“For me, a camera is a means of going out and discovering the world. That’s the basis. It isn’t that I was interested in documentary photography as a genre; I was more drawn to the fundamental question about what’s happening in the world, and I thought of photography as a means through which I could explore and better understand it.”
Susan Meiselas has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1976. The recipient of numerous awards, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal (1979), the Leica Award for Excellence (1982) and the Cornell Capa Infinity Award (2005), she was also named a MacArthur Fellow in 1992.
Meiselas first rose to prominence with the publication of Carnival Strippers (1976), a photographic essay that focused on women in New England who made their livelihoods through striptease. Meiselas gained international recognition for her documentation of the insurrection in Nicaragua, and her coverage of the political unrest in Central and Latin America has been published widely throughout the world.
LensCulture was honored that Meiselas agreed to be a member of the jury for the Magnum Photography Awards 2017. We spoke with her about the distinctive “outsider” status that many photojournalists struggle with, the way our relationships to photographs change over time, and much more—
LC: I’m curious to hear about how you came to terms with your place as a photographer in a documentary situation. How do you grapple with the feeling of being an outsider?
SM: I think it’s crucial to acknowledge one’s outsiderness, and perhaps the limited capacity to ever become an “insider” unless you’re reporting on your own subjective experience. You’re faced with that “other than” status all the time; how you resolve it in each situation doesn’t always feel the same. In the classical sense, ethnographers speak about deviants: the people who reach out and—for reasons that one doesn’t necessarily understand at the time—become the people who start to introduce you to their community.
Sometimes there’s a moment when there’s an opening, and a lot of the time that opening is through someone who generally feels more comfortable around you than other people do. There’s a moment in the conversation where you say something, you stand in a particular way, you look in a particular way, and your sincerity is felt rather than assumed.
But overall, I don’t just assume that I have the right to make images.
LC: After you’ve spent a long time photographing in an area, do you feel that your status as an outsider changes? What happens if you never get comfortable, or if people never reach out to you?
SM: The counterpoint to the feeling of being an outsider is living with those images over a very long time and building relationships that relate to the community through those images. It isn’t what you feel initially, and it’s important to move through the awkwardness—or if you can’t, to move on. Sometimes I don’t find the place in relation to a community that feels right, and a project doesn’t evolve. You either move on or wait until you feel it.
In other words, it isn’t pushing through the feelings to get something that you want—it’s waiting until it feels right, until you feel welcome. Obviously when you’re looking at an institution that you want to work with, sometimes you have to go through layers of bureaucracy: the military, the police. Ultimately, the core of it is the same, though—someone has to feel that there’s a value to your presence, something that you are able to contribute.
LC: Do you find that exposure is often what people feel is your value?
SM: Sometimes. Sometimes it’s exposure, and that can be positive, but it can also negatively affect how someone perceives your work. Sometimes they understand it to be a more personal pursuit—with nothing necessarily guaranteed. I don’t think you can go into situations and guarantee very much, really. Of course, that’s a changing condition…we have new and different opportunities for the circulation of images, but protecting those images is much more difficult today.
LC: I also noticed that you are very cognizant of the importance of giving back to the community—you gave postcards of prints to your subjects from “Porches,” you brought back murals to Portugal…
SM: Yes, the idea of going back isn’t an abstract or theoretical position or concept. I think it’s a necessary part of working in the way I do, which can otherwise feel unnatural or not very organic. The hope is to give something tangible back to someone or a community.
In the very first work you mentioned, “Porches,” because I was shooting on film, the one thing I could do was go back to New York and send 8x10 prints as postcards back to people. Other times I’ve used Polaroid, and that was a great medium for a long time, mainly because you could gift it—gifting something back in exchange for what’s been offered is something special that we can do as photographers.
LC: The idea of exchanging some type of “payment” for a picture is a notion a lot of photographers go back and forth about, at least in my experience.
SM: Yes—subjects often don’t know that you’re taking a picture, or if they do, what will happen to that picture afterwards. Your best intention is to convey what you do know might happen, if the intention is to publish. But many times you don’t have much control over what will happen with the image or who will consume it in the future.
Our relationships to images change and progress over time—they aren’t a fixed or final set of relations.
LC: They evolve, reverberate, emanate out from the center…
SM: Yes, they ripple and return, and that return is another kind of relationship, one we can’t fully anticipate when we make images.
LC: I read that you didn’t go into the situations in Latin America or the Middle East thinking, “This is what I’m going to find, and this is what the project will look like.” Can you talk about the alternative?
SM: I often get defined as a war photographer, which is a misconception, in my opinion. It’s important to say that I didn’t go to Nicaragua when it was at war. That is simply a fact that many people just can’t grasp—they see my images as photographs made in a war, but what they aren’t processing is that I was there for six weeks, not even knowing that it would become a war. I immersed and stayed long enough to capture the evolution of a social conflict that became a popular insurrection.
LC: I was just looking at some images of Syria, and I do see parallels between that imagery and the scenes you captured in Nicaragua. Same for Michael Christopher Brown’s photographs of Libya.
SM: I agree. I think that it would be very interesting to look at a set of photographs from Syria, from Nicaragua, from El Salvador, etcetera, and examine the parallels. This is not a new idea—you can go on the internet and see images on Google of a sunset in New Zealand and another in New York. You can make a set of photographs that flatten out and look the same. They are different, of course, but they are more the same than they are different. What do we take from that? Well, the question is: what does it make you think about?
