NEW YORK.- Best known for her work covering the political upheavals in Central America in the 1970s and ‘80s, Susan Meiselas’ process has evolved in radical and challenging ways as she has grappled with pivotal questions about her relationship to her subjects, the use and circulation of her images in the media, and the relationship of images to history and memory. Her insistent engagement with these concerns has positioned her as a leading voice in the debate over the function and practice of contemporary documentary photography. From September 19, 2008 through January 4, 2009, the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street) will present Susan Meiselas: In History, the first U.S. overview of the work of this major American photographer.
This exhibition is structured around three key projects, presented in their complete form, which exemplify the evolution of Meiselas’s process and approach: photographs and audio of New England carnival strippers (1972-76); photographs, films, and public installations from Nicaragua (1978-2004); and photographs and collected archival objects and video from Kurdistan (1991-present).
Carnival Strippers is an intimate and uncompromising depiction of the lives of a group of women working the strip tents of traveling carnivals in New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Taken at the height of the women’s movement in the United States, the photographs portray women alternately endangered by and commanding their seamy environment, and supported by a community of other women. As she photographed public performances and private moments, Meiselas made a series of audio interviews with the strippers and the men surrounding them: audience members, managers, and boyfriends. The blackand-white photographs and accompanying interviews were published in the book Carnival Strippers, which appeared in 1976 and was recently reissued. Meiselas maintains a long-term engagement with her subjects a hallmark of her process in future projects and the resulting photographs offer a resonant and complex portrait. But the work only reaches its complete form when paired with the interviews, which mediate, interpret, and counterbalance the photographs, unearthing the complexity and contradictions of the women’s feelings about their lives and what they do. The project represents an early effort to integrate the voice and intent of the documentary subject into the work. The exhibition will present vintage prints accompanied by audio interviews playing on speakers in the gallery.
The second section of the exhibition will be devoted to Meiselas’s work in Nicaragua in 197879. Still considered by many to be her signature work, these startling color photographs of the lead-up to the overthrow of the Somoza regime and subsequent Sandinista victory were widely distributed in the international press and published in the 1981 book Nicaragua. A landmark in war photography for its pioneering and controversial use of color, Meiselas’s work in Nicaragua remains a model of engaged, partisan documentary coverage. It was Meiselas’s first experience as a photojournalist, and she was forced to contend with the mixed blessing of seeing her work in wide distribution and out of her control. The desire to comment on the use and circulation of her images led to the exhibition Mediations, first presented at Camerawork in 1982. This project, which will be restaged in the ICP exhibition, presents the Nicaragua book pages alongside outtakes, tear sheets showing the images use in magazines, and prints sold to collectors. Mediations attempts to dismantle the meanings created and revealed by the dissemination of photographs. Three films will be shown in conjunction with the Nicaragua photographs: Voyages, a documentary from 1985 produced with Marc Karlin that presents Meiselas’s reflections on her relationship to the history she witnessed; Pictures from a Revolution, Meiselas’s 1991 film following her search for the people featured in the photographs twenty years earlier; and Re-framing History, which traces her return to Nicaragua in 2004 for the 25th anniversary of the revolution to install mural-sized images of her photographs in the sites where they were originally taken.
The final section of the exhibition will present Meiselas’s work with Kurdish communities in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. In 1991, after more than a decade of work in Latin America, Meiselas obtained access to the liberated zone in northern Iraq, and later accompanied a forensic anthropologist to document the mass graves of Kurds killed in Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign three years earlier. Her interest in understanding the cultural identity of the Kurds led to a six-year foray into the photographic history of the region. Meiselas gathered family photographs, portraits, documents, and stories that interweave with her own photos to create a sourcebook of suppressed history. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History was published in 1997, and an associated website called aka Kurdistan allows viewers to add their own images and stories, creating a virtual national archive for a stateless people. An exhibition of the material toured internationally, but has never been shown in New York, and has appeared at only two venues in the United States. In its massive scope and meticulous detail, Kurdistan is a major statement about the relationships between photography, memory, archives, and history. It also represents an important shift in Meiselas’s practice toward collecting and curating found images, presaging the rising cultural interest in vernacular photography and archives. Since 2007 she has returned to northern Iraq numerous times to document the radical transformations in the region brought upon by the Iraq war. Coupled with archival material and her own photographs from 1991-92, this new photographic work will be seen for the first time in the ICP exhibition.
Meiselas received her M.A. in visual education from Harvard University, and at the age of 24, taught photography workshops for teachers and children in New York’s South Bronx. During her summers, she traveled to New England to photograph and interview women who worked as strippers in itinerant carnivals. On the basis of that work,
Meiselas was invited to join the Magnum Photos cooperative, of which she remains a member. Meiselas’s coverage of hostilities in Central America during the 1970s and ‘80s was widely published throughout the world. She was presented the Robert Capa Gold Medal for outstanding courage and reporting by the Overseas Press Club in 1979 for her work in Nicaragua. She served as an editor and contributor to the books El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers (1983) and Chile from Within (1991). Meiselas has also co-directed two films based on her involvement in Nicaragua, Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1985), and Pictures from a Revolution (1991).
In 1997, she completed a six-year project on the 100-year photographic history of Kurdistan. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, an exhibition, book, and website, earned her a MacArthur Fellowship. Like the recent ICP/Steidl book Encounters with the Dani, which pieces together a richly layered visual history of an indigenous people through the eyes of outsiders, Kurdistan examines the relationship between power and representation. Meiselas’s own photographs play a supporting role in both projects, with painstakingly gathered archival images and documents carrying the weight of the story.
The complicated trajectory of Meiselas‘s work has often been reduced to a simplified narrative: a war photographer who rejects traditional photojournalism and puts down her camera in favor of mining found imagery and promoting the work of other photographers. A closer examination of her career shows that, from her earliest activity to her most recent, Meiselas has consistently interrogated and expanded the documentary tradition, fueling cross-genre dialogue with anthropologists, human rights workers, and critical theorists to work toward a new understanding of the role of photographs in understanding histories and communities.
The exhibition is organized by Kristen Lubben, Associate Curator at the International Center of Photography.