Carnival StrippersSusan Meiselas
Published by Steidl

Before becoming a professional photographer, Susan Meiselas studied anthropology – the influence of which is still evident in the subject matter and methodology of her work today. Her immersion in the events she portrays is balanced with an almost scientific emphasis on objective documentation. Steidl’s reissued Carnival Strippers and the new Encounters with the Dani represent respectively Meiselas’ first and most recent bodies of work. Although on the face of it very different projects, they still follow the same thorough approach: using multiple perspectives to construct the narrative and placing equal emphasis on images and text as a means for deepening our understanding. Meiselas gives those she photographs a voice, neutralising, as much as possible, her own.

The revised edition of Carnival Strippers offers a new selection of Meiselas’ black and white photographs from the summers of ’72 to ’74, alongside commentary from her subjects, essays by Sylvia Wolf and Deirdre English exploring the wider significance of the work, and a CD containing interviews with some of the strippers and Meiselas herself. It is a fascinating, depressing and incredibly involved body of work that has lost none of its ability to engage. In the summer of 1972, Meiselas travelled around the Midwest photographing the “carnies” working on Carnival rides and fairs. She literally stumbled across a girlie show at one of these events “a façade of glitter and lights”, a bally stage upon which scantily clad girls gyrated their bodies to the banter of a man with a microphone, beckoning the men to the tent behind. Out of bounds to women and children, Meiselas gained access to the tent and its strip shows and her grainy images reflect this tough, unglamorous world and the interactions of those inhabiting it.

Arranged in three parts, the book moves from the front of house bally stage and the tent performances, through to the strippers backstage and after the shows, and a final series of portraits. Meiselas used a Leica to be as unobtrusive as possible, and these images, particularly those taken in the tent, are shocking in their frankness. Although aware of the camera the male audience appear fully focused on the women on stage, their eyes wide, their bodies craning upwards to get closer to the object of their desire. Despite the protection provided by management, commercial competition meant the inevitable happened and Meiselas also recorded the instances when the boundaries between client and stripper are crossed. Backstage she recorded the women at rest, their uninhibited nakedness resulting from bodies no longer being on display, images of the female nude with precedents in the work of Brassai or Matisse and their pictures of Parisian prostitutes.

Returning for three summers to photograph, Meiselas built up a relationship of mutual trust and in some case friendship with the strippers. She worked with them to edit the images and the portraiture was done for their benefit, providing them an opportunity to present themselves as they wished. Most heartbreaking is Lena’s story: one of the girls to whom Meiselas became most close. Her taped interviews record an articulate young woman who quickly becomes only too aware of her role “we aren’t professional show girls, we’re prostitutes pretending to be show girls”. This is reflected in her double portraits, the first of a fresh faced beauty of 18 on her first day on the job, and the second just three years later of a woman whose work has taken its toll on her body. This work is all the more remarkable when contextualised within the seismic shift in women’s rights and social politics at this time. For most of the girls, working class runaways to whom the alternatives of marriage or waitressing offered little, stripping, despite the obvious evils, was an opportunity. There is a tension between how they feel and how society saw them. These are not straightforward victims and it is left up to the viewer to decide if they are resigned or in control.

Encounters with the Dani is an accumulation of found documents, written and visual, describing the history of interaction between the outside world and a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. The project began when Meiselas travelled to the Baliem Valley with cinematographer Robert Fulton, who had previously shot the tribesmen for an anthropological film in 1964, and grew into a wider exploration with the involvement with the Nederlands Foto Institute to (as Meiselas wrote in 1999) “explore the ways in which the Dani have been seen by travellers, anthropologists, missionaries, colonialists, and perhaps themselves, throughout this century”.

This is less a photography book than a chronological scrap book that includes images by Meiselas among a plethora of other sources – newspaper clippings, old photographs, cartoons, maps, letters and extracts from interviews with the Dani and those who have come into contact with them over the years. A people barely touched by the modern world at the beginning of the 20th century, the Dani were viewed as curiosity by the press and the public, as savages waiting to be converted by Christian missionaries, or as political pawns in a wider struggle for control of the region.

This fascinating book records the Dani’s rapid change of circumstance resulting in the almost complete erosion of their traditional way of life brought about primarily by the effects of the colonial handover of Papua New Guinea, from Dutch to Malaysian rule. With the Dani, Meiselas herself remains, through the very nature of her subject, more of an outsider looking in – still engaged, but one suspects, less personally involved than with Carnival Strippers. Aside from studying their clientele, Meiselas rarely touches on the perceptions of the society at large towards the strippers. In contrast, it is predominantly the outside world’s interactions with the Dani that are used by Meiselas to construct a record of their changing way of life.

Both Carnival Strippers and Encounters with the Dani record the lives of marginalised people fighting to maintain a sense of identity and self worth, one within the context of sexual interaction and gender politics in Western society, the other a story of post-colonial fallout and its effects in a remote part of the world. Visually they are very different, Carnival Strippers’ edgy black and white action shots and portraiture versus Encounters with the Dani’s colourful collection of mixed media: the aesthetics resulting from the circumstance of gathering the information. However, in both cases Meiselas has sought the best way to record and convey these stories. Detailed studies, these are source books from which we are left to draw our own conclusions.

Sophie Wright