Photographer Interviews

Susan Meiselas: On Motivation, Her Legacy and the Future of Photojournalism

April 11, 2018

By Sarah Stacke

The work of American photographer Susan Meiselas is the subject of a traveling retrospective exhibition currently on view at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, France and opening in July at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Mediations,” which is accompanied by a catalogue published by Damiani, brings together a selection of series from the 1970s to the present, calling attention to Meiselas’s photographic approach and her lifelong commitment to engage in a “cycle of return” with her subjects, going back to the communities she has photographed and sharing the work with them. The exhibition also demonstrates how Meiselas has found ways to extend narratives beyond a photographic frame by using audio, film and archival materials to build layered stories that include multiple perspectives. The retrospective follows on the heels of her book On the Frontline, a memoir about her career published last fall by Aperture. In it, she discusses the experiences, motivations and ideas that shaped different, yet connected, bodies of work.

© Meryl Levin

Susan Meiselas. © Meryl Levin

A member of Magnum Photos since 1976 and the founder of the Magnum Foundation, Meiselas is known for continually questioning the uses and misuses of photography and finding ways to collaborate with and empower those she photographs. Her coverage of Central America’s conflict zones, and her documentation of human rights issues and the sex industry, have influenced countless photographers. Larry Towell, who joined Magnum in 1988, says that seeing Meiselas’s 1970s photographs from Nicaragua spurred him “to go out into the world and take pictures.” Having begun her career at a time when not many women were working in photography, Meiselas has broken through glass ceilings, paving the way for other women. She’s also consistently made space for women’s voices to be heard through her work. Kristen Lubben, Executive Director of the Magnum Foundation, says that Meiselas’s work has “shown a fascination with women who trespass boundaries of convention and acceptability.” She adds, “It is particularly timely now to look at these women—and Meiselas herself, for that matter—and learn from their struggles for autonomy, self-determination, and respect.” Here, she speaks with PDN about the evolution of her approach to photographing and working with subjects, mixing personal work and assignment work, and giving opportunities to a diverse new generation of photographers through the Magnum Foundation.

PDN: Would you say one of the primary purposes of On the Frontline is to reveal the thought process behind your work and how the ideas for different series developed over time?
Susan Meiselas: Yes, that was [editor] Mark Holborn’s idea. We also agreed that we would talk about the “frontline” as a psychological space, not just a physical, geographical space.

And I think this question also speaks to emerging photographers. Finding the place from which you work is a key thing that only you can do, it’s the deep motivation of life. It takes time and you explore it as deeply as you can, and you learn from your own process. Life demands a certain level of resilience in order to survive
with clarity and commitment. The combination of those conditions create opportunities to find the place from which you work. It comes with time.

Starting out, I didn’t know what it would mean to be a photographer. I didn’t have a set path. I didn’t have the kinds of things that young people have today like internships, mentorship programs and grants.

PDN: Not as many existed then.
SM: They didn’t, no. What did exist was the boys club and networks of power. Those are still there and are being challenged more now, which is great.

PDN: You’ve said that in some of your earliest work, “44 Irving Street” and “Carnival Strippers,” it was important for you to have the women’s voices included and for the subjects to be able to see themselves in the pictures you made. How has that concern evolved over time?
SM: “44 Irving Street” speaks to the discomfort of the power of authoring. The conflict and contradictions that come with that power have been there for me from the beginning.

“Carnival Strippers” has taken on a new life in the context of the current #metoo movement. It’s work from over 40 years ago and the fact that it feels relevant for people to rethink and look at women’s relationships to each other and the power dynamics between them and their audience—it’s exciting to me that those women’s voices will continue to speak through the “Mediations” exhibition at Jeu de Paume. It multiplies what the photograph means and to whom—the maker, the subject, the audience.

PDN: In describing your process, you’ve said that you don’t go into the field with a specific plan. The idea for the project, and/or the collaborative aspect of the project, emerges as you work.
SM: The real question is, do you trust experience, do you trust yourself in that exploration? I think that’s probably the risk of being overeducated or the advantage of having none. I didn’t have the history of photography in my head when I started, I didn’t go to a school of art or journalism. I wonder about that now in the current saturation of images, and who one follows, who follows you—on Instagram, Facebook communities, or schools of influence. I don’t know what that experience is like: to find your own voice amidst all that and have it really be your own.

