her to the value of giving voice to the various participants in the show--dancers, managers, barkers and the audience, including men and their wives--people whose lives are rarely acknowledged. The photographs were exhibited initially in 1974 and 1975 at CEPA, the newly founded not-for-profit photographic arts center in Buffalo, with sound from oral interviews conducted with carnival show participants. In 1976, when she published her grainy, low-light black-and-white photographs with transcripts of excerpts from the interviews as the book Carnival Strippers, the renowned cooperative agency Magnum Photos invited her to join. In 2001, the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited this set of photographs.
Central and South American Work
Meiselas came to international prominence when she explored political unrest in Central and South America. A 1978 New York Times article on the assassination of a prominent newspaper publisher in Nicaragua prompted her to fly there, without an assignment, with little knowledge of Spanish, and insufficient film supplies. She arrived before the bloodbaths, photographing protests as she saw them in people's expressions and activities. These were the seeds of the later insurrections. When armed revolt broke out, other reporters and photographers came and went, but Meiselas stayed, traveling throughout Nicaragua for an entire year, often accompanying the rebels (known locally as "los muchachos,") into skirmishes and battles, while getting to know "the rhythm of Nicaragua's history."2
Her photographs brought to light the ravages of war in a distraught nation that had previously garnered little media attention. Her coverage of the Sandinistas' overthrow of President Anastasio Somoza Debayle's regime became the book Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979 (1981). Most war photography at the time was done in black-and-white, but her use of color film brought a distinctive intensity to her documentation of war in a tropical country. When the color work appeared in major magazines and on the cover of the The New York Times magazine, it brought international attention to this little-known war and Magnum accepted her as a full member in 1980.
Just after the Sandinista triumph in 1979, Meiselas went to El Salvador to chronicle the growing civil war. Her photographs include the exhumation of the Maryknoll sisters and the massacre at El Mozote which caused great uproar. When the photographs were published in newspapers and magazines, they opened American eyes to the U.S. policy of supporting repressive governments in Central America. Her photographs are included in the book El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers (1983) which she coordinated and co-edited. This book brought together four years of images and history through which Meiselas had lived. She honed skills she would call on in subsequent, larger projects.
After working alongside Chilean photographers in the late 80s in streets of Santiago, Meiselas collaborated with them as an editor of Chile From Within (Norton, 1991) featuring work by photographers living under the Augusto Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1988.
An Expanding World View
In 1991, Meiselas began photographing the Kurdish people who had been forced from their homes in Northern Iraq by Saddam Hussein. A genocidal campaign from 1986 to 1989 destroyed more than 2,000 villages and killed over 182,000 civilians. The most destructive event was a poison gas attack at Halabja that killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people, and injured around 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians. It remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.
A 1992 MacArthur Fellowship supported Meiselas as she continued to research, write, and make, as well as gather, photographs for the 390-page book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997). This project involved not only making photographs but collecting, editing and curating a group of photographs generated over a one-hundred year period through which she had not lived and had not previously studied in any depth.
This project resulted in a photographic archive for a geo-cultural region that did not have a physical, political homeland at the time. She created www.akaKURDISTAN.com, an online archive of collective memory which asserted that human beings having a right to an archive and, therefore, a history. The resulting exhibition was launched at the Menil Collection in Houston, and traveled for over eight years to several venues in the United States and Europe where Kurds lived in exile. An accompanying pioneering site
which issues an invitation to contribute, has garnered widespread participation.
Meiselas continues to return to Central America, tracing the lives of people she photographed years earlier and reflecting on how her images and the revolution affect their lives. Her attempts to track down individuals pictured in her book resulted in memorable non-fiction films including Pictures from a Revolution (1991). In 1986, she co-directed the film Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family. Both films were made with her husband Richard P. Rogers (1943-2001) and Alfred Guzzetti. They chronicle her return to Nicaragua ten years after her initial photographs.
