Susan Meiselas has spent five fearless decades at the frontline of history, photographing revolutionaries, teenagers and risque carnival dancers. Mediations by Susan Meiselas is at Jeu de Paume, Paris, until 20 May
07 Feb 2018 | Sean O’Hagan | The Guardian
In 1971, at the age of 23, Susan Meiselas made a self-portrait in which she appears as a spectral presence, hovering on a chair in the living room of her boarding house in Massachusetts. The haunting double exposure, blown up larger than life size, is the first image you see as you enter Mediations, a retrospective of her work at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.
“That’s a total expression of what my psychology was back then and, to a degree, continues to be,” she says. “The present but almost invisible photographer.”
In the five decades since, Meiselas has earned a reputation as one of the greatest living documentary photographers, a chronicler of the lives of ordinary people caught in the turbulent tide of history. A large room in Jeu de Paume is taken up with In the Shadow of History, the epic Kurdistan project that took over her life for several years.
Begun in 1997, it is a visual evocation of a people without a homeland. In places, it is almost overwhelming. The Kurdistan section uses her own images alongside short films, historical photographs, words and projections.
On one wall, a giant map of the world shows all the places where Kurdish diasporic communities have formed. Chains hang from each location, bearing clusters of handmade laminated books in which photos from family albums are accompanied by testimonies of suffering and flight.
These were made just a few days before the exhibition opened, in a workshop with Kurdish people who have settled in Paris. “They brought their photographs and their memories,” she says Meiselas. “In this way, the work grows each time it is exhibited.”
Nicaragua, her best-known series, made during and after the Sandinista revolution, attests to the sustained relationships she develops with her subjects. Having spent six weeks there in 1979, Meiselas returned in the early 1990s to make Pictures from a Revolution, a documentary film in which she tracked down people in her original photographs. In 2004, she went back again to work alongside locals in creating memorial sites using her images on murals, a project documented in another film, Reframing History.
“In all my work, I form a relationship,” she says, “and the title of the retrospective is to do with my belief that photography is an act of mediation between myself and the subject. The camera allows me into places I would otherwise not have gone and helps create deep engagements.”
In places, Mediations is almost overwhelming. The Kurdistan section uses her own images alongside short films, historical photographs, words and projections. On one wall, a giant map of the world shows all the places where Kurdish diasporic communities have formed.
Chains hang from each location, bearing clusters of handmade laminated books in which photos from family albums are accompanied by testimonies of suffering and flight. These were made just a few days before the exhibition opened, in a workshop with Kurdish women who have settled in Paris. “They brought their photographs and their memories,” says Meiselas. “In this way, the work grows each time it is exhibited.”
Born in Baltimore in 1948, Meiselas studied “visual education” at Harvard. As a child, she became curious about photography after her father gave her his army camera. Later she took a part-time course with the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Another formative experience was working as a film editor for Fred Wiseman on his groundbreaking 1971 documentary Basic Training, which looked at how raw military recruits are turned into disciplined soldiers.
Meiselas’s early black-and-white work, which tends towards quiet observation, is one of the surprises of the exhibition. Her first series, 44 Irving Street, began in 1971 while she was still at Harvard. It comprises portraits of her neighbours in the apartment block where she lived. Each is accompanied by a piece of writing by the sitters about themselves. “I think it’s nicer than most rooming houses (no dirty old men),” writes Joan, adding: “I don’t think the photo of me really gives the essence of me.”
Meiselas recalls plucking up the courage to knock on her neighbour’s doors, and her discomfort at having to direct them for the portrait. “When I started out, I was awkward and a bit shy. I had to work out what photography could be for me. I was certainly not influenced by the street photography of the time. It felt too confrontational. I had to develop my own language of reportage.”
Prince Street Girls, a series begun in 1975, chronicles the lives of a group of pre-adolescents from New York’s Little Italy. After she moved into an apartment in their old school house, Meiselas befriended the girls (and one boy called Frankie) over a few years and still keeps in touch, though these days they are scattered across the outer boroughs. “Their daughters now want to see the photographs,” says Meiselas. “Sometimes the women come back into Manhattan, but they are sensitive about how little of their neighbourhood is left.”
Her breakthrough 1970s project, Carnival Strippers, is also in the retrospective. These intimate black-and-white portraits of the performers in a risque travelling show have lost none of their raw power. The girls thrust their hips at the punters who gawp back and, in some instances, grab and paw them. Meiselas photographed the women from the men’s point of view and the men from the women’s, as well as capturing the performers relaxing between shows.
“I don’t think a man would have gotten entry to the inner sanctum of the dressing room in the same way,” she says, “or indeed taken photographs in the same way. Now, of course, the girls would be taking photographs of themselves and disseminating them on social media.”
When Meiselas became a Magnum photographer in 1976, she was one of five women. Today there are 13. In all its attempts to reinvent itself of late, it remains a predominantly male institution.
“I can’t deny that,” she says. “And I’ve seen the comings and goings of women who have been involved. It’s a complicated issue. Do I want to say, ‘I’m a woman photographer and that’s what validates my view on the world?’ Really? Is that it? But, on the other hand, I do speak from a different perspective. I do have a different approach. Part of my role is to be a mediator, someone who brings people together.”
She pauses. “People often ask me, ‘Why do you do it?’ Perhaps the more important question is, ‘What are they getting from it?’”