Susan Meiselas

Portrait of Susan Meiselas  by Harvey Wang.

Portrait of Susan Meiselas by Harvey Wang.

  With a great need to understand and examine the subjects in her photographs rather than just document them, Susan Meiselas (b. 1948) is a brilliant spark in the art world as she is a photographer, filmmaker, archivist, curator and teacher who captures pivotal cultural moments in the most raw and captivating of ways. Being raised by a mother who was actively involved in the Open Housing movement in the 1960s, Meiselas’ became rapidly aware of the social issues around her.

  In 1970, with great pursuit of her passions, she received a B.A. in anthropology and urban education from Sarah Lawrence College and only a year later an Ed.M. in Visual Education from Harvard. During her studies, she dabbled in film editing under Frederick Wiseman, a documentary filmmaker who focused on specific places and how they reflect society at large. From 1972-1974, Meiselas began to teach in New York public schools and would spend her summers photographing women who performed striptease for small town carnivals. This developed into one of her first prominent projects, “Carnival Strippers”, which consisted of grainy black and white film photos paired with snippets of interviews with the girls. Meiselas would follow the show along the East coast of North America documenting their private lives, performances and others involved with the shows. One of the girls, Lena, defended her reasonings for joining the carnival show and leaving her small town by stating, “I don't want anybody else telling me what I have to do, what I have to think. That’s for me, I’m an individual, I’m a person, I want to be me. I don’t want to be anybody else.” (source) Meiselas took these intriguing portraits of the women, but then later in 2008 when reflecting on her work made the comment that “portraits aren’t necessarily an expression of a sustained relationship. Portraits are encounters, often awkward and limited in time.” (source) She believes in examining the relationship to the subject, whatever that may be, and truly considering the impact the images will have on the world - whether it be politically or emotionally. This helps to further connect the photos to their relationship with human memory and history. Meiselas published her book on the carnival strippers in 1976, which led to her to an invite and later on membership offer from Magnum Photos, an international photographic cooperative owned by its photographer-members.

The Girl Show , 1974, Tunbridge, Vermont. USA.

The Girl Show, 1974, Tunbridge, Vermont. USA.

Ginger , 1975, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. USA.

Ginger, 1975, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. USA.

  Meiselas began to photograph internationally in 1978 as she came across an article in the New York Times covering the assassination of a newspaper publisher in Nicaragua. She soon flew to Nicaragua with neither the proper preparation or even an assignment to shoot, but with compassion to explore and uncover the political unrest taking place. In Nicaragua at this time, the Sandinistas’ were working to overthrow President Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s dictatorship through a campaign of protests, often ending in bloodbaths. The then controversially colored images Meiselas captured are often hard to view, as they show the realistic and critical conditions of the unarmed people of Nicaragua amongst the war.  “Molotov Man” is one of Meiselas’ most famous images as it depicts Sandinista Pablo ‘Bareta’ Arauz throwing a cocktail towards the last remains of the Somoza National Guard, as this was the day before Somoza would flee Nicaragua in July of 1979. It became an official symbol to the Sandinistas for their overthrow of Somoza, an incredibly important moment in this country’s history. Meiselas comments on her time in Nicaragua by saying, “I spent six weeks there principally, because all I could feel was that I wasn’t doing anything that gave a feeling for what in fact was going on there. Not going on in the world of events, but going on in terms of how people were feeling. And that still plagues me because I am not a war photographer in the sense that I didn’t go there for that purpose. I’m really interested in how things come about and not just in the surface of what it is.” (source) Meiselas went on to publish this body of work in her book, Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979 in 1981. Following along her beliefs of not just taking photos, but bringing them back to the people she took them of, Meiselas returned to Nicaragua in 2004 on the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution to hang her mural-sized photographs in the place they were once taken, calling it “Reframing History”. While this project was happening, she filmed and interviewed the passerby’s reactions to the photographs in order to truly get a hold on what these people were feeling as they revisited horror-filled memories. Meiselas often discusses her feelings on photojournalism and the feeling that you wish you could protect the subjects you capture, but you can’t, and a photograph is often the least bit you could do for them. This is what inspires and pushes her to make this relink back to the subjects, by bringing them back the images and engaging with them. As Meiselas reaches out to understand more about the value of the images to their subjects, she gains knowledge of how these times have truly affected the people, while at the same time seeing how these projects in turn affect her. Meiselas has also photographed severe conditions and war turmoil in Chile, El Salvador and the rising tensions of the U.S./Mexico border.

National Guard on duty . Matagalpa, 1978

National Guard on duty. Matagalpa, 1978

Women watch as dead bodies are burned on the streets of Esteli.  1979

Women watch as dead bodies are burned on the streets of Esteli. 1979

Molotov Man , 1979

Molotov Man, 1979

  Meiselas later set on in 1991 to photograph the Kurdish people of Iraq who had been forced to flee from their homes under reign of Saddam Hussein. Between 1986 and 1989, the total killed from the genocidal campaign was over 182,000 civilians. Meiselas was able to enter Iran for five days to access the Kurd refugee camps and photograph the places they were fleeing from, rather than putting emphasis on the act of fleeing. She became more and more aware of the loss of an archival of the Kurd’s history - especially their representation in Western archives, as it is often vague and marked as “ethnic types”.  Meiselas sought to find and restore the images of Kurdish people that had been taken away from them or disappeared entirely. She continued this archiving and created a 390-page book entitled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997), which was supported by her MacArthur Fellowship. Meiselas wanted the archive to be accessible to all as it is their right to view their history, so she created, an ongoing photographic archive where people are able to add their own images and add identification to existing ones. This has become a profound source and collaborative effort to remember the Kurdish people's history. Meiselas comments on the matter, “What interested me was the intersection and interplay between those who shaped Kurdish life and the lives of the chroniclers who pictured them -- the photographers and those photographed, the points of cultural exchange, how the various protagonists crossed one another's paths. Both left their marks on Kurdish history.” ("Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History")

Children's graves . Iraq, 1992

Children's graves. Iraq, 1992

Susan researching photographs at Rafiq's studio , Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1993. Photo: Laura Hubber

Susan researching photographs at Rafiq's studio, Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1993. Photo: Laura Hubber

  Still actively shooting till this day, Meiselas’ most recent project, “A Room of Their Own”, is a collaboration with the women who live at refuge shelters in the area of Black Country in the West Midlands, UK. Multistory, a community arts charity for the people of Sandwell, published a book of this body of work this past April. Meiselas felt drawn to shoot for this cause as it brings awareness to domestic abuse and the quick, often lonely, process of resettlement for the women. This project truly shows her precise decision to not impose herself on a subject and how she waits for the perfect moment, rather than crafting one for the image.

Kitchen , Refuge B, UK 2015

Kitchen, Refuge B, UK 2015

  Susan Meiselas’ impactful work has made it’s way in the world through her extraordinary list of one-woman and group exhibitions, her published books, her films - but most importantly, her genuine connection to her work. This connection shines through, making her compositions that much more powerful and filled with obvious commitment and a strive for cultural comprehension. Kristen Lubben, curator at the International Center for Photography (ICP) comments on Meiselas work, ". . . 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." (Kristen Lubben. In History. Steidl Publishing, 2009, p. 8.)


Meiselas has a new book entitled Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline out on September 30th. You can pre-order the book here!




Written by Emilee Prado
Source for Images:

Copyright of Images: Susan Meiselas
Copyright of Portrait of Susan Meiselas: Harvey Wang