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© Susan Meiselas / Magnum

 

GL: You mentioned that you have been to see Kiss Me Quick, the French stage production based on material from Carnival Strippers.  How was the show?

SM: It was fascinating, fantastic actually. They used the text of Carnival Strippers as the inspiration for a piece reflecting on women who have been sex workers for several decades. It’s not specific to the 1970’s when I did my work, though it draws on the insights the women in my book shared. There were moments that almost mimicked poses from my work; and the actresses certainly talked a lot about how much they drew on the book – both text and images.

But a theatre audience is fixed in a way that somehow allows only one perspective; so it differs from the viewer of a book who can imagine moving through the pictorial space as the pages are turned. The question is: how much can the play enable you to imagine other perspectives? That was the difficult part because it’s all based on the challenge for a woman to expose herself, and the vulnerability she feels in the process.

 

© Christian Berthelot

 

Was it comfortable or uncomfortable viewing, do you think? There are scenes in the book which still seem a bit shocking today. Do you feel that came across?

Well, the audience was dead quiet: people were very engaged, very involved, in the performance. It starts with whispers between two girls so it’s very intimate, butit becomes quite shocking too. There’s a moment – like there was in the musical Hair in the old days – when you’re surprised that one of the girls is really going to go all the way; you’re not expecting it quite. So it challenges the expectations, and perhaps desires, of the audience.

It’s interesting that this re-interpretation of aspects your Strippers work was being staged. More than other photographers, you revisit and re-work earlier projects.  Why do you think that is so important for you?

I think going back – revisiting - is a way of continuing to reflect on what the photographs mean in time; what the relationships are about; and how important those relationships may or may not be. It’s more an emotional than a theoretical response.

 

For example, Pictures from a Revolution [Meiselas’ 1988 film looking back on the revolution in Nicaragua] came out of wanting to know what had happened between my visits over a ten year period. The film is really an attempt to make sense of a decade – a very difficult one, a very challenging one, painful in some ways, and very unpredictable. So it opens up as a response to my own questions as to what photographs meant or might continue to mean for the people who were in them and for the people whose memories were shaped by them.

 

I think I’ll have those questions for a long time to come. Not of every image I’ve made, but of certain bodies of work. It is a kind of re-registering, re-evaluating.

I notice that Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History has been reprinted. Is that ongoing too, something else that you are revisiting?

The Kurdish community wanted more copies because it had gone out of print after its first appearance in 1997; and initially we couldn’t get the books out to the region as there was too much fighting. Now we have updated the book with another chapter about the last ten years.  I mean, it was totally impossible a decade ago to imagine what’s happened now in northern Iraq. So I went back last November, and in May, to see what we could realistically bring back to Kurdistan for use in libraries and schools.  Now that the re-print is in Sorani and Turkish it really makes the book much more accessible to people there.

 

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Also, the website, (www.akaKurdistan.com ) was built as a response to the first book being published, and therefore being fixed. Whereas we wanted to continue a process of collecting and nurturing a dialogue about history; so the storytelling continues through the website. There was a show as well that travelled throughout Europe for about 8 years, going to the sites of large communities of Kurds, where people could bring their photographs and upload them to the site.

 

My sense is that I’ll be back there again. I don’t know how often, but I’ll certainly be back.

 

© Susan Meiselas

Photographs of 20-year-old Kamaran Abdullah Saber are held by his family at Saiwan

Hill cemetery. He was killed in July 1991 during a student demonstration against Saddam

Hussein, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, 1991
© Susan Meiselas/Magnum

While extending or re-working earlier projects have you come to any general conclusions about the fate of your photographs? Do you find that the life – or, as Elizabeth Edwards calls it, the “social biography” – of a picture is completely unpredictable? Or do you think it can be roughly determined?

No, I think the great surprise in doing Pictures from a Revolution, for example, was that I had no idea of what had happened to any of those people I went to find again…or what they felt about their own acts of participation of a decade earlier.

 

I don’t think the process is about conclusions. It’s like seeing very old friends when you have a reunion. What does it mean? You may not have a very intimate relationship that sustains itself, but you are taking note of where you are in time, and that time is moving forward, and your lives are changing.

You are the subject of a major exhibition at the ICP. In the past you have adopted unconventional ways of displaying your photographs – hanging unframed colour Xeroxes of your Nicaraguan work, for example.  Are any similar strategies employed in the current show?

We worked really hard to have three very different kinds of experience. So the Carnival Strippers installation attempts to be quite intimate and tucked away – in the same way that the girl shows were placed at the back of the lot of the carnival ground. In the exhibition you walk into a space that spirals around, and you hear the sound of the women and the managers – so you’re seeing the photographs and hearing the voices.

 

© Susan Meiselas

Sandinistas at the walls of the Esteli National Guard headquarters, Esteli, Nicaragua, 1979

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum

 

With the photographs from Nicaragua the idea was to immerse the audience, somehow mimicking what it felt like for me to enter a world that suddenly unravelled…and the intensity of that. Another element of the installationis that the photographs are placed so that you almost have to weave through them – you’re inside them as it were.

And the material from Kurdistanis presented very differently again: in an area that feels more like a study room, with cases of fragments, artefacts and images.

The determination to contextualise your pictures seems to have been a constant in your work from the early 70’s onwards. Why do you think that has been so?

You mean, why didn’t I think that the frame did it all? I don’t know – I certainly saw plenty of work which functioned that way. Today I’ve been in a seminar about Cartier-Bresson for example; and obviously, if there’s anyone who made a frame which was magnificent, which would contain allof the photograph’s energy, it was he. But I guess that, in the kind of environments where I have worked, I have always felt there was something more outside the frame. That feeling could result in a series of images that would be best experienced in a book format, for example; or sound – used in relationship to images (as in Strippers).

