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Susan Meiselas—Pictures Are “Merely the Starting Point”

Susan Meiselas writes about the projects and ideas that shaped her career in On the Frontline, her new book from Aperture. Illustrated throughout, the book reveals among other things how Meiselas has thought about her relationships with and responsibilities to her subjects and about how she gained access to communities and cultures. At many points, she adopts a philosophical tone as she delves into her understanding of documentary photography and its role in society.

Meiselas writes that she was always interested in “the idea of a narrative that extended beyond the single frame.” Pictures are “merely the starting point” for larger stories. From her earliest series, Meiselas has been interested in bringing her subjects’ voice into the work. For instance, while working on her “Carnival Strippers” project, about women who did strip-teases at New England country fairs, she asked her subjects to mark up her contact sheets and note the images they liked and wanted for themselves. These images didn’t necessarily make it into Meiselas’s book of the work, but it was “fundamental” that the subjects were “seeing what I was seeing,” she writes. The photographer-subject-viewer relationship was on her mind. “There is always the challenge of access, but then the question, what are you doing here? What do you bring? What do you contribute, and for whom?”

Covering conflict in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1970s and ’80s, Meiselas began to “trespass the bounds of simply being a journalist,” she writes, through her interactions with insurrectionists. At one point she was smuggled into Nicaragua from Honduras. She realized “for the first time that I could be arrested and seen as a participant.”

In 1991, Meiselas traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to photograph the aftermath of an insurrection put down by Saddam Hussein. She began thinking of the long line of photographers who had photographed in the Kurdistan region throughout history. “I became preoccupied by the idea that ‘pictures are made and taken away,’ so a culture might not get to see itself,” she writes. This led to Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, which includes a handful of her images but is largely a collection of photographs of Kurds made by others, which she gathered into a visual history with the assistance of many people. She personally delivered those books to Kurdistan, “to libraries, universities, families and all who had contributed….The cycle of return of what had been generously shared felt complete,” she writes. With some projects she’s felt this “sense of the circle or cycle of return,” while with others there is a “sense of incompleteness.” Why is the former feeling significant, she asks? “The circle is unifying,” she writes. “Everyone is equidistant from the center. The circle is equalizing. At the heart of it is an implicit collaboration. We are all here, looking at each other.”—Conor Risch

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