Interviews

Photographer Susan Meiselas on the Relationships She’s Built with Her Subjects

Meiselas, whose documentary photography is wide ranging, says the one thing that ties her work together is her “relationships with subjects over time.”

Susan Meiselas, “Sandinistas at the walls of the EstelíNational Guard headquarters, ‘Molotov Man,’ Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979 (1979) (image © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

SAN FRANCISCO — Before she became a member of the international collective Magnum Photos in 1976, Susan Meiselas, who grew up in Baltimore, taught photography to elementary school students in the South Bronx. They used simple cameras and had a darkroom in the classroom to develop their photos. It was about the process more than the pictures, Meiselas says — getting out on the street and interacting with people. In the more than four decades that Meiselas has been a photographer, that has been her own approach, too.

Corey Keller, who curated the retrospective of the photographer’s work at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Susan Meiselas: Mediations, jokes that Meiselas’s favorite word is “collaboration.” She also says the acclaimed photographer is deeply ethical, always asking herself whom the photograph serves.

That becomes clear in projects like Meiselas’s first assignment while a graduate student at Harvard University, where she took pictures of her neighbors at the boardinghouse where she lived and then gave them the photos to make comments. In a recent 2013 project, “20 dirhams or 1 photo?” she offered the women in a Marrakesh spice market the photo of themselves or money.

Susan Meiselas, “Roseann on the way to Manhattan Beach, New York” (1978), from the series Prince Street Girls (1975–92) (© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

Mediations shows the range of Meiselas’s subjects, from carnival strippers, girls in her Little Italy neighborhood in New York (the “Prince Street Girls”), a refuge for women in England, and the aftermath of the Kurdistan genocide in 1991. She has also repeatedly returned to the same subjects, including political conflicts in Nicaragua. Meiselas first went to that country in 1978, when she documented the Sandinistas rebelling against the regime of Anastasio Somoza, which they overthrew in 1979. Her photo, “Molotov Man,” which shows a young man heaving a homemade bomb at one of the last national guard fortresses, became a defining symbol of the revolution, and is on T-shirts, billboards, and brochures throughout Nicaragua.

Meiselas returned to Nicaragua the week before her show opened at SFMOMA, to photograph the rebellion against former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega, now serving his third term as president. Critics say he is using the same repressive tactics he once fought against, and “Molotov Man” is now being used as a sign of rebellion against Ortega.

Two days before the opening of her show, Meiselas sat down to talk about her 40-year relationship with Nicaragua, how she doesn’t go into a project with a concept, but rather lets her work evolve from what she sees, and how the “Prince Street Girls,” whose photos she took when they were kids, still come to see her and bring their kids.

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Susan Meiselas (photo © Meryl Levin)

Emily Wilson: You have such a broad range of work. What do you think ties it together?

Susan Meiselas: Relationships with subjects over time. Obviously, those time frames vary enormously, and hopefully you experience that throughout the show. There’s a timeline that’s as long as 40 years, in Nicaragua, from the first work in June 1978, to work I just did in June 2018. There is work on the walls that is probably a 25 to 30 year period, but in fact my relationship with them goes on and might have another expression. I often go back over time at different junctures. So revisiting, rethinking, reflecting on the work is sort of ongoing; it’s kind of my own archive and reflection process. It’s not so much what does the photograph represent in time, which is one aspect — it’s also about my how my relationship and the relationship of the photo to history might change.

Portrait of Susan Meiselas, Monimbo, Nicaragua, (September 1978) (© Alain Dejean Sygma)

EW: Why did you first go to Nicaragua?

SM: It was on June 1, 1978. I read something in January 1978, and it took a number of months to go because I had never done this type of work — just going somewhere without an assignment or any structure or knowing what was happening there. In some ways that’s been an approach since then. In many cases, you don’t know what you’re going to find, what you’re going to encounter, what you’re going to make sense of. I certainly didn’t envision in June 1978 that I would have that kind of 40-year relationship with Nicaragua.

EW: But why that country?

SM: I read a report in the New York Times in January 1978 about the assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, who was the editor of the opposition’s newspaper, La Prensa. I was kind of shocked to read the news. Somoza was accused of assassinating him, and I didn’t really know where Nicaragua was or anything about the US history with Nicaragua. It took a while to get myself there, and then I stayed and events unfolded, and I went back and continued to do so.

