Susan Meiselas is an American photographer, who was born in 1948 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was raised in Long Island, New York. She earned a degree in visual education from HarvardUniversity in 1970 after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence (www.susanmeiselas.com). Also in 1970, she began working on the Frederick Wiseman documentary entitled Basic Training as the assistant to the film editor (Maryland ArtSource). Susan worked with the public school system to make a photographic curriculum for fourth and sixth graders. In the South, she began programs focusing on photography and film supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and State Arts Commissions (Maryland ArtSource). Then, in 1976 she published her book entitled Carnival Strippers. In addition to publishing her book in 1976, she joined Magnum Photos and became a freelance photographer (www.susanmeiselas.com). In the following year, 1977, she traveled to Nicaragua to photograph the civil war between General Garcia and the Sandinista opposition (Maryland ArtSource). Some of her photographs appeared in The New York Times, Paris Match, and Life.
After spending time in Nicaragua, she then went to El Salvador in the 1980s where she photographed the civil war. The photographs of the El Salvador conflict were included in the book, El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers and Chile From Within (www.susanmeiselas.com). She also edited Chile from Within, which contains photographs of the Chile under the coup of Augusto Pinochet (Extending the Frame). Meiselas is not only a photographer; she helped Richard Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti co-directed the documentary films Living as Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family in 1986 and Pictures from a Revolution in 1991. Another huge project that Meiselas took part in was photographing the destruction in Kurdistan. Her pictures detailed the horrendous aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign in local villages (Extending the Frame). These photographs in addition to artifacts she found make up the book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (www.susanmeiselas.com). Now, there is an official website called akaKurdistan: A Place for Collective Memory and Cultural Exchange (www.akaKurdistan.com) which continues to evolve due to contributions from the site’s viewers all around the world, including the people of Kurdistan (Extending the Frame).
Then, in 2001 she explored a sadomasochist club in New York City for her project titled, “Pandora’s Box.” Along with covering this club in New York, in 2003 she traveled to New Guinea. She traveled there with Robert Gardner to record changes to the Dani culture, since Gardner’s film in 1964 Dead Birds. She turned her photographs into a book Encounters with the Dani, which was a special feature in the International Center of Photography’s Triennial “Strangers” (www.susanmeiselas.com). Susan has had many one woman shows in Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago (www.susanmeiselas.com). Some of her works have been put into museums, which is a huge accomplishment.
Currently, Susan lives in New York City and continues to work as a freelance photographer represented by Magnum Photos.
She has won different awards for her photographs including the Robert Capa Gold Medla in 1979, which she won for “outstanding courage and reporting” by the Overseas Press Club for her photographs of Nicaragua (www.susanmeiselas.com). Then in 1982, she won the Leica Award for excellence and was named Photojournalist of the Year by the American Society of Media Photographers (www.magnumphotos.com). Three years later, she won the Engelhard Award from the Institute of Contemporary Art. In 1992, she was named an honorable member of the MacArthur Fellowship. Two years later, she won the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from ColumbiaUniversity for her coverage of Latin America. She also won the Hasselblad Foundation Photography prize the same year. In 2005, she won the Cornell Capa Infinity Award.
Projects (Chronological Order)
From 1972 to 1975, Susan Meiselas spent her summers traveling with women, who stripped at small town carnivals in New England, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania (“Carnival Strippers”). She immersed herself into their culture to truly understand their lifestyle. In addition to photographing the women, she spent time interviewing them, their managers, their boyfriends, and their paying customers (Light 102). She documented their every day lives, both on and off stage (“Carnival Strippers”). Carnival Strippers first began as an exhibit displaying her photographs, as well as audio from the interviews and shows, and then later became a book (Light 99). Working on this project during the women’s movement inspired Meiselas to focus her book on the strippers’ search for their identities during a time of change (“Carnival Strippers”). In the introduction to her book, Carnival Strippers, she states, “If the viewer is appalled by what follows, that reaction is not so different from the alienation of those who participate in the shows.” Carnival Strippers contains photographs and dialogue that reveals the hardships faced by women in this culture. Carnival Strippers is considered to be one of the first books to reveal the lifestyles of marginalized women.
