The humanity we share, from strippers to rebels
The quiet genius of photographer Susan Meiselas
For one of the greatest women photographers of the last 40 years, Susan Meiselas had huge misgivings when she first picked up a camera.
“I felt I was trespassing in people’s space,” said the American artist, whose picture of a Sandinista rebel throwing a Pepsi bottle petrol bomb came to symbolise the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979.“I thought: ‘Who am I to look at you and fix you? How does that feel for you?’” she said.
So she began the sometimes uncomfortable task of asking her subjects what they thought of her photos — and noting down what they said.
These are the “kind of fundamental questions we don’t ask anymore when everyone is taking pictures with their iPhones,” she said, as a major retrospective of her work opened in Paris.
Before her iconic images of Nicaragua, which pricked America’s conscience over the kind of dictatorial regimes it was supporting in Central America, Meiselas had made her name chronicling a troupe of fairground strippers who toured rural towns on the US East Coast.
Although there is nothing exploitative about her doggedly down-to-earth Carnival Strippers, 40 years on the images still retain their power to shock — with the Jeu de Paume gallery banning under-18s from the room in which they are shown.
The irony is not lost on Meiselas, now 69.
“Why can’t we look at photographs when he can look at (nude) paintings? Imagine if the Musee d’Orsay (in Paris, which houses the world’s biggest collection of Impressionist masterpieces) had a big sign saying you have to be 18 to see Manet’s Olympia,” she said, referring to the reclining nude to which one of her shots neatly alludes.
“You’re always in pursuit of something you feel to be truth,” she said.“With Carnival Strippers their bodies are their truth. They are not the ones we celebrate in advertising and fashion, but they are their full selves, angled, tired and scarred.”
Everything was on display except the man running the show, she said.
“The only thing done in private was him in the back counting the money.
“It was before lapdancing clubs and the explosion of the sex industry and our struggles with pornography,” yet it raises the same questions in a raw and honest way, Meiselas believes.Her show is full of such unshowy, quietly stunning images that halt you in your tracks, none more so than collages dealing with domestic violence in San Francisco and Britain’s Black Country, some taken from the notes men left their wives threatening to rearrange their faces or bring them “to heaven with them”.
But the core of it is her “engagement” with Nicaragua and the Kurds, who she first photographed when more than a million fled for their lives from Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks in Iraq in 1991.
With the Turkish army’s push into Afrin in the Kurdish-held north of Syria largely hidden from the eyes of the world, Meiselas said it has never been more important to be a witness.“It is hard to remember a time when we didn’t have images, but we didn’t have them of Nicaragua. Now I wonder if anybody goes anywhere because you think (with social media) that we know everything about so many places.” But in Afrin we are turning our eyes away from a “tragedy”, she warned.
“The US is not honouring its commitments to the people who fought the jihadists,” she said, referring to Washington’s use of the Syrian Kurds to lead the fight against the Islamic State.
“It a tragedy. There is a lack of global leadership,” said the woman who has spent a quarter of a century documenting the woes visited on the Kurds and helping to compile an unofficial online national archive — akaKurdistan — for a nation without a country.What is striking about Meiselas is the coolness of her gaze in face of the terrible. A photo of a dismembered body she stumbled upon at a beauty spot near the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, in 1978 is set in a spectacular pastoral landscape of lakes and mountains.
The henchmen of the US-backed strongman Anastasio Somoza would often dump the bodies of their victims there.
“When I am looking at a massacre ... or a body, I have to maintain some kind of cool so I can navigate my own emotions,” said Meiselas.
Yet there is a kind of joyous abandon in her most famous picture, Molotov Man — Pablo Jesus Arauz hurling a flaming Pepsi bottle at Somoza’s soldiers the day before he fled the country.
The image made its subject a hero, and was quickly adopted not only by the victorious Sandinistas to adorn everything from matchboxes to T-shirts but in American propaganda to attack the “Commie” revolutionaries.
You never know how an image “becomes iconic”, Meiselas said. “Its afterlife never ceases to amaze me.”