Susan Meiselas speaks exclusively to the United Nations of Photography founder and editor Grant Scott.
Susan Meiselas was born in 1948 and is an American documentary photographer, who has been associated with Magnum Photos since 1976 and a full member since 1980. Her works have been published in The New York Times, The Times, Time, GEO and Paris Match amongst many others. She received the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1979 and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1992. After earning her degree from Harvard, she worked as an assistant film editor on the Frederick Wiseman documentary, Basic Training. From 1972 to 1974 she worked for New York public schools, running workshops for teachers and children in the and for the State Arts Commissions of South Carolina and Mississippi setting up photography programs in rural schools. She also worked as a consultant for Polaroid and the Center for Understanding Media in New York City.
Her first major photography project documented strippers at New England fairs and carnivals, which she worked on during summers whilst teaching in New York. The project resulted in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum and a book, Carnival Strippers, which incorporated audio interviews with the subjects on a CD packaged with the book. In the late 1970s Meiselas documented the insurrection in Nicaragua and human rights issues in Latin America. In 1981, she visited a village destroyed by the armed forces in El Salvador and took pictures of the El Mozote massacre, working with journalists Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto. Her 1991 documentary Pictures from a Revolution depicts her return to the sites she had photographed during the popular insurrection in Nicaragua to pursue conversations with the subjects of her photographs reflecting on the images taken 10 years after the war. In 2004, Meiselas returned again to Nicaragua and installed 19 mural sized images of her photographs on the original locations where they were taken.
Meiselas has published several books of her own photographs and has edited and contributed to many others. She edited and contributed to El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers (Writers & Readers, 1983). She edited Chile from Within (W.W. Norton, 1991). Beginning in 1992, she became a MacArthur Fellow and used their funding support to curate a photographic history of Kurdistan, resulting in Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (Random House, 1997; reprinted by the University of Chicago Press, 2008), as well as a website, akaKurdistan, and a traveling exhibition that launched at the Menil Collection. Pandora’s Box (Trebruk/Magnum Editions, 2001) is a monograph of her work on a sadomasochistic sex club in New York. She has co-directed three films: Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1986), Pictures from a Revolution (1991) and Reframing History (2004). Meiselas is presently the President of the Magnum Foundation based in New York.
Grant: In a changing landscape of photography and visual storytelling, how do you find yourself engaging with that landscape?
Susan: I feel like I’ve been working cross platform for a long time, so even though my core is photography, I’m always trying to find different forms and ways to express narrative. The logical place for photographers work to sit is in publications but they are less available to us now, whereas the online environment is totally open to us, but that doesn’t necessarily create form it just creates a breadth of distribution. I think that the challenge for photographers is always to bring a full understanding to their work and create a form for it. Personally, I find exploring film and integrating photography is so much easier thanks to digital technology. There is huge opportunity to experiment even with very small stories. It’s just dependent on finding enough time and the right material to work through, to find something expressive and particular to the new mediums. I haven’t yet created a web based documentary, though they interest me, particularly in their non-linear character, but whether or not I will find the right material to bring to that form, I don’t know.
Grant: Do you feel that that the easy availability of international online distribution of material is putting a renewed emphasis and importance on the power of the story? As photographers attempt to push their stories out?
Susan: I think that’s a good point and it’s interesting that you use the phrase “push their stories out”. It may look like pushing out rather than pulling towards if you do not have something to say for everyone to reflect upon. With more and more people having more and more cameras and obviously the smart phone being the most prevalent, what does a professional, emerging, amateur or incidental observer have to say? What do they contribute? There are so many aspects to the creation of a narrative, professionals may only be one voice in the telling of that narrative.
Grant: With the democratization of image making, is it becoming harder and harder to find the unique story, which maybe stress’s further the importance of the personal in storytelling?
Susan: It’s interesting that you use the word ‘unique’. Obviously some of us have been in situations, where there are many other photographers in exactly the same setting and yet we see moments and we see frames completely differently. So is it the “story”? Or is it the seeing of what is a story?
Grant: It’s a combination of an aesthetic, how you see the world, and a story that is powerful and needs to be told.
Susan: You know Grant, you’re right, it is a combination of an aesthetic and an ability to articulate that story, it‘s not just an aesthetic. What is interesting is that there is subjectivity but it is not always expressed in a subjective voice. We all have our own filters and life experiences that we bring to any moment. A significant story to me because I have lived in a particular place and have drawn from my own personal history may not relate to someone else even if they have lived a similar life to me. We have always had the situation of the insider and the outsider, where we ask who tells the truth? And what is the truth? It’s important to acknowledge different perspectives but I wouldn’t privilege one over another.