In 1977, Susan Meiselas traveled to Nicaragua to photograph the civil war between General Anastasio Somoza Garcia’s dictatorship and the Sandinista opposition (Light 99). She photographed bystanders, guerrillas, and people favoring the Garcia’s dictatorship (“Reframing History”). Through her photographs, she documents the war, as well as the hardships faced by citizens. Meiselas spent approximately two years getting to know the people involved in order to accurately portray their lifestyles and the effects of the war (Light 99). In her book, Nicaragua, she reveals the impact of the war through both her photographs and narrative. Ten years later, Meiselas returned to interview the people she had originally photographed (Light 101). In her documentary film, Pictures from a Revolution, many of her original photographs are included as well as commentary from the subjects regarding their opinions about the war and its’ aftermath (“Reframing History”).In 2004, she chose nineteen of her photographs taken during the war and turned them into murals (“Reframing History”). She installed them in the public spaces and towns where they were originally taken (“Reframing History”). These murals create a place of memory of the events that have shaped the lives of citizens as well as serve to educate new generations about the past war (“Reframing History”). Currently, Meiselas is working on a couple new initiatives in Nicaragua. She is working in collaboration with others to create a small museum in Monimbo to honor the natives' role in the revolution (“Reframing History”). In Tiscapa, a new park is being created to permanently display copies of her murals (“Reframing History”).
Originally Meiselas traveled to Kurdistan to photograph Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurdish people (“Kurdistan”). One day, she found an album containing the memoir of a woman’s emotional experience traveling through Kurdistan (“A Troubled History”). This led to her six-year project to uncover old photographs and texts that are telling of the country’s history and the impact the past has had on people’s present lives (“Kurdistan”). She collected and re-photographed many images from anthropologists, missionaries, and photojournalists to create a “visual history” of Kurdistan. Her book, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, includes these photographs, as well as personal memoirs, maps, ads, government reports, letters, etc (“Kurdistan”). Her goal of the project was to make a book that is important to “westerners who know very little and hopefully want to know, and to a Kurdish community for whom this work was totally inaccessible” (“A Troubled History”).
Susan Meiselas’s book, Pandora’s Box (2001), documents events that occurred in a high-class sex club, Pandora’s Box, that is located in lower Manhattan (“Susan Meiselas: Intimate Strangers”). Pandora’s Box is known for the practice of sadomasochism (“Susan Meiselas”). Through her photographs, she reveals the customs and sexual role-playing that occurs in the club. Her photographs demonstrate the power reversal of the rich, high-class male customers and the women employed by the club (“Susan Meiselas”). At Pandora’s Box, the women exercise more power and control, whereas the men take on the traditional, submissive female role.
In Meiselas’s most recent book, Encounters with The Dani (2003), she chronologically follows the remote tribe’s history through photographs, letters, interviews, and found documents (“Susan Meiselas: Carnival Strippers and Encounters with the Dani”). The Dani originate from Papua, New Guinea (“Susan Meiselas: Carnival”). Unlike her other works, Meiselas did not immerse herself into their culture because she wanted to photograph them from an outsider’s perspective (“Susan Meiselas: Carnival”). She details the alteration of their traditional customs caused by switching from Dutch to Malaysian rule (“Susan Meiselas: Carnival”).. Meisela’s inspiration for this project resulted from traveling with cinematographer, Robert Fulton, who had previously made a film about the Dani culture (“Susan Meiselas: Carnival”). .
She contributed her photographs to the book, El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers,and was an editor for the book, Chile from Within (Light 99).
Analysis of Photographs
In this picture the head of Independent Commission on Human Rights, Judith Galarza, speaks to the families of missing women in Mexico. She is holding a flyer of missing women from Mexico. The photograph brought the issue to the attention of the Mexican government. Meiselas’s photograph speaks of the world-wide issue of violence against women. The woman’s frustrated facial expression reveals women’s concerns about violence against women.
The picture was taken on September 15, 2001 which was four days after the 9/11 attacks. In this particular picture, people are protesting the war as evident by their signs. There are chalk messages written on the ground talking about peace and love. September 11, 2001 was a difficult day for many Americans and the picture portrays one side to the happenings on that day. This photograph shows the different people who came together after the attacks. The different slogans on the signs all reveal that these protesters believe in taking a non-violent approach to the attacks.
From Carnival Strippers
These two photographs show different women who performed as carnival strippers. The pictures were part of her three year long project which turned in a monograph called Carnival Strippers. Susan had to befriend the women in order to learn about them. These photographs proved to be influential because they brought public awareness to a more covert issue. The pictures were taken at a time when the women’s movement was still rather new so these images convey the negative environment that the women faced and the problems they went through. Their posing in the photographs with their hands on their hips reveal frustration, while at the same time posing sexually.
