Extending the Frame: An Interview with Susan Meiselas

Article excerpt

Susan Meiselas has represented difficult issues with innovative approaches throughout her thirty-year career as a documentary media artist. Her awards include the Robert Capa Gold Medal (1979), the MacArthur Fellowship (1992), and the Hasselblad Prize (1994). A self-described "human rights" photographer and filmmaker, Meiselas works with the images, voices, and histories of everyday people in global situations of conflict. Whenever possible she has stayed in the affected communities after her photojournalist colleagues are pulled away to another story. This long-term approach allows her work to reflect the complexity of issues in a way rarely permitted by the news media.

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Meiselas does not limit her work to the effects of conflict on people but extends her visual investigations into her own role as an imagemaker. Her first book, Carnival Strippers (1976), resulted from a three-year immersion in the culture of striptease acts at New England country fairs. The representation of the images and voices of both the women performers and their voyeuristic customers could be seen as a parallel to the roles of photographer and consumer. One of Meiselas's more recent projects is a sixty-year visual history of the effects of the cultural encroachment and exchange between western outsiders and the Dani, a people indigenous to the highlands of Papua, New Guinea. The resulting publication, Encounters with the Dani (2003), repeats images of the phenomenon of the camera-toting stranger, an admission of the broader issues of the effects of western media on global cultures.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Meiselas completed a master's degree in visual education at Harvard University. She taught in schools in the South Bronx and rural southern United States from 1972-74 and developed an approach including photography as an integral part of the curriculum.

Soon after the 1976 publication of Carnival Strippers, Meiselas joined the Magnum Photos cooperative. In 1977 she went to Nicaragua during the early rumblings of opposition to Anastasio Somoza's dictatorship, which soon thereafter erupted in revolution. Nicaragua (1981) contains unforgettable, iconic photographs of the conflict, many of which were also published in the New York Times, Life, and Paris Match. Meiselas returned to Nicaragua in 2004 to install nineteen mural-size prints in the sites where the images were originally made. The ReFraming History project is dedicated to the preservation of the visual history and collective memory of the revolution through creating dialogue between Nicaraguan youth and the older generations who lived through the events.

As part of an effort to raise consciousness at home about the United States' complicity in the civil war in El Salvador, Meiselas co-edited the book El Salvador: Work of 30 Photographers (1983) and developed an exhibition of the same name including some of her own images. (The work was exhibited again in November of 2005 at the International Center for Photography [ICP]). Meiselas also edited Chile From Within (1991), a collection of photography by Chilean nationals from the time of the coup through the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Another project, Pandora's Box (2001), explores a New York City sadomasochist club and was exhibited in Amsterdam and published in book form. Documentary films she has co-directed include Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1986) and Pictures from a Revolution (1991), both with Richard Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti.

Meiselas's photographic work in the aftermath of the destruction of Kurdish villages by Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign led to a six-year exploration of the visual history of Kurdistan called Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997). The Web site akaKURDISTAN.com: A Place for Collective Memory and Cultural Exchange is continually evolving through contributions from site visitors including Kurds around the world. …