PDN: How and why did you first get interested in finding collaborative approaches to empower the people you photograph?
SM: It wasn’t a straight line. Ideas evolve and interact over time because they were inside your being. It was a series of experiences that led me to think progressively. For example, in Nicaragua it was a new experience for me to think about the opportunities of the regional photographers alongside me versus the opportunities of the international photographers. In Nicaragua I saw the archive of the photographers working for La Prensa, which was the opposition newspaper, bombed and destroyed by the Somoza regime. Suddenly the richness of that history was gone. I was immediately aware as the war ended that foreigners had the history when we left. A year later, I organized a group of photographers to give work back, to create a small museum in Managua of what happened during that period of the insurrection.

Helping local voices to be heard became very important to me and led to the books Chile from Within and El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, and also connects to the Magnum Foundation initiatives to support the training of non-European and non-American photographers.

Ideas are seeded, experiences are primary, they live within you and they grow within you.

© Susan Meiselas/Magnum

“Window of wedding photographer studio, Marrakech, Morocco,” from Susan Meiselas’s project “20 Dirham or 1 photo?, 2013.” © Susan Meiselas/Magnum

PDN: From the start—with “44 Irving Street”—you had the self-awareness to ask “who is this work for?” There are photographers who only want to please the editor or just want to get the work published, but you were concerned about your subjects.
SM: You have to do both. It’s a spectrum of where you place yourself and every project is different. You can’t always bring every photograph back to a subject for them to have in their home, as you hope it could be, but you can sometimes. On the other side, the people you photograph don’t always understand how those photographs are going to live in the world. “Molotov Man” from the 1979 Nicaraguan insurrection is a perfect example. [Editor’s note: Meiselas’s photo of a Sandinista rebel throwing a homemade bomb was widely reproduced in both pro- and anti-Sandinista propaganda.] I can’t protect him or his image in a viral environment, but I hope he still feels I care about that issue and can work toward having him be a part of the dialogue.

PDN: Did you feel like you were an outlier asking, “who is this work for,” and finding ways to include subjects’ voices, especially in a setting like Nicaragua that was photojournalism heavy? Many viewers of photography still believed then that a photojournalist’s role was to objectively record events.
SM: I had to function in both environments, mixing personal and assignment work, to compete and survive financially. At that time we had the luxury of media organizations actually paying for the reproduction of images, even if they didn’t pay for the time you spent making the images, which is so much worse today than it was then. Reproduction fees gave you a certain freedom to just produce the work you wanted to make. I was lucky in the sense that Magnum was a powerful partner with their distribution network.

I always had this sense that it’s news, but also history. That was very clear to me in the beginning because I wasn’t trained as a news photographer, so I saw it as history unfolding. Something about the evolving process was the most powerful to me.

PDN: How is the process of watching history unfold related to the “cycle of return” that you embrace, the way you cover a story, then go back and give something back?
SM: I’ve worked with a lot of journalists who don’t go back and I’m fascinated that they don’t. I don’t know why they don’t.
I still get enormously deep pleasure when I can, and tend to be someone who likes to hold onto things; I make lifelong connections with friends and people from various places. It’s just how I’ve lived my life.

PDN: In On the Frontline, you wrote, “Value has always been placed on knowing, which I find has little to do with photography. But there is another kind of knowing, which is produced by sign-reading and knowing at another level.”
SM: Right, it’s like we know where we are comfortable standing in relation to a scene or a person. Ultimately, how do you look eye to eye, how does that person feel about my presence? You either feel comfortable or you feel they don’t want you there. That affects the kinds of images you make, so the photograph is also a reflection of the relationship.

PDN: Do you have any insights on how emerging photographers might find success today?
SM: The issue at heart about success is finding your own path and surviving, that’s the bottom line, realizing the interior landmarks of success. My work wasn’t collected by a major institution until the last few years. If that had been my goal to feel successful, I would have felt that I had failed. I was very fortunate early on to have some small shows of “Carnival Strippers” in experimental galleries. They gave me free rein to create whatever I imagined. That was huge, though I didn’t even realize how unusual it was. I could never have done that in a museum then. In a museum you are sometimes curated as an object in a sense, and not in full control.

Most people in their young 20s, whether they are doing a master’s program or not, think their work will end up on the wall, in the homes of collectors or a museum. A museum show is very different than saying, “here’s the space, do what you like.” You have to decide and negotiate what’s right for you and for the work you’ve made, and where it best belongs.

First I suppose it’s that you’ve made a “frame” that captures the complexity or feeling you’ve had in seeing that particular moment. Maybe that “moment” gives you a sense of how to develop an idea further and a project emerges.

