In Conversation

Susan Meiselas with Phong Bui

On the occasion of her current exhibit Susan Meiselas: In History at the ICP (International Center of Photography), on view until January 2009, Rail Publisher Phong Bui met with the photographer on-site to talk about her life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): I thought Ken Johnson’s review in The New York Times was an unfortunate misreading of your work. It’s quite sad that he doesn’t seem to remember the whole so-called “Concerned Decade,” which arose out of the late 1960s. By that I mean, what can be more timely when the man who initiated the famous Concerned Photographer series (Cornell Capa)—out of which came the “Concerned Democrats,” the “Concerned Citizens,” and so on, all of which were, of course, for every conceivable cause united—is also showing upstairs from you at the ICP? Also, doesn’t he realize, like the rest of us, that no work of art can ever stop a war, not even Picasso’s “Guernica”? As W. Eugene Smith once admitted, “My camera, my intentions, could stop no man from falling. Nor could they aid him after he had fallen.” Yet, he reasoned, “If my photographs could cause the compassionate horror within that person, the viewer, they might also prod him into taking action.” So isn’t taking action itself enough as a life-affirming gesture? What do you make of all of that?


Sandinista barricade during last days of fighting in Matagalpa from Nicaragua. © Susan Meiselas—Magnum Photos.

Susan Meiselas: You’re right. We should all revisit the notion of the “concerned,” historically. And then the question is: is this, in some ways, a response to finding a way to be concerned about being a concerned photographer? In other words, I don’t want to relinquish the role and the necessity of witnessing and the photographic act as a response, a responsible response. But I also don’t want to assume in a kind of naïve way, precisely as you’re saying, that the act of the making of the image is enough. What’s enough? And what can we know in this process of making, publishing, reproducing, exposing, and recontextualizing work in book or exhibition form? And especially now with my being on view, I can only hope that it registers a number of questions. First of all, what did really happen to the Kurds 20 years ago, and why didn’t we know about it—and how do we process it individually? Does it move people towards consciousness or action, even though it certainly didn’t stop the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988? What do I think when people’s awareness—my images—were made after the campaign was essentially over? Should I not have made them, as a register of history, for the following generations, to make sense of and understand themselves? Secondly, I don’t pretend that the making of the images stopped anything, though interestingly, they played an effective role as evidence in the trial against Saddam Hussein in 2006 (15 years after they were taken). But who was to know when I made them, and who would have thought that there would have been the invasion that put Saddam on trial as a result? Consequently, my concern is not the concern of the concerned, but just to not pull back from that act. I think part of the impact of postmodernist inquiry or criticism, in some ways, inhibited that action. And that’s very costly. I want to put things into question but not paralyze people in that process. For example, what happened in Nicaragua, I wanted to register the voices of the subjects that are embedded, I hope, as objects in my photographs. By knowing and recognizing its limits, the voice of the protagonist within the picture, challenges the image as a fixed moment in time, all of which constitute another way to reevaluate, reconsider this act of photography. At the same time, I’m aware of the differences of how memory registers those images, when we saw them, if we did, and later they get transferred to our mind, and remembered when we read a book, differently than seeing them now in an exhibition.


Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail: Two years ago, I happened to be in Chicago and managed to see the show, again under the same title, The Concerned Photographer, at the Art Institute, which included your work along with Margaret Bourke-White, Lewis Hines, Bruce Davidson, Walker Evans, Sebastiao Salgado, and a few others. Although the subject matters range from child labor to the Great Depression, to the Civil Rights Movement, to coal mining and so on, the ultimate aim is to go beyond dispassionate objectivity, which means that, by passing visual evidence of a particular event that happened at a certain time, the viewer could gain some social-political clarity or insight.


Meiselas: Right. But how far do you take it as a photographer? It’s like the passing of a baton in a marathon. You take the first step and then hopefully you bring the body of work together and create the opportunity for an audience, be it in the form of publication or exhibition. Beyond that, like the famous saying based on Lenin’s political pamphlet, “What Is to Be Done?”

Rail: It’s not just, “Where to Begin,” it’s, “What Is to Be Done?” At any rate, can we talk about your beginning?