I don’t think I’ve ever operated with the mindset that a picture would stand in for words. Other people talk about not trusting words, but I love that edge – that challenge – to the photograph. But I suppose the narrative that I am least happy with is my own.

You say that to an extent you distrust your own voice; so how do you feel about the way in which the ICP show focuses attention on your role as author of the work?

The whole concept of my authorship is probably what I’m most uncomfortable about. I was shocked when they showed me the title ofthe show, because to me it should have been In History: Susan Meiselas not Susan Meiselas in History. There’s a fundamental difference.

 

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From my point of view the show was a survey which was trying to put forward some ideas I had been thinking about for a long time; and to put them into a framework where people might have the opportunity to think about them. That was the reason to do a show – not to celebrate myself at all, but more to say, “What about the relationship to this subject?”

To bring back the notions of subject, history, evidence, the value of the photograph for what it can share – and the stories that are embedded in it – is especially important in this day and age where we’re exposed to pictures either as free exchange and having no value, or having excess value as commodities.

So with regard to the general public the question is: Can you create a space where people actually take the time to feel a place that’s very far away, and a history that seems very irrelevant to them? Whether it be Nicaragua or Kurdistan, can I create an environment which really engages them? And that’s the great challenge. We don’t have the magazines, which we may have once assumed would do that, so when you have the opportunity of using exhibition space, it becomes a matter of asking, “What stories are worth telling?”

And so how might you answer that question you pose yourself: can you effectively provide a space for the general public to envisage these things? Or which environments have you found to be more successful than others?

I think it’s very hard to gauge what your audience is going to do.  We know so little about audiences in general: what they want, what they take away, what they are willing to give. Are they willing to putthemselves in the position of the photographer?

 

But I know, of course, what people have said to me about the exhibition: that they’ve taken more time than they expect to, for example. Someone today said to me, “Were you designing an exhibit for me to spend five hours in, because that’s what I needed?” They don’t expect to spend the time, but they’re pulled in a bit. And that’s an interesting issue.

When you’re out taking pictures do you have an end product in mind – say, a book, or gallery display, or a website?

It depends, it varies a lot. While working in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Central America,I was very driven with the idea that, “I’m seeing something now. Will it ever be quite like this again?”

 

So the energy of my eye was focused in a particular way, because things were so critical and unpredictable. In those situations the platform that the photographs might be seen in was less important than the timeframe.

Then there are other times when I’m much more consciously working towards a particular shape – maybe commissions for museums where I have to generate a body of work that is going to be hung on walls. And I have also worked for the media, where I have less control over how they use my photographs. But then I counteract that with book-making, where I have pretty much full control over the whole process.

 

I don’t know if you saw it, but the New York Times ran a particularly contentious review (by Ken Johnson) of the ICP show, suggesting that the work was susceptible to criticism for being exploitative and opportunistic. It struck me that it was a dumbed-down version of Martha Rosler’s famous critique , from the early 80’s, of documentary photography. How do you respond to such criticism, elements of which seem to have persisted throughout your career?

Yes, unfortunately I did see that piece. Interestingly, after it published Martha was one of the first people to write me back and say “What was that all about?” And over time Martha herself has actually re-considered her original criticisms, including her comments about the use of colour; or the aestheticising of Nicaragua; or the fact that I photographed single people, not masses in the streets.

But I respond by going on. That is, I value the work from a place where I can stand by it, and with it. Johnson’s accusation of opportunism is so hard for me to understand because I never had any idea where any of the work – any of those three bodies of work – might lead me. It was impossible to imagine, from the beginnings of those projects, that I might have spent the time I did eventually spend on them. Or that they would have evolved in the very particular ways that each of those countries or histories or struggles did evolve.

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Because – at the time I’m making those photographs – I’m not thinking that they’re going to be on museum walls, frankly. And, in fact, when I was working in Nicaragua the reason the photographs were never hung on walls was because that was of no importance at the time. But it did have huge importance 25 years later to bring the photographs back and to display them on the sites where they were first taken in Nicaragua. But I wasn’t prescient enough to be aware of that while I was making them; it only made sense when I’d lived that history in some sense.

So that’s the first thing I don’t understand – the accusation that documentary is opportunistic, or more particularly that I’m opportunistic.

Also, the argument as to whether or not one should intervene to save a child, as the mother runs with a baby along the road, is I think an overly-simplified attack and a failure to really understand what’s at play in a situation like that. I think if he’d done his homework and talked to the Nicaraguans and talked to the Kurds, he’d know more than he certainly appears to in the article. I don’t think he thought very deeply about it actually.

That’s not to say that I think documentary practice is unproblematic. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I say I’m interested in these questions, and why I‘ve found some ways of working that help me address them. Whether or not they are models for other people…they’ll find their own answers if they have those questions. But it’s rooted in my work; it has nothing to do with theoretical – or popular – criticism.

I think we’ve got to give mind and thought to the aesthetics, and how they function in relation to content and whatever narrative we’re trying to convey. Who are those aesthetics for? Are they for Western – our own – communities? Or are they for the communities from which the work is generated? And that’s a circle I’m interested in describing and continuing to explore.

© Guy Lane, 2008

 

Susan Meiselas In History – at the International Center of Photography, New York, until Jan 4, 2009

 

Susan Meiselas In History – exhibition catalogue including essays by Lucy Lippard, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, David Levi Strauss & Allan Sekula. Publ Steidl ICP £40.

 

Kurdistan. In the Shadow of History – Susan Meiselas (University of Chicago Press) $100

 

For further discussion of the NYT review, see:

http://politicstheoryphotography.blogspot.com/2008/09/on-susan-meiselas-times-critic-misses.html