Framing lives in war or peace

Susan Meiselas’s photographs for Magnum during Nicaragua’s civil war include “Sandinistas at the wall of the National Guard headquarters, Esteli,Nicaragua.' Susan Meiselas’s photographs for Magnum during Nicaragua’s civil war include “Sandinistas at the wall of the National Guard headquarters, Esteli,Nicaragua."
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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HANOVER, N.H. — Photography is something done laterally. That is, photographers record experience on the same spatial plane as they are (more or less — there is such a thing as aerial photography) and certainly on the same temporal plane. Part of what makes Susan Meiselas’s work so remarkable is how she transforms photography into a kind of vertical endeavor: a process of digging and probing into the past, as well as recording the present.

“Susan Meiselas: In History,’’ which runs at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art through June 20, consists of three very different parts. Carnival strippers have little in common with Sandinistas in Nicaragua and even less with Iraqi Kurds. What unites them is Meiselas’s sensibility and approach. A blend of sociology and anthropology and ardent humanity, it asks a basic question. As she puts it, “How do you bring documentary values into photojournalism?’’ Always for Meiselas, the camera is a tool, as a notebook or tape recorder is, rather than an end unto itself.

Make no mistake, the visual matters a lot to Meiselas — and it matters a lot because she has such a talent for it. The world’s most famous photo agency, Magnum, otherwise wouldn’t have recruited her when she was still in her 20s and had never worked as a photojournalist. That faith in her was repaid a few years later when her photographs from the Nicaraguan civil war became some of the most reproduced of the 1970s.

“Sandinistas at the wall of the National Guard headquarters, Esteli, Nicaragua’’ — “Molotov Man,’’ as it’s more commonly known — is one of the electric images of its era. In fact, it bridges two eras: bidding farewell to Che even as it prepares for a Reaganismo it can’t imagine is about to happen. A display at the Hood shows some later incarnations of Meiselas’s picture: as matchbook covers, contra fund-raising literature, a wall stencil, a mural. That ubiquity is a tribute to the keenness of her visual instincts — and willingness to endure the political crosswinds of a stormy time.

At the heart of the Nicaraguan section of the show are 42 photographs. They’re poster-size, unframed, unmatted, as if to reject any aspirations — or pretensions — to art. But the artistry is considerable. For one thing, there’s a startling immediacy to Meiselas’s pictures. (How immediate? Magnum sent her a 400mm lens out of fear she was getting too close to the fighting. Meiselas used it once.) For another, there’s the way she manages to convey a sense of life going on — of these scenes actually being a part of life — a dimension that eludes so much classic war photography, where what we see seems beyond any conception of human existence.

That sense of how life subsumes, endures, and outlasts war receives vivid expression in two related displays. One looks at how mural-size reproductions of Meiselas’s photographs were displayed in honor of the 25th anniversary of the revolution at the sites where she took them. Thirteen hang from the ceiling here, a superb use of the second-floor gallery’s atrium-size space. A 12-minute DVD shows scenes of how Nicaraguans reacted to the display. Excerpts from another DVD, “Pictures From a Revolution,’’ consist of interviews with people in Meiselas’s civil war work; they were conducted 20 years after she took the pictures. It’s a demonstration of the power of continuity in her work: the photograph as invitation to ongoing process rather than encapsulation of discrete moment.

That same sense informs “Carnival Strippers,’’ a subject that could hardly be more different. The difference is evident at first glance. The vividness of the colors in the Nicaraguan pictures — their intoxicating tropical vibrancy — is at once overpowering and a version of solace. The grim, glum, grayness of the black-and-white in “Carnival Strippers’’ is like a sour joke on the ostensible “colorfulness’’ of the honky-tonk subject matter. Gritty and tired-looking and utterly lacking in romance, these pictures are about as arousing as asphalt.

That’s the point. The 37 pictures here have less in common with Playboy — a lot less — than they do with Lewis Hine’s photographs of child laborers and coal miners. They’re about people doing a job. Meiselas spent three summers in the early ’70s not just photographing these women but also talking to them and earning their trust. Lena and Shortie and Lulu and Debbie are people first, workers second, and — a very distant third — sex objects.

A display case contains one of Meiselas’s notebooks, Lulu’s personal snapshots, and audio cassettes of the interviews the photographer conducted with her subjects. Quotes from the women are on the walls. “You gotta eat,’’ Debbie says. “When you eat and get your money, that makes [you] your own woman. You don’t have to ask nobody for nothing.’’ Meiselas’s feminist bona fides aren’t in any doubt. But she’s unblinking, and unblinkered, enough to show that what these women do for a living empowers them as well as exploits them.

Nearly two decades later, in 1991, Meiselas went to northern Iraq to document Saddam Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds. This led to an extraordinary evolution in her work, one in which she became as much curator as photographer.

There are 33 color photographs from Kurdistan, which she took then and in 2007. The sight of a Ferris wheel amid rocky desolation (such are the things oil money can do) is breathtaking. It’s not as breathtaking as “Memorial for Barzani Victims of the Anfal, Bele, Northern Iraq,’’ also from 2007. Four sticks stand straight in a field of waving grass. That’s all. This is photojournalism, unquestionably, but in the same way that when Walt Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,’’ it was political reporting as well as a dirge.

The burden of this final section rests with other people’s photographs, though. As Saddam tried to erase any sense of Kurdish tradition, photography took on a whole added cultural and political dimension. In capturing the past, it promised a future. Personal photographs became “a sourcebook of suppressed history,’’ Meiselas says. Vintage photographs, snapshots, passports, brochures, press clippings fill four display cases. A DVD shows Kurdish street photographers at work. A slide show presents additional historical and vintage images, with commentary.

These pictures taken by anonymous, alien people are anything but impersonal. “I experience the photographs as a way to tell me the story, the stories about what has happened to them over the last hundred years,’’ Meiselas says in an interview in the show’s catalog. “That’s where the storytelling begins, around the photographs.’’

It doesn’t matter whether the photographs are hers (those she has taken), or theirs (those she has gathered and preserved). What matters is that they can then become everyone’s photographs. Susan Meiselas’s art is one in which provenance doesn’t matter.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

SUSAN MEISELAS: In History At the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., through June 20. 603-646-2808, www.hood