Meiselas: Sure. My father was an internist. My mother was a dedicated educator who worked with various communities. They were very supportive in the deeper sense that, whatever it was that I wanted to explore, they helped me make that possible. Even later in my life when it became apparent that the nature of my work required me to go to dangerous places they didn’t know much about, they still encouraged me to explore them. There might have been some fearfulness but they tried not to project that on me. So that’s another level of support.

Rail: Did you, by chance, study with Rudolf Arnheim while you were at Sarah Lawrence before graduating in 1970?


Meiselas: I didn’t, but he was there and I’ve of course read his work.


Rail: You mean Visual Thinking, which was published in 1969.


Meiselas: Yeah, Visual Thinking, and I should probably reread it now that I am visually thinking. Or trying to visually think. [laughs]

Rail: It was considered a groundbreaking work because it argued for greater relevance in the studies of visual sense.

Meiselas: Right, he, and also Marshall McLuhan, were very present in the landscape of the late ’60s and early ’70s, in terms of conceptual thinking about the world and the global village that we are now. McLuhan especially anticipated that, and the way that the media environment would impact us.


Rail: What transpired between the time you graduated from Sarah Lawrence—where you didn’t study photography because there was no such program then—and when you enrolled in visual studies at Harvard?


Meiselas: Probably the influence of a number of things. One of which was seeing Fred Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, which was very powerful, and probably the one film that I really remember from those years. Of course later, Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces, Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile, were among the great films that I still think of quite often.


Renee & Debbie, from Carnival Strippers. © Susan Meiselas—Magnum Photos.

Rail: How did your love of photography get started?


Meiselas: Well, right after Sarah Lawrence I took a class in urban education with Ann Cook who was very involved in turning public schools into “open” classrooms, which were activity centered, in a Dewey-esque sense. I became very interested in that whole approach, of how to use some of that thinking with photography. This was before I ever envisioned myself as a photographer. Later, after getting my MA, I took a photography class with Len Gittleman and Bobbi Norfleet. One had a very high graphic approach, Institute of Design in Chicago; the other came out of a sociological background, and thought about photography as sociological observation. That was really my only formal study.


Rail: Were you aware of street photography at the time?


Meiselas: Yeah. We were at the cusp of late ’60s, early ’70s, when Light Gallery had just opened. I saw Danny Lyons’ Bikeriders, both in book and exhibit form. The same with Larry Clark’s Tulsa. Of course, I would frequently go to the MoMA to see [Lee] Friedlander, [Garry] Winogrand, [Diane] Arbus, and [Bruce] Davidson. Those were the resources that were around me when I was starting to think about photography.


Rail: How was your experience working with Fred Wiseman, on his film Basic Training?


Meiselas: It was fantastic! I was an assistant editor, and I would have probably stayed working with Fred, if his next film had not been about the world of monks. As a woman I couldn’t be part of the production, so it didn’t interest me to just stay for the editing process. Eventually I got involved doing my own photographic work instead of thinking of filmmaking. But looking back now, I think that experience does influence the way I structure my books. Both Carnival Strippers and Nicaragua have that sort of cinematic quality, I mean images moving through space and time.


Rail: That’s true. Carnival Stripper was your first book, published in 1976, the same year you joined Magnum Photos. How did you feel then with regard to what, in hindsight, seemed to be a productive year for you?

Meiselas: Well, I don’t think I realized what a big deal it was and I didn’t really know what being a professional photographer, so to speak, was going to mean. I sort of landed and discovered a world that I became immersed in very fast.


Rail: Was there a time in which you had to think about the differences between fine art photography and photojournalism?

Meiselas: Honestly, I still find these boundaries very blurry. The differences between ethnography, photojournalism, and documentary had already been raised from time to time. Obviously, I can always see photojournalism when it is commissioned by magazines. You can even see it in Cornell’s work; I’d loved to have talked to Cornell more about when he was doing stories from his own interest as opposed to when he was really on assignments. Sometimes assignments do open up opportunities that you can pursue for a long time after. So it’s not so clear-cut. When you’re working for any media, which inevitably involves images being used as illustrations, that’s clearly different from following your own discovery process. I’m a part of a whole genre and generation of colleagues who worked in that manner, but at the same time we try to explore outside of the bounds of that kind of editorial direction. So there are works that we do solely for ourselves, and there are others that are directed through Magnum to the media for exposure, and then we recontextualize the work in book and exhibition form. That is an interesting difference with Carnival Strippers, because it was in exhibition form before the book, whereas with the work that I had done in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and other places in Latin America, the publications came first, before the book and the exhibition form.


