In the summers from 1972 to 1975, as America was experiencing a deep change in attitudes about commercial displays of sex, photographer Susan Meiselas traveled to small towns across New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina to attend carnival shows where women gyrated on stages for horny men.
These out-of-the-way performances amid Ferris wheels and pony rides — encouraged by yelling barkers (“They know what you want to see!”) and signage that emphasized the attendees’ desires (“Girls, Girls, Girls!”) — were a complicated spectacle of public desire and exploitation. But for a few of the performers, they were full of female empowerment, something Meiselas captured in a 1976 book, Carnival Strippers, that she knew would deeply challenge readers and viewers. “Like the show,” Meiselas would write, “the book represents coexistent aspects of a phenomenon, one which horrifies, one which honors.”
Horrifies and honors. That has been a constant theme with Meiselas’ major projects since Carnival Strippers, whether it’s the bloody fighting she photographed during Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution in the late 1970s, the massacre of Salvadoran civilians in the early 1980s, Iraq’s atrocities against its Kurdish population in the late 1980s, or the domestic violence that Meiselas spotlighted in San Francisco in the early ’90s. Meiselas, who recently turned 70, is still undertaking major assignments, but she interrupted her schedule to attend last week’s opening of her SFMOMA retrospective, “Susan Meiselas: Mediations,” which is an extravaganza of photos, videos, journals, correspondence, and the personal connections that Meiselas always makes with each project.
Meiselas didn’t just sneak into the carnivals and photograph from the margins. She befriended the strippers. She spoke with the male patrons. She recorded their feelings and their carnival encounters. Many of the women stayed in touch, with one stripper writing in 1977 to say she was embarking on a new life: “Well, I started school . . . My subjects [are] Philosophy, Humanities, Sociology, English Literature . . . Philosophy is the only one I find confusing.”
In her subjects’ eyes, Meiselas was the photographer who cared about them, a former public-school teacher from New York who saw their humanity despite troubling conditions that might scare off other photographers. One of the exhibit’s highlights was Meiselas’ famous 1979 photo, Molotov Man, of an armed Sandinista soldier throwing a Molotov cocktail, which SFMOMA pairs with a filmed 1990 interview with the man, Pablo Jesús Aráuz, that Meiselas did in Nicaragua as a follow-up project.
She also returned to the country 10 years later, for a project in which she erected oversized images from her 1979 series on the very ground where she had taken them. In the days before her SFMOMA opening, Meiselas was in Nicaragua for even more follow-up work in a country where Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader who’s now the country’s president, committed some of the same autocratic military operations that he once protested. Once again, now as a septuagenarian, Meiselas is documenting civil resistance in Central America. SFMOMA’s exhibit includes a free Meiselas postcard that has photos of Nicaragua’s newest violence, including one that shows an armed protester who’s remarkably similar to Molotov Man.
“Nicaragua is in crisis again, and people are in the streets again — but this time it’s not a civil war, they’re unarmed, so it’s a civil resistance,” Meiselas told SF Weekly as she stood in the exhibit during a preview crowded with guests and well-wishers. “I was there two weeks ago, and I made this postcard on Monday because the situation is intensifying. It’s very hard to get eyes to focus, and none of us know what we can do to put the pressure on people even being aware of the situation in all of Central America. The conditions in these countries have been impacted by some of our activities over decades. In Nicaragua, the will of people will be to continue to resist. It makes a historical exhibition all the more timely.”
To call Meiselas “feisty” is an understatement. It takes nerve to impose yourself in a war environment, moxie to hang around and photograph the aftermath of mass murder, and composure (and a trained eye) to capture moments that are complex and visually striking. And her gift for sui generis images has been recognized. Meiselas may be the only photographer whose awards include a MacArthur fellowship (frequently called “the genius grant”), a Guggenheim fellowship, a Harvard Arts Medal, a Robert Capa Gold Medal (which the Overseas Press Club of America gives annually to the “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise”), and the Hasselblad Award, which is considered one of photography’s most prestigious.