EW: How could you form relationships when you didn’t speak Spanish?

SM: Photographs are this intersection and response to moments of time, the encounter and reencounter. In the case of Nicaragua, there are some people I began to meet in making the photographs and then over time. Last week when I was there, I was working with local photographers who were working for a very important online publication, Confidencial. The person who founded it, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, is the son of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, whom I met on the very first day I was there June 1, 1978. So you build many kinds of relationships with along the way.

When I met Carlos, he had just come back from McGill and started to work in his father’s newspaper La Prensa. Because he was one of few people who spoke English, I met him on the first day. So in a way there’s a pattern — in those first five, six weeks I was there, I was working with local reporters because there was almost no international press. And again two weeks ago, very little international press. So 40 years separate and in a way the same working method with local teams. It’s how history resonates, right?

Susan Meiselas, “SOS Nicaragua: The bullets…, Managua, Nicaragua, June 30, 2018” (2018; © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

EW: Corey Keller, the curator at SFMOMA, says you are always asking, “Whom do these photographs serve?” How are you thinking about that?

SM: Right now, I’m most preoccupied by what’s happening in Nicaragua. I’m getting Google alerts every five minutes, I’m looking at the events daily because there is a significant civic resistance to Ortega who is in power at the moment, who is a Sandinista. It’s a very complex situation.

The exhibition was planned three years ago and who would have ever imagined we’d be in this situation, that we would be thinking about the present as much as the past tense? I’m trying to bring the present into the past. One wall of the show is called “The Life of an Image” and it is 40 years of “Molotov Man” being reproduced under very different types of conditions. The students resisting at the barricades right now have claimed that image, identified with that young man, whose name is Pedro Arauz. They made a T-shirt and they are using a phrase, “Que se rinde su madre,” which is hard to translate but it’s kind of like, “We will not surrender — tell your mother to surrender.” It’s a significant gesture that this young man who threw the Molotov that led to the overthrow of Somoza is now the emblem and symbol for the resistance to Ortega.

Susan Meiselas, “Youths practice throwing contact bombs in forest surrounding Monimbo” from the series Nicaragua (1978) (© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

EW: What’s another example?

SM: It’s very complex what pictures mean to people. The Prince Street girls still bring their daughters and ring my doorbell as they did when they were eight and 10 years old, to see photos of themselves from that period. I had an exhibition of the work a year ago, and they all came and saw themselves framed on the walls, and it was moving that it was meaningful to them to see themselves over time.

A different kind of relationship to the subject is probably more hidden in “A Room of Their Own,” which is multimedia with words scrolling across images I made at a refuge in the UK. But what you’re not seeing there is a five-by-seven print I made that was given to each women who had come through the refuge or shelter, and I gave them that print to remember that moment. I felt making a photograph of a corner of a room was something for them to think about, to mark their own lives.

EW: In the catalogue it says that you try to give back to places where you’re working.

SM: When it feels appropriate. I show projects where there are examples of that, but every picture you make isn’t given back literally. But the whole show opens with my bringing back contact sheet prints to my neighbors who then respond to seeing how they’re represented, which was an initial instinct. Then, it that same room, you have one of my last projects from Marrakesh, where I’m asking people I’m making photographs of whether they want the print or want the money. That’s a very important question, you know. What is of value to you — is it money, or do you value this object of yourself?

Susan Meiselas, 20 dirhams or 1 photo? (2013–14), installation view, Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of David Knausand the Accessions Committee Fund (© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photo)

EW: You say you don’t go into a project with a concept. What are you looking for going in?

SM: Marrakesh is a good example. I was trying to find a way to work in Marrakesh and that led to the idea of the pop-up studio and the spice market. But I don’t start sitting here saying, “I want to go do this.” I evolve being there. So I go to Kurdistan in ’91 on the cusp of the Gulf War, but I have no idea what I’m going to see. When I went to Nicaragua three weeks ago, I had no idea what I was going to discover there. It’s about the encounter and how engaged you become with how can you transfer that encounter in some way. So the Kurdistan project evolves totally from the field, it becomes a six-year investigation trying to create a visual history of the Kurdish people. Which is kind of madness. It wasn’t preconceived that way — it was responsive, so I think that’s the key word probably.

Susan Meiselas, “Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq” (1992) (image © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

Susan Meiselas: Mediations continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 3rd St, San Francisco) through October 21. 

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