Rail: And it’s a far cry from Carnival Strippers to Nicaragua!


Meiselas: That’s because I had no idea how to work in the field, nor did I have any kind of framework before going to Nicaragua. At least in Carnival Strippers, there was an immediate structure of the girl’s show that was visible to me and I could peel the layers, to go from the front of the fairgrounds, which was a public viewing to the private zone, through the dressing room, to the back of the tent. But when you land in a place you don’t know, and it’s just everyday life, so to find a narrative structure, what you are seeing, what’s happening, how to find the differences between one place and another, how to relate to people, and so on, is nearly impossible. I would say that it wasn’t until the drama of the insurrection took place that I began to see a process unfolding, evolving, whether it was the graffiti on the walls, which was always a signature, indicators, or different kinds of demonstrations that would follow. That was when I really felt this sense of an evolutionary process that drives the Nicaraguan book forward.

Rail: Having watched both films, which came with the two books, it made me realize that your process is equally and integrally invested in both taking the pictures and talking to people. You seem quite natural at it, especially the latter.


Meiselas: Well, I think people always know their own lives better than you can possibly imagine them. One of the things I’m quite pleased about in this exhibit is that we were able to include the open soundtrack. The tonality and the collage of sound is very much the way I first conceived of the show, in the early ’70s, but it wasn’t possible until now to reproduce it anywhere. Now having the CD in the back of the Strippers book also gives people a different experience because you hear the text transcribed from the original sound. But I think it’s a different experience to exhibit in the space with that soundtrack. You’re hearing people commenting on their own lives. With Nicaragua there’s a mixture of different kinds of primary materials: poems, statistics, letters, and interviews in the back of the book. Now with the new reprint, you’ve got the film ten years later, so again those people are recontextualizing their own lives. And I think in this exhibit, we only have five excerpts, but I hoped it would accommodate the object of the photograph as we intended. We began with the immersion of Nicaragua that’s layered in multiple stages of reality. There is a way in which the work is represented and circulated in magazines, either as prints or individual frames in juxtaposition, which have their own intensity and counterpoint the voices of the people in a number of photographs, almost contesting that representation, and then bringing them back as the murals. The most important part of the installation for me is you sort of discover the earliest work at the end.

Car of a Somoza informer burning in Managua from Nicaragua. © Susan Meiselas—Magnum Photos.

Rail: You once said, “We take pictures away and we don’t bring them back.” Is that what compelled you to go back [to Nicaragua] in 2004, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution? At which time you took mural-sized prints of some of your memorable images and mounted them in the locations where they had originally been taken. And this was revealed in the film Pictures from a Revolution. What were the reactions among the people, especially those that you talked to?


Meiselas: I had no idea if the pictures would resonate from history in present day memory. The question was and is, “How do young people, who weren’t present at that time, relate to it?” I think this is the essence, to continually question what you do. This, again, goes back to the “Concerned Photographer” that we spoke about earlier. In other words, the “Concerned Photographer” can’t start off with a concern and not continue to be concerned. There you go. It’s sort of the play of language but not really. I think what was unfair and sad about Johnson’s review was his simplistic notion of opportunism. It’s as if when I went to any one of these places I knew what was going to unfold.


Rail: You mean you haven’t strategized everything in advance? [laughs]


Meiselas: [laughs] It’s an astounding assumption that one could ever know that the Sandinistas would take power in a year. No Latin American specialist or expert ever considered the possibility, even. That’s the unpredictability of history. Similarly, with the Kurdish project, who would’ve guessed when I finished the book in 1997 that there would be a Kurdish President in Iraq today? Or that Saddam would have been captured and executed?


Rail: He may, again, forget what Steichen had said, “The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.” So the review wasn’t of the exhibit. He could have been critical of the installation for example. But most who read it felt that it was about you instead.


