Mediations & Collaborations: A Conversation with Susan Meiselas

Mediations & Collaborations: A Conversation with Susan Meiselas

Felix Rosen on Mediations & Collaborations on September 10, 2018

Susan Meiselas’ latest exhibition Mediations, on display at SFMOMA until October 31st, is a summation of her most important work from the past several decades. In conversation with Natalia Brizuela, Interim Director of the Arts Research Center, and Leigh Raiford, associate professor and chair of the African American Studies department, Meiselas discussed the curation of her exhibition, revealing the importance of her artistic hand in constructing transitional narratives.

Her Prince Street Girls series, taken during the mid to late 1970s, traces the growth of young girls in the downtown Manhattan Neighborhood “Little Italy”. “The image is not enough” Meiselas notes, stressing how one image contextualizes another on the wall. It is not the subject of the images that ties the photos together, but rather the images themselves. One image cannot stand alone. It’s meaning would thus be changed and the narrative broken. The narrative is contained entirely within and emerges from the collection of the images together on the wall.

Prince Street Girls and another one of Meiselas’ series, Carnival Strippers, overlap and reinforce one another because of their being conceived during the same period, Meiselas noted. Carnival Strippers accentuates the uncontrived femininity and youth depicted in Prince Street Girls, and Prince Street Girls highlights the objectification and perversion of the female body in Carnival Strippers. In addition to displaying the images taken during her time traveling with an itinerant carnival of show girls, Mediations also has photos depicting Meiselas’ photo taking process. Photos of marked up contact sheets reveal how the women were not just objects of Meiselas’ images, but they also became the objects of her curation. In this way, Meiselas recognizes her absence from each image, but thinks it crucial to place herself as the artist in the creation of the narrative. Carnival Strippers reveals to what extent women were used to satisfy the hungry male gaze, and Meiselas notes that many of her photos were a result of her access to exclusive opportunities for representation. Again, the image alone is not enough. Her influence in the image is just as important as her absence from the image, and in Mediations it was important that her influence be an essential part of the narrative she was creating.

Commenting on the “life” of an image, Meiselas refers to her work done in Nicaragua which began in 1978. One of her most famous images, a rebel fighter hoisting a Molotov cocktail in one hand, was the last image she took before Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was removed from power. The image has been reproduced thousands of times, and today still serves as an image of rebellion for, most notably, the students of the recent protests in Nicaragua. Meiselas notes the power that one image has to transform and motivate certain political landscapes. She also explains that the life of a photo can often extend far beyond her artistic reach, reaching the hands of people that might place the photo in new contexts evoking new meanings and forming narratives outside the scope of the image’s original context.

Concluding with her work done in Iraq, Meiselas speaks about attempting to craft a narrative about an event that has already occurred. She spent a number of years in the early 1990s photographing the enduring vestiges of the Kurdish genocide. Her work poses the question, “Can photos of evidence from the past represent authentically that event from which the evidence is taken?”. The question remains unanswered, but Meiselas explains that photos depicting how events are remembered, often give us an idea as to what the event was actually like. Photography itself, Meiselas says, is evidential.

From war and human rights to cultural identity and domestic violence, Susan Meiselas’s award-winning photographic work covers a wide range of subjects and countries. Meiselas received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and her MA in visual education from Harvard University. A member of the internationally renowned photographic cooperative, Magnum Photos since 1976, Meiselas creates work that raises provocative questions about documentary practice, and the relationship between photographer and subject. Meiselas’s retrospective, Mediations, on view at SFMOMA until October 21, features projects from the beginning of her career in the 1970s to the present day, including her iconic portraits of carnival strippers and Prince Street girls, vivid color images of the revolutions in Central America in the 1980s, collaborations with survivors of domestic violence, and an ongoing investigation into the history and aftermath of the Kurdish genocide.

In conversation with Natalia Brizuela (Film and Media, Spanish and Portuguese) and Leigh Raiford (African American Studies), Meiselas discussed her photographic practice, intersectional feminism in photographic image-making, and the continued importance of photojournalism in a changing technological and geopolitical landscape. More information on the past event here.