Still, Meiselas has consistently questioned photography’s ability to change society. And that’s why she has frequently gone beyond just taking and publishing photos, as with her online Kurdish archive that amalgamates a trove of historic Kurdish photos, stories, and maps. Numbering in the tens of millions, the Kurds have lived for thousands of years across the Middle East but have suffered through oppressive rule in Iraq, Syria, and other countries. Meiselas’ archive acts as “a collective memory with a people who have no national archive.” SFMOMA’s exhibit pulls from the archive, putting old photographs and other materials under glass, which treats them as precious objects and magnifies their importance as historic records. Saddam Hussein wanted to decimate the Kurds, gassing them with chemical weapons. He sent troops to kill families and villages. Thousands died. Meiseles visited the northern Iraqi villages where Kurds were discovering bones and bodies, and has returned again and again.
For decades, American media outlets that care about international news — including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and TIME — have featured Meiselas’ photography on their covers and prominent inside pages. Readers will never forget the images, even if they didn’t know that Meiselas took them. At the SFMOMA previews, attendees swarmed around her, wanting to take their photos with her and laud her in person. As SF Weekly was interviewing Meiselas, a man from the crowd interrupted to convey personal greetings from a Nicaraguan contact who’d met Meiselas many years ago. SFMOMA is the only U.S. venue for “Susan Meiselas: Mediations,” and the interrupting man didn’t want to miss the opportunity to convey his friend’s personal greetings. Minutes later, another man interrupted SF Weekly’s conversation — this time to ask how often Meiselas goes back to Central American countries where she takes wartime images.
That’s how it is for Meiselas, whose photographs have been exhibited in museum and gallery settings for decades. Meiselas is both an art-world celebrity and a journalistic one. Like Sebastiao Salgado, Meiselas pivots easily between both mediums. And like Salgado, she encourages people to do more than “look.” A single person can change a small corner of the world, she says — as in Taymour Abdullah Ahmad, a Kurdish boy who survived one of Hussein’s worst massacres and whose image Meiselas captured in 1991 and published in her 1997 book, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. Meiselas also filmed Ahmad’s testimony against Hussein in the dictator’s 2005-06 criminal trial. Both media are at SFMOMA, where curators have bookended Meiselas’ work in the Middle East and Latin America with two projects that focus on girls and women: Meiselas’ series on the lives of friends who lived in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood (“Prince Street Girls: 1975-92”), and Meiselas’ 2013-14 series of women workers in the spice market of Marrakech in Morocco (“20 dirhams or 1 photo?”).
In Marrakech, Meiselas set up a studio in the market and asked the women if she could photograph them. If they said “yes,” they could keep the image for themselves or let Meiselas keep it and be paid 20 dirhams (or about $2 American). At SFMOMA, the displayed project is a cascade of photos interrupted by frames that have 20 dirham notes and 50 dirham notes. (Meiselas increased the payout to 50 dirhams when “20 dirhams or 1 photo?” was exhibited anew.) The bills feature a young image of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, so the wall is a surreal assemblage of pious Marrakech women, most of whom have their hair covered, staring at the camera alongside bills that feature a man who inherited his position to rule over the country.
Male privilege and hierarchical status were also prevalent in Carnival Strippers. Around the world, women are still dealing with issues of inequality. That hasn’t changed in the 40 years that Meiselas has been documenting the world. And it’s one of the subjects that continues to motivate her work. “I wake up in the morning, I pick up one foot and I put it down — and then I figure out if I’m going backwards or forwards,” Meiselas joked with SF Weekly about how she stays active. And with that comment, she went backward into a scrum of people who wanted to talk with her for hours. It was the kind of crowded scene — with conversations happening in every direction — that Meiselas has experienced throughout her career, only this time she wasn’t there with a camera to document everything. This time, that was up to other people.
“Susan Meiselas: Mediations,” through Oct. 21 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. $19-$25; 415-347-4000 or sfmoma.org.