Meiselas: I’m not by any means assuming it’s a perfect installation. Anyone could criticize why these three bodies of work are shown and not others, or the size of the images and how they are installed, and so on. There’s no point for me to do what I do unless I have the desire to share the work with a greater community. In fact, when I brought the Spanish version of the book, that’s just been reprinted, to Nicaragua, they asked me to bring the murals back to the 30th anniversary, which is in eight months. I don’t know if that’s what I’ll do, but I’ll try and figure out how to respond. In other words, is there a dialogue with the community that can be meaningful? Likewise with Kurdistan. I’ve been really searching for what would make sense there. People are trying to transform their lives. It may not be relevant to look at their past right now because it may not be useful. It wouldn’t make sense to just go and decorate the landscape with my photographs. So I just think of this as an ongoing project of interrogation. Frankly, I don’t know the answers.

Rail: How do you feel about Ortega being elected as the president [of Nicaragua] two years ago?


Meiselas: It’s not about how I feel. It’s about the Nicaraguans who voted him back. The question is what will he be able to accomplish, considering what happened a decade in between? There’s a challenge to whether or not he’s overly centralized the government, to not being inclusive enough of disparate, dissident criticism, including the subject of censorship. Those are issues that are on my mind. I hope that he’ll respond to the international concerns that have already been raised.


Rail: Let’s change the subject a bit. One of the things that [David] Levi Strauss and I have been talking about is how the media, which includes commercial advertisers, political propagandists, military strategists, and others, have figured out ways to manipulate, while trivializing, powerful images that were created by artists—all for their own gain. By that I mean, whether you think back to the “Shock & Awe” bombing of Baghdad in March 2003 looking like Turner’s Burning of Parliament House, or how Apple initiated their first huge iPod ad campaign with silhouetted figures, just after the images of Abu Ghraib—in particular the one of the hooded man with the arm raised on the box. At the same time, there have been mutual exchanges between photographers like yourself, Miguel Rio Branco, Sebastiao Salgado, who brought home images from the front and artists who responded to them. One example is your photo of a Sandinista barricade taken in 1979—with the clarinet player—which inspired Alfredo Jaar’s video piece, Opus 1981/Andante Desperato, where he tried to blow profusely, as hard as he could on the clarinet until complete exhaustion. Are you and Alfredo Jaar aware of each other?


Meiselas: Don’t you remember there was a period in the ’80s when there was a lot of appropriation justified from certain theoretical points of view? Attribution has always and will always be an issue. Obviously, work travels, you can’t control it. But there is a question of the intention, for example, when Joy Garnett used my photo with a Sandinista soldier throwing a Molotov and made a painting of it in a show, named it Riot. It was upsetting, partly because I didn’t feel it was transformative. On the other hand, if she had called me and said I really want to make a painting of this photograph, I probably would have said, “great.” I think it has to do with a kind of ethical relationship of one artist to another. We’re in a culture of free exchange and assumption where you don’t have to know where things come from or where they’re going. I’ve had a different kind of relationship with certain artists who I think respect mutual contributions. And I found, in particular, one of Garnett’s defenses was it’s just a picture I took on a street, as if that’s different than her act of being an artist in a studio. And that’s not thoughtful to how complex it is to be in that street. How do you get to be in a street? How do you survive on the street? What are you trying to do on the street? But otherwise you know, Leon Golub, Hans Haacke, and a few other artists I’ve done projects with, with them the results have always been very mutually productive. As for Alfredo, I didn’t know about his piece until he revealed to me what he had done sometime last year.

Rail: There was a period of a good twenty years interval between Carnival Strippers and Pandora’s Box. There is a big difference between taking pictures, interviewing women who performed striptease for small town carnivals in New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina and a high-class sex club in New York that specializes in sado-masochism. Is there a relationship between the two projects? Or do you think the latter was more informed by your previous experience of war coverage?

Meiselas: There’s definitely a relationship. First of all, I could never have done it without the Carnival Strippers in the background for multiple reasons. And I probably wouldn’t have also been interested if I hadn’t had the experiences in the ’80s of the kind of violence I’d seen. So violence as a phenomenon was something that I was obviously trying to understand better. I’m still intrigued by the intensity of those bonded relationships. And even the non-sexualized ones, the slave relationships. And there are even slave relationships that are not about whipping or beating but they are about servicing and that’s a whole other subtext. Can I really understand the real dynamic, between submissive and dominant? I’m not so sure, but I can remember hearing things about interrogation rooms and violence upon people in order to get information out of them way before Abu Ghraib. In fact, when the Sandinistas took power, for example, one of the early memories I have was going through the jail with Thomas Borge, and he pointed out the cell where he was interrogated. And the cell was empty; there was no evidence of what he had in his mind. Except for the images he carried in his memory. Of course, it’s the opposite in an S&M situation where someone is paying to have it done.


