Susan Meiselas is a documentary photographer who lives and works in New York. She is the author of Carnival Strippers (1976), Nicaragua (1981), Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997), Pandora’s Box (2001), Encounters with the Dani (2003) Prince Street Girls (2016) and A Room Of Their Own (2017). She has co-edited two published collections: El Salvador, Work of 30 Photographers (1983) and Chile from Within (1990), rereleased as an e-book in 2013, and also co-directed two films: Living at Risk (1985) and Pictures from a Revolution (1991) with Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti. Meiselas is well known for her documentation of human rights issues in Latin America. Her photographs are included in North American and international collections. In 1992 she was made a MacArthur Fellow, received a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015), and most recently the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize (2019) and the first Women in Motion Award from Kering and the Rencontres d’Arles. Mediations, a survey exhibition of her work from the 1970s to present was recently exhibited at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Jeu de Paume, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and is on view now at the Instituto Moreira Salles in São Paulo. She has been the President of the Magnum Foundation since 2007, which supports, trains, and mentors the next generation of in-depth documentary photographers and innovative practice.
An Ongoing History
For this lecture, Meiselas will discuss her ongoing work responding to the history of Nicaragua. Still considered by some to be her signature work, the strong color photographs of the popular insurrection that overthrow the Somoza regime and subsequent Sandinista victory were widely distributed in the international press and published in the 1981 book Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979. A landmark in war photography for its pioneering and controversial use of color, Meiselas’s work in Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979 remains a paragon of engaged, subjective documentary coverage. It was also her first experience working with magazine publications, where she was forced to contend with the mixed blessing of seeing her work widely distributed but out of her control.
This experience led to an ongoing investigation of the meanings created and revealed by the circulation of images in the media, first explored in installations such as Mediations (1982–83) and the film Voyages (1985). Meiselas went on to a decade of work on human rights issues elsewhere in Latin America but she remained involved in Nicaragua, and her initial photographs there became the basis for an ongoing series of returns and reassessments of the meaning and uses of that work to her subjects. This is first evident in the 1991 film Pictures from a Revolution (co-directed with Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti), which followed her search for the people featured in her photographs ten years earlier; and Reframing History, which documents another return to Nicaragua in 2004 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolution to install mural-sized images of her photographs in the sites where they were originally taken.
The initial set of photographs taken in 1978–79 have become a touchstone to which Meiselas has repeatedly returned to explore issues at the core of her practice: her ongoing relationship to her subjects, the use and circulation of her images in the media, and the relationship of images to history and memory.
Based on a text by Kristen Lubben, 2009.
Images credits: 1. Popular forces begin final offensive in Masaya, June 8, 1979. 2. Muchacho withdrawing from commercial district of Masaya after three days of bombing, September 1978, from the series Reframing History, Managua, Nicaragua, July 2004. 3. Sandinistas at the walls of the Esteli National Guard headquarters: 'Molotov Man', Esteli, Nicaragua, July 16th, 1979. 4. A funeral procession in Jinotepe for assassinated student leaders. Demonstrators carry a photograph of Arlen Siu, an FSLN guerrilla fighter killed in the mountains three years earlier. Jinotepe, Nicaragua, 1978.