I haven’t worked in Syria, but I do free associate from the work that I’ve made and the conditions I know. I can make connections between the circumstances that led to the destruction of homes and businesses in Nicaragua, for example, in relation to what’s happening in Syria. It is fundamentally similar, you know—someone in power destroying his own country. In some ways, there are deep, deep parallels.
LC: It’s interesting to think about how to present those parallels.
SM: Yes, and unfortunately, there’s a problem of emphasis. I don’t think we should focus so much on format: “Oh, should it be a 4x5, a polaroid, or an iPhone picture?” Instead, what do we know about history that is causing this to happen again and again, and what are the differences we can observe? And finally, what does that tell us about the time we live in? These are important questions, and it’s critical that someone is documenting and giving us all the opportunity to ask them.
LC: You put a lot of weight on capturing the “full picture” of a people or a country. Speaking about your experience in Nicaragua, you said, “I spent six weeks there, because I felt that I wasn’t doing anything that gave a feeling for what in fact was going on there.” I’m curious what you learned about capturing that full representation over the years.
SM: I think that the “fullness” of something is a very intuitive feeling. What you can see in my early work, right from the beginning, is I most often complemented sets of photographs or bodies of work with other perspectives than the photographs themselves. I included the voices of managers and clients as well as the women—the strippers—in my book Carnival Strippers.
Sometimes I ask the subjects themselves to write or speak about what they think about a photograph; sometimes other types of primary material complement the photograph best. A photograph can have more complex frames than the frame of the image itself.
For me, some of the best images live somewhere between a still photograph and what a book can become, with a series of images and lots of different layers and sometimes even other media.
LC: As the photographer of any given moment, you know that there are so many things that are missing from the moment you captured—the sounds, the smells, the different people who lend their personalities and presences to an environment. Not all photographers are concerned with creating that environment or giving it dimensionality.
SM: Sometimes the frame feels inadequate, and sometimes it feels like you have everything in the frame that you wanted to capture. The frame is a discipline, I think.
There’s so much dimensionality to photography today, and what people are motivated to use photography for—ultimately it goes back to that first idea: “What or who is it for?” Photography can be combinations of things, not simple constructs. When you ask, “What’s documentary?”, in my mind it’s a reflection of what you’re seeing and how you’re seeing it. How well can you frame the complexity of what you’re seeing or the directness of what you want people to think about? How open can that reflection be?
I think that very often, newcomers to the field of photography are just interested in people seeing what they see. They’re not necessarily interested in bridging the gap between the person or place that they’re representing and their audience. As photographers, I do think that we can make—or be—bridges. Not only can we show people environments that are outside of their normal sphere, but we can give them something that isn’t just descriptive or illustrative—we can create a sensation. Sometimes photographs, and the experiences they convey, stand alone in a very remarkable and even magical way.
LC: I wonder whether the younger people who are just starting out have a different perspective—simply because they grew up in an era of digital immersion. Do you think that photographers who grew up with digital technology in their back pockets have any type of responsibility to really master the basics of film?
SM: That’s an interesting question. I don’t tend to focus much on the technology, be it digital or even the latest app or whatever. For me, it’s much more about the connection and what I’m trying to communicate. I do change formats sometimes, but solely as a way of invigorating my own eye.
That said, maybe it did help that I didn’t see so much photography in the beginning. There was a certain amount of work available, of course, in publications—books and magazines, or in museums. But nothing like the volume today. Lately, I’ve visited faraway places and been stunned by how much people have seen via the internet. A lot of the time, they don’t even remember who made a photograph or a body of work—but still, they’ve seen an image, and it registers as part of their vocabulary.
I think that trying to find your own “vocabulary”—I use that word intentionally; not your own language, but your own vocabulary—can come from listening and looking at others. Ultimately, though, if it’s going to sustain you, it needs to be your own.
LC: How does style play into that?
SM: I don’t think style sustains you very long, though some people are more interested in distinguishing some kind of look or special medium, something that only they have figured out how to do. That may launch their careers—it may get them noticed—but I don’t think that can necessarily sustain you for decades. It has to be deeper than that.
LC: We look at an immense amount of photography when we’re sourcing work for the magazine. I’ve seen a lot of projects that imitate “Sleeping by the Mississippi” in tone and content, but oftentimes without the heart. It’s a very fine line between emulating someone who you admire and building your own vocabulary.
SM: Yes, it’s a big question—how do you distinguish your own words and your own language, using what you’ve learned from others, but as references rather than direct influences to imitate. Sometimes you can even see a genealogy: you can tell who certain people worked with, were influenced by, etc.
But it’s a thin line between knowing your own art and pure emulation. It goes back to how serious you are, I think. It’s how thoughtful and aware you are as you look and critique yourself. It’s about how well you know yourself and your work—how much you work on that “vocabulary.”
Studying can help that but it also isn’t necessary. Consciously engaging in making work is more important in my opinion.
LC: What should photographers think about when they’re figuring out their “vocabulary?”
SM: What kind of work do you want to make? What kind of engagement is important to you as a photographer? It’s more than just thinking about whether you want to make portraits or shoot documentary-style projects. You have to figure out for yourself where your pleasure lives.
—Susan Meiselas, interviewed by Coralie Kraft