Rail: Was the book considered controversial when it was published in 2001?


Meiselas: Yeah, partly because I think that edge of voyeurism is more intensely felt than with Carnival Strippers. Even though the women in both cases were welcoming me to be there. And what was strange was that the men didn’t seem to have an issue with me being there either. In the case of Pandora’s, it was a bit different since the men were masked; their identities were protected. They were all otherwise involved with what they were doing that they almost didn’t see themselves in the act of doing it. The criticism was mostly all aesthetic criticism. Instead of the black and white like it was done with Carnival Strippers, Pandora’s Box was all in color. That was what most people were uncomfortable with. Anyway, the point is to try to bring people into their own imaginations as if they could ever go there, what stops them or makes them curious enough to be exposed or mediate—

Rail: —that thin line between what is horror and what is fantasy.


Meiselas: Right. That thin line is where the thrill lies for some people.


Rail: Could you tell us about the genesis of In the Shadow of History, a long and ongoing project that began when you joined Human Rights Watch in 1991 right after the Gulf War?


Meiselas: After having read the news of the Kurds fleeing into Turkey and Iran, I was going to go with another writer, who then bailed out, so I just went there on my own. I had the good luck of linking up with Mme. Danielle Mitterrand’s press entourage in the beginning. I then piggybacked that into going to Northern Kurdistan. That was really the first work of the destroyed villages. Later, I went back on another trip and accompanied Human Rights Watch. So the whole project of collecting the archive from the fragments of history mentally became an obsession. How can I tell the story through multiple images? Is there a way from the bits and pieces of what’s left about their stories?


Rail: But the project itself wouldn’t have continued, especially with the extensive website, had you not received the MacArthur Fellowship!


Meiselas: Well, I had been working probably for about a year and a half before I got the Fellowship, which was the key to finishing up the project and being able to put enough time, develop a network, including the website, and do all the traveling I wanted to do. Because in the first two years I was supporting myself as a photographer shooting in multiple other places along with trying to do the collecting. It was quite intense.


Rail: Not to mention the book.


Meiselas: And returning last year was really about bringing the book back with a local language, Sorani and Turkish. Because of the war, it wasn’t possible to really distribute the book until this year. So that was pretty amazing. Meanwhile, I’m still working in the collaborative way with some people putting together an Anfal museum and I’ll probably do some work on the photographic collections for them. That is a project for the next three to five years; I don’t know how long it will take. That’s where life is now, a lot to do, and not enough time.


Rail: That’s how I feel too. One more question: Why haven’t you been able to spend time in Bosnia and Somalia?


Meiselas: Since everyone else went there I didn’t feel I needed to be there. I stayed in Kurdistan instead. Now with so many people taking photographs, whether it be with cell phones or digital cameras, professional or amateur, the question is what do you do that contributes to the thinking about photography? I think those experiences tend to come from encountering real issues in the field. Not just having ideas, sitting away from the reality.


Rail: How do you mediate between spending a great deal of your time in places subjected to serious turmoil, which is your real passion and work, and New York City, where you live and rest in between?


Meiselas: Well, you know, there was a time I lived in New York and going back and forth to El Salvador I thought it was more dangerous to live in New York than there in El Salvador, which was hard for most people to understand. It’s not only the violence in the literal sense, but it’s the violence of being ruptured with the familiar, going to the unknown, and having to travel places where you have no idea what might evolve. So it’s a psychological violence that you put yourself through, to disrupt yourself, to uproot, throwing yourself into places where you don’t belong and you try and find a reason to be there that makes that act coherent and justified and that’s what I mean. It’s not just about pictures; it’s about the whole role.


Rail: That doesn’t sound that romantic anymore.


Meiselas: I don’t think it’s romantic. But it’s realistic.

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Phong Bui