Sometimes what is most important is that the person or place you’ve engaged with feels the value of the work you’ve made: seeing themselves in the images you’ve portrayed them in, perhaps given back or sometimes published, or brought back to the communities from which they’ve come.

PDN: How does the process of building a career now differ from when you were coming up?
SM: I don’t know that I knew or thought I was building a career. “Career” is a hard word for me. I’ve worked a long time in one field, broadly speaking, because I work with different aspects of the medium of photography. It’s an internal process linking outward to a world where you see and create opportunities, you don’t assume they are there. Doors open in different ways. Do you knock on the door? Do you pound on the door? Do you have to perceive a door is there, before you can open it?

PDN: Maybe all three at different times.
SM: Yes, and the doors can be in your own brain. Door is an interesting metaphor. A very important question is whether or not women feel they can open doors that are closed. It’s important to not be intimidated by closed doors when you can’t see what’s happening on the other side. I think I have buried a lot of unhappy memories about doors that were closed to me because I wanted to see through them. I was shocked in the late ’70s when I discovered the National Press Club was still completely gender separated; it never even occurred to me that it would be.

PDN: What’s your take on the current push to have more women recognized in the field of photojournalism?
SM: I don’t think it’s new. Women have been trying to create new opportunities for other women in a multitude of ways and have to continue doing so. The real strength of women is when they form collaborative environments.

PDN: Can you talk about your role in helping younger photographers expand the narrative of storytelling outside the frame?
SM: With the Magnum Foundation we’ve created workshops and labs where we try to offer the tools or experiences to explore boundaries, to see how much more dimensionality photographers can create with their work.

PDN: At Magnum Foundation there’s an interest in data collection and new forms of engagement. Image making can sometimes be secondary. I’m interested in that love/suspicion of photography, what it is and isn’t good at, where it’s limited.
SM: The Magnum Foundation has been exploring some of those ideas because they were of interest to me and certainly to Kristen Lubben and Emma Raynes, who now lead and will expand this vision. Developing those ideas strengthens the opportunities we are hoping to create for a diverse group of photographers. The labs open up visual language and resources to photographers who don’t have access to a master’s program, or the chance to collaborate with staff on a team at The New York Times, for example. Narrative can be explored in so many more levels if photographers are given the opportunity.

PDN: What do you think your legacy will be and what role do you think Magnum Foundation plays in that?
SM: Well, those things are certainly connected and separate. You never know what the value will be of what you leave behind. But I don’t think Magnum Foundation needs me anymore for it to survive, it has its own momentum, which is a great feeling. If people think it has ongoing value it will survive for that reason, which is really the reason why Magnum has survived for 70 years. Not every member is at the same place all the time, but someone has to keep carrying it forward with new initiatives and energy and commitment. I think the agency and Foundation are very similar in that sense. Living inside the Magnum community, I’ve learned how fragile and vulnerable we all are to major financial disruptions and shifts that can occur in our field.

It wasn’t my generation that fully understood or anticipated what the digital era would launch and what the potential risks or opportunities might be. The first offer came in the mid ’90s to sell Magnum’s entire archive to [Bill] Gates, which led to the formation of Corbis; the next one was from Getty. A lot of small agencies chose one or the other to digitize their collections and in the process dissolved. The consequences were that pricing structures collapsed, making independent agencies far less viable than in previous decades. We at Magnum were listening to the older generation around us. People had very strong feelings when Cartier-Bresson stood up at a members meeting and said, “Over my dead body.” It was pretty clear that he knew where he stood. Magnum declined
both offers, it was key to our survival for the next decades. We knew that fees from the secondary reproduction of images from our archive were
a fundamental way to fund projects and our independence.

Of course we didn’t fully imagine what digital technology would bring. We had no idea where it was leading. We knew that it was going to impact our economic framework because we were all freelance. Magnum was built on our intellectual property rights and photographers’ ownership of their images. But now we see that the next generations within the broader photographic community seem happy to become more visible by giving their work away, and I honestly don’t know where that’s going to lead. Some photographers have figured out how to trade on how many followers they have on Instagram to have an economic life and share their stream, becoming part of a bigger river through different media. I guess the question is what the long-term impact of that will be.

The Magnum Foundation hopes to continue its role in educating and promoting diverse and visually independent voices.

PDN: When thinking about all the different projects you’ve developed, what comes to mind?
SM: The work I’ve created is still working within me and shaping me as I go forward, and that’s fundamental and hopefully unpredictable.

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