Grant: Taking that analogy of the insider and the outsider, we both come from a time when the visual storyteller came from a professional perspective, the insider, whereas today thanks to digital technology it is so much easier for the outsider to become an insider and tell their own powerful visual stories, which leads to a proliferation of content. (NOTE: Grant, I would have thought you would say the “professional” is the “outsider” and now digital tech makes it easier for “insiders” to tell their own stories without us. I don’t want to change this, but that was my understanding of the question)
Susan: There has just been an announcement that over 40 billion images have been uploaded onto the net so far. So sure, the magnitude and the scale of production of images is so much greater than when Kodak began when they invited the public to make images. Kodak wasn’t talking directly to professionals, they were inviting everybody to tell their every day stories with snapshots.
We are now fully in that age and there is a lot of noise at one level but as a professional photographer it is not that every person with a camera is a competitor. I think that the photographers that have come before us historically have been very generous in creating an environment in which others were encouraged to engage with the process of making images. If they had viewed new photographers as competition they wouldn’t have been doing workshops to encourage and develop the circle of seers.
The other challenge is for viewers of photography, who are not makers of images, or viewers who have now become makers. Are they only interested in telling their own stories, which we see a lot of or are they interested in telling other peoples stories? There is a whole territory of discussion around journalism and art but professional photographers have to decide if subjectivity is expressed within the image itself or whether or not the old mirrors and windows divide, which was a useful distinction at one time and still remains. Where are we in that spectrum—looking inward or outward? I think that’s a question we all have to ask ourselves.
Grant: I think that’s a question a lot of photographers are finding difficult to answer at the moment.
Susan: I don’t doubt that but there is a reason for that, which we haven’t yet addressed, which is the critical distinction of someone who uses an iPhone or Instagram or whatever to create images to upload to Facebook, which brings people into the reality of their lives, which for many communities is how reality is experienced now. The media was the gatekeeper, who encouraged us to see the world through one pair of eyes, now they can no longer control what we experience in the way in which they did. However, the economic reality is the dominant issue, not the prevalence of photography but the diminishing support that the media gave as partners in production of images and narratives. That is the principal issue for us all, can professionals continue producing in depth quality work without that support?
We’ve seen new models of generating income such as crowd funding, where people become small patrons of photographic production, which tries to speak to this need, but may not be sufficient, we just don’t know yet.
Grant: It’s interesting that you mention crowd funding because from a UK economic perspective I perceive a tiredness with requests to fund projects after an initial excitement around the concept. Despite that, do you feel that we are in a golden period of visual story communication or are we witnessing the death of professional photography as we knew it?
Susan: Well, that’s probably a dramatic representation of something, which lives in the shifting sands, you know. I don’t see why we have to kill the professional, but what that might mean to me or you or anyone else is probably different. I never felt like I was doing what I did because someone paid me to do it, even though I of course also need funds to do what I do. What’s the motivation? Is it a career and a profession? Or is it coming from a place of necessity, it’s how you see the world. What your means of expression is, whether or not I’m called an amateur, a pro, an artist, a documentary photographer, an ethnographer, all these definitions. The question is where does inspiration come from? How can you contribute in a way that is coherent?
Grant: Are you positive at the moment about the ability to tell and share visual narrative?
Susan: I would say I’m mixed. I feel positive about the opportunities to experiment, which are only limited by time, vision and concentration. Of course I’m very concerned about the economic issues, less about myself at this time but more about future generations that have been inspired and need to come up with new models to finance their work. I didn’t need to come up with a new model when I was in my twenties, I worked in a way that worked for me and there were opportunities that un-folded as there may be for future generations. But they will need to be entrepreneurial and creative and innovative in the way they create communities, who will care about the work they do. They will have to have conviction in what they want to say.
Stories today can be incredibly impactful at a scale which we have never experienced before. Obviously we captured moments in the past which were distributed internationally and alerted us to significant events, but today those moments are broadcast simultaneously to a global community, maybe this began with 9/11, even though we were not tweeting back then. Digital technology and the new landscape has increased the opportunities for the multiple impact of a set of images. It creates opportunities but it can also be overwhelming.
Grant: and challenging…
Susan: Yes, challenging. It’s safe to say that it’s all challenging. It can feel overwhelming but it can also be something, which you can carve your own path through.
© Grant Scott 2013