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Susan Meiselas: In History

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2010
Juliette Bianco, Assistant Director

“There’s a very subtle difference between going to a place because one is ‘concerned’ and becoming ‘concerned’ through the process of engagement.”*

Over one hundred documentary photographs, films, and archival collections by Susan Meiselas are presented in the major exhibition Susan Meiselas: In History (April 10–June 20), on loan to the Hood Museum of Art from the International Center of Photography, New York. Meiselas has explored photography’s potential as a tool of connection and engagement over the course of three decades. An open-ended process of inquiry about poitical and social conditions has led her to discovery, then to documentation, and only then to the public presentation of the record of this process—that is, her photographs. In so doing, she has both drawn attention to embattled people’s experiences around the world and given back to those people she has photographed, creating ongoing relationships that define her as one of the most socially committed photographers of our time.

The Hood Museum of Art chose to present this exhibition at Dartmouth College because of the resonance that Susan Meiselas’s story—her commitment to human rights and activism, her engagement with the ethics of documentary photography, and her response to selfreflection—has with the values of the college and its students. Her work exemplifies the expectations for Dartmouth students that Jim Yong Kim articulated upon becoming president of the college: that they lead with “vision, passion, humility, and determination.” Meiselas has tackled the world’s problems through her embrace of those living with them: women working as strippers for traveling carnivals (1972–76); a population striving for change though revolution in Nicaragua (1978–2004); and the Kurds in Iraq, people who have been without a homeland (or their human rights) since World War I (1991–today).

Meiselas has never been a casual observer or neutral bystander. Her carnival strippers project began with a chance visit that developed into trusting relationships, and then to photographs.Today, nearly forty years later, she still corresponds with several of the women. Likewise, after two years photographing the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, she stayed in contact with those people when she set out on a new assignment. Her work documenting the mass killings by Saddam Hussein resulted in a project with the Kurdish people that remains ongoing.

As a result, her photographs have been embraced by those she photographed in astonishing ways: Sandinistas at the wall of the National Guard headquarters (see cover) became an icon of pride and resistance for Nicaraguans, and in 2008, Kurds in Iraq ordered five thousand copies of the reprint of her 1997 book, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. The exhibition presents three distinct bodies of work from the past thirty-eight years.

Carnival Strippers (1972–76)

“At the time I was taking those pictures, ‘women’s lib’ was at the forefront of contemporary consciousness. And what was women’s lib? Women being able to do what they wanted to do . . . It was surprising, [the carnival strippers’] willingness to acknowledge that they were being exploited, but had some other purpose in mind. There wasn’t room for that kind of subtlety in the feminist discussion at that time. That is what I wanted to give texture to.”

Susan Meiselas spent three summers following and photographing the women who worked the “girl shows” for traveling carnivals in New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. She was drawn initially to these women’s stories, their socio-economic circumstances, their relationships with the men in their lives (family members, carnival managers, and audience members), their attitude toward the work that they did, and their plans for the future.Together with recorded interviews with the strippers, their managers, and audience members, the photographs she took, published in 1976 in her book titled Carnival Strippers, present an intimate documentary of these women’s experiences both on and behind the stage. As a result of this work, Susan Meiselas was voted in by Magnum Photos, the internationally recognized cooperative agency to which she still belongs today.

Nicaragua (1978–2004)

“So I got on a plane and went. I didn’t know how or what I would photograph—even where I would stay—and I didn’t speak Spanish.”

Meiselas explained her departure for Nicaragua in the summer of 1978 as follows:“I was interested in a people challenging the authority that had held them in place for many years . . . I could relate to the demonstrations and the protests and the students rising up against a dictatorship.” She then documented the aspirations, the struggle, the fleeting victory, and the human cost of revolution in what would be considered her signature project, published in her book Nicaragua (1981). In 1991, she and two colleagues returned to Nicaragua to locate the people she had photographed and to find out what had happened to them in the intervening years. Her concern led to the poignant documentary film Pictures from a Revolution about her trip back. Reframing History—a public exhibition she created through the installation of nineteen mural-sized images of her photographs in the places where they had been taken—followed in 2004.Through this continuing work, her images have gone beyond their relationship to a particular moment in history to become part of a narrative that continues to unfold today.

Kurdistan (1991–present)

“In going to Kurdistan, I was confronting something I’d heard about, read about, and knew that the human rights community had known about, but had never seen evidence of.”

While working on a project about domestic violence in the United States, Meiselas made her first trip to Kurdistan. She documented the destroyed villages left behind by Kurds who had fled northern Iraq after the first Gulf War and then returned with Human Rights Watch forensics team to find and document the mass graves of the Kurds who had been killed in Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign. Meiselas was horrified by what she saw: “In all my work in Latin America, in all my photographing of war, I never saw destruction that was so systematic and so complete.” There was literally nothing left for Kurdish people to call home, no repository for collective history and identity, and often no evidence that people had lived except for a few scraps of cloth unearthed from a grave. Meiselas set aside her camera and began collecting family and ID photographs, documents, and stories. She describes this project— which does include her own photographs—as a one-hundred-year visual history of a place and people. She published it in a book titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History in 1997 and launched akaKURDISTAN (www.akakurdistan.com) in 1998 as a virtual archive for people to share their stories and to post, and identify people in, their own photographs.

Through the presentation of Susan Meiselas: In History for the benefit of Dartmouth students and faculty and the greater community, the Hood Museum of Art recognizes the impact of looking at and interpreting images on our ability to tackle global concerns. We invite you to visit the exhibition and participate in the many programs throughout the spring, beginning with Susan Meiselas’s opening lecture on Friday, April 16, at 4:30 p.m. in Loew Auditorium.

*All quotes are by Susan Meiselas from interviews transcribed in the exhibition catalogue that were conducted by Kristen Lubben, Associate Curator at the International Center of Photography and curator of the exhibition.

Susan Meiselas: In History was organized by the International Center of Photography, New York, with support from Shell. Its presentation at the Hood Museum of Art is generously funded by Marina and Andrew E. Lewin ’81, the George O. Southwick 1957 Memorial Fund and the Hansen Family Fund. 

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