Mistress Natasha Rules II
In 1995, the photograph above was taken inside of Pandora’s Box, a high-class sex club. In the photograph, the woman is referred to as Mistress Natasha and the man is her unnamed client. The environment in the club is revealed through their attire and actions. The woman’s high black boots and officer-looking hat is very telling of her profession. The man’s outfit is more telling of the environment. The suit worn by the man reinforces the idea that mostly high-class men frequent the club. The spikes and zipper covering the mouth on his mask reveal the sadomasochistic nature of the club. The woman pressing her foot against his genitalia, while tightly gripping his tie demonstrates the forceful and painful approach used when performing sadomasochistic acts. The photograph also shows the reversal of gender roles. By the customer sitting in the chair and following her demands portrays him as weak and submissive. The positioning of her body above him and the placement of her foot and hand demonstrates her power. The photograph also could be used to comment on the two different perspectives of prostitutes. Unlike the traditional perceptions of prostitutes as vulnerable and weak, Mistress Natasha is portrayed as powerful and domineering. The photograph allows for the questioning of gender roles as well as the conventional perceptions of prostitutes.
Photograph from: http://www.magnumphotos.com/CoreXDoc/MAG/Media/TR3/F/W/Z/E/NYC15554.jpg
This photograph was taken between June of 1978 and July 1979, while Meiselas was photographing the war in Nicaragua. The young bystander was killed during warfare. The large amounts of blood surrounding the boy causes the image to be very disturbing, while at the same time, is very telling of the massacres occurring at the time. The wall behind the boy says, “National Guard get out of Monimbo. The people are dying because of Somoza.” The straightforward writing on the wall by a citizen demonstrates their opposition to the war. Through research on the origin of the National Guard, I found that the group was formed during the United States occupation of Nicaragua years earlier (“Nicaragua: The Somoza Years”). Since the U.S. military trained the National Guard, the audience can ponder the U.S.’s influence on the war. The red writing on the wall and the red blood can symbolize the large number of murders occurring as a result of the war. The red in the photograph also encourages the audience to empathize with the innocent citizens’ hardships resulting from the destruction and murders. The photograph above illustrates the negative influence of the war on innocent bystanders.
Photograph from: http://www.magnumphotos.com/Archive/C.aspx?VP=Mod_ViewBox.ViewBoxZoom_VPage&VBID=2K1HZO6XIWP_X&IT=ImageZoom01&PN=28&STM=T&DTTM=Image&SP=Album&IID=2K7O3RWHJXD&SAKL=T&SGBT=T&DT=Image
This photograph was taken in New York City on September 11t,h in a park located near the WorldTradeCenter. The photograph reveals the destruction of the park with the exception of the structure of man. The debris surrounding the undamaged structure could represent the Americans reaction to the event. Although the American people were distressed as a result of the 9/11 attacks, their spirit was not broken. The unharmed structure can symbolize the pride and spirit of the American people. The country united during this frightening time and did not loose sight of their pride and faith in United States. The physical and emotional effects of the attack are represented by the destruction of the park. The pain and grief resulting from the attacks for many Americans is shown through the lack of color in the photograph. The photograph reveals the destruction caused by the 9/11 attacks, but also illustrates the unbroken spirit of the American people.
Photograph from: Magnumphotos.com
Why is Susan Meiselas's work important?
Through Meiselas’s work, she reveals herself not only as a photographer, but also as a documentarian and an anthropologist. Her projects include photographs, but many also include text, audio, and artifacts from the past. In Kurdistan and Dani, Meiselas spent years uncovering information about their history to include in her work. By revealing the history of many countries through her use of old photographs, letters, and memoirs in her books, Meiselas’s audience gains a higher understanding of the subjects. Many photographers travel to countries without attempting to befriend their subjects. On the other hand, Meiselas spends time with her subjects to ensure she accurately portrays their lifestyles. By befriending her subjects, her work become more powerful because her subjects are able to comfortably share their lives with her. Therefore, she is able to communicate her findings through photographs, text, and audio to her audience. Since she frequently travels back to countries to re-interviews her past subjects, she furthers her own knowledge as well as her audience’s understanding. In many of her works, she comments on different topics, but from an alternate perspective. Her projects, Carnival Strippers and Pandora’s Box, present the strippers and prostitutes as strong, controlling women, which leads her audience to question their original beliefs. In Pandora’s Box, the images reveal the reversal of gender roles in the club. She also has drawn attention to unnoticed issues through her photographs. When she traveled to El Salvador, she photographed four uncovered graves belonging to American nuns (Light 99). These photographs brought attention to the war, triggered the investigation of the death squads in El Salvador, and encouraged the government to focus on America’s role in the war. Through her work in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Kurdistan, she increased the Westerner’s awareness of events occurring outside of their countries. Meisela’s subjects, commentary, and passion for her work further her projects’ impact on the audience.