Susan Meiselas Retrospective Opens at SFMOMA

by Sura Wood

Social justice photographer Susan Meiselas has spent her 40-year career bearing witness; SFMOMA spotlights her life’s work in a major retrospective.

“Susan Meiselas uses photography to better understand the world and as a way to connect with people and tell their truths as she sees them,” says SFMOMA curator of photography Corey Keller of the self-taught photographer. “She’s rather unique in that she combines the qualities of a great photojournalist and a keen observer with a contemporary multimedia practice, moving fluidly between reportage and installation.”

“Susan Meiselas: Mediations,” which opens at SFMOMA on July 21, is a major retrospective divided into five sections that reflects the multifaceted nature of her oeuvre; it covers diverse bodies of her work, dating from the 1970s onward. The exhibition includes not only her photographs but sound recordings, videos, films and collages. It also provides insight into her methodology, integrating her contact sheets, found images, press clippings, outtakes suggesting a path not taken or a story not told and field notes from assorted projects.

 Meiselas’s breakthrough photographic essay, “Carnival Strippers,” (1972-75), entailed following women who performed in “girl shows” at traveling carnivals in New England. Working with a lightweight Leica camera and without a zoom lens, she captured their world up-close and from the inside out. The relationships she cultivated with the women allowed her to take unguarded photographs of them in the dark, cramped quarters of their dressing rooms and tents. In their grittiness, intimacy and frankness, Meiselas’s black and white images echo the work of Diane Arbus. Though feminists regarded the girl shows as exploitative—Ms. Magazine rejected the story—Meiselas wanted to understand what motivated the women who worked the circuit. “I was more interested in how they were seen within their world, and hearing what they said about each other,” she once said, “rather than what other people said about them.” On the basis of this project, Meiselas was invited, in 1976, to join the storied Magnum Photos, an agency that counted Henri Cartier-Bresson among its members.

Meiselas is best known for her work in Nicaragua, which comprises two installations in the largest, most complex section of the show. “Mediations” (1978-82) features photos, excerpts from her 1981 book, magazine tear sheets, 35mm transparencies and more. The picture that came to be known as “Molotov Man” (1979) depicting a Sandinista rebel with a rifle in his left hand and a lit Molotov cocktail in his right, went viral. She explores the phenomenon in “The Life of an Image” (1979-2018), a companion installation that traces the history of her Nicaraguan photographs, while examining the contexts in which they were published and/or reappropriated,

Despite the danger, Meiselas also traveled to El Salvador during that nation’s civil war, during which over 80,000 civilians “disappeared” or were murdered by death squads. She was wounded, in 1981, when the car in which she was riding hit a land mine: the driver, a fellow Magnum photographer, was killed. She risked her life three years later crossing from Honduras, fording the Torola River to reach the site of the El Mozote massacre, where she photographed some of the 1,000 victims killed by the army. Her mostly black and white images from this period convey the tension between the military and civilians, particularly evident in a 1980 photo of soldiers searching frightened bus passengers, some with their hands clasped behind their heads. Though the image shows only a line of shadows, the fear is palpable.

 Meiselas’s later work focused on how women cope with power and violence on the homefront. In “Women’s Work” (1992), a public art project done in San Francisco, she combined forensic photos of spaces where abuse occurred with hand-written police reports. Her photo-collages, reproduced in a poster and originally displayed at a bus shelter on Market Street, included a photograph of injuries sustained by Irma Chingcuanco, who Meiselas subsequently interviewed. A recording of Chingcuanco’s account of her experiences supplements the exhibit here.

In 2013, Meiselas, along with several Magnum colleagues, was dispatched to Marrakech, where she encountered an unexpected obstacle. She discovered to her dismay that people in the city did not want their pictures taken. After learning that the reason for their reluctance was not modesty, or religion-based, but a desire to be paid, she made an intriguing proposal to women working at a local spice market, where she had set up a makeshift studio. They could sit for the portrait, agree to have it displayed in an exhibition and receive 20 dirhams, or keep the picture. Color images of the some of the 60 sitters who opted for compensation appear in “20 Dirhams or 1 photo?” (2013-14), which shows women of different ages in a variety of dress, with faces that range from fully exposed to almost entirely covered. The series raises issues that are career-long preoccupations for the artist: the right to be seen, who has control over one’s image and the power differential between photographer and subject.

At 70, Meiselas remains politically involved and ready to pick up her camera and travel to distant locales. “She believes artists, especially photographers, have a special responsibility,” says Keller. “And that art can change the world.”

July 21-Oct. 21;