In 2004, Meiselas went back to Nicaragua to install a "memory project" entitled "Reframing History." To explore the relationship between past and present, she placed transparent murals made from her war photographs at the sites where the events had occurred decades earlier. At the sites, the film team interviewed passersby to capture their reflections about revisiting the past through the images inserted in the landscape. The project was coordinated with the University of Central America's "Institute of History" for the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista triumph over the Somoza dictatorship. Meiselas is sensitive to issues that arise when outsiders bring back photos of traumatic experiences without fully understanding the trauma that the local population has been through and without a real purpose in doing so. Her objectives were to reinsert images into their specific context; remind people that social issues have a past, present, and future; encourage continued dialogue; provide a vehicle for older generations to share stories; provide legitimacy to both individual stories and a collective history; and, as she did with her Kurdistan project, acknowledge the complexity of a collective history.
Toward Creating a Universal History of Social Concerns
For many years, Meiselas has engaged with a variety of organizations working on innovative interactions between photography and social change. She has been a leading voice for inserting photography into a larger dialogue about human rights. In 1998, she created the concept and process for "Moving Walls" traveling exhibits for Open Society Foundations (OSF), a grant-giving organization intended to promote democratic government, human rights, and progressive reform. She works as co-curator with Open Society staff and its art committee to grant awards to photographers working to make changes and bring exhibits of their human rights based photography to Foundation walls. Though her involvement with the OSF, Meiselas has worked to increase "documentary photography's potential to connect and move audiences by 'expanding the circle of knowledge' about human rights and social justice issues."3
In 2010, Meiselas was instrumental in the Magnum community's decision to sell the nearly 200,000 black-and-white press prints in its New York library for deposit at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. These vintage prints were used to fill requests for reproduction in the pre-digital age. These photographs are valuable not only for the images but for the information about when and where the photograph was published. The collection maintains the original structure of reference categories, folders and indexing. The sale of the library prints also launched the Magnum Foundation, which Meiselas has led with various initiatives, including a Photography and Human Rights program with New York University sponsoring scholarships for regional photographers, travel grants for emerging photojournalists, and projects to activate the Magnum archive with non-profit partners.
Meiselas has also undertaken commissioned work by non-governmental organizations that provide information to encourage political participation and through the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, she has been instrumental in exploring possibilities of collaboration between photographers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).4
In a way that few photographers have been able to do, Meiselas has charted her own course, selected her own projects, and returned to expand them in the ensuing decades. She has produced an invaluable record of political activism by and on behalf of marginalized peoples. She credits her education for giving her options and acknowledges that being female has given her access to situations she has photographed, observing that sometimes "people on the streets don't take me seriously."5 She has capitalized on her assets to dispel ignorance about people, places, and issues not generally covered by mainstream news organizations. Even while focussed on a specific objective, she has been able to examine that objective from various perspectives and challenge self-evident truths.
Kristen Lubben, curator at the International Center for Photography (ICP) comments, ". . . from her earliest projects to her most recent, Meiselas has consistently interrogated and expanded the documentary tradition, and has fueled cross-disciplinary dialogue between anthropologists, human rights workers, and critical theorists working toward a new understanding of the role of photographs in constructing histories and communities."6
Meiselas has used her intellect and her prestige to influence the way social documentary photographs are made. As president of the Magnum Foundation, formed in late 2007, Meiselas is nurturing a new generation of social documentary photographers and supporting an important mode of practice.7 The Foundation's Emergency Fund "supports experienced and emerging photographers beyond the Magnum community with a commitment to documenting social issues, working long-term, and engaging deeply with an issue over time. Projects address critical global issues that have not received the attention they deserve, or budding crises that are still over the horizon. Photographers retain the copyright to their work and distribute it widely: through traditional and new media, in collaboration with nonprofits or NGOs, and on the Emergency Fund website."8
Throughout her career, Meiselas has won awards for her searing images, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award (1979), the American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP) award (1982), a MacArthur Fellowship (1992), and the Krasna-Kraus book of the year award for Susan Meiselas, In History (2009).
1 Susan Meiselas: In History
2 Mary Panzer. Things As They Are. New York: Aperture Foundation/World Press Photo, 2005, p. 208.
3 Open Society Foundations, Documentary Photography Project, Expanding the Circle: The Engaged Photographer, January 20, 2010.
4 Magnum Foundation, Emergency Fund newsfeed.
5 Susan Meiselas, informal talk, Library of Congress, March 4, 1999.
6 Kristen Lubben. In History. Steidl Publishing, 2009, p. 8.
7 Kate E. Phillips, email to the author, January 30, 2012.
8 Magnum Foundation, Emergency Fund newsfeed.
Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2012. Last revised: 2012.