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Susan Meiselas: On Motivation, Her Legacy and the Future of Photojournalism | PDN Online

As a new, traveling retrospective honors Susan Meiselas’s work, she speaks to PDN about the evolution of her approach to her subjects, mixing personal and assignment work, and providing opportunities to the next generation.

© Susan Meiselas/Magnum
© Susan Meiselas/Magnum

By Sarah Stacke

A member of Magnum Photos since 1976 and the founder of the Magnum Foundation, Meiselas is known for continually questioning the uses and misuses of photography and finding ways to collaborate with and empower those she photographs. Her coverage of Central America’s conflict zones, and her documentation of human rights issues and the sex industry, have influenced countless photographers. Larry Towell, who joined Magnum in 1988, says that seeing Meiselas’s 1970s photographs from Nicaragua spurred him “to go out into the world and take pictures.” Having begun her career at a time when not many women were working in photography, Meiselas has broken through glass ceilings, paving the way for other women. She’s also consistently made space for women’s voices to be heard through her work. Kristen Lubben, Executive Director of the Magnum Foundation, says that Meiselas’s work has “shown a fascination with women who trespass boundaries of convention and acceptability.” She adds, “It is particularly timely now to look at these women—and Meiselas herself, for that matter—and learn from their struggles for autonomy, self-determination, and respect.” Here, she speaks with PDN about the evolution of her approach to photographing and working with subjects, mixing personal work and assignment work, and giving opportunities to a diverse new generation of photographers through the Magnum Foundation.

Susan Meiselas. © Meryl Levin
Susan Meiselas. © Meryl Levin

PDN: Would you say one of the primary purposes of On the Frontline is to reveal the thought process behind your work and how the ideas for different series developed over time?
Susan Meiselas: Yes, that was [editor] Mark Holborn’s idea. We also agreed that we would talk about the “frontline” as a psychological space, not just a physical, geographical space.

And I think this question also speaks to emerging photographers. Finding the place from which you work is a key thing that only you can do, it’s the deep motivation of life. It takes time and you explore it as deeply as you can, and you learn from your own process. Life demands a certain level of resilience in order to survive
with clarity and commitment. The combination of those conditions create opportunities to find the place from which you work. It comes with time.

Starting out, I didn’t know what it would mean to be a photographer. I didn’t have a set path. I didn’t have the kinds of things that young people have today like internships, mentorship programs and grants.

PDN: Not as many existed then.
SM: They didn’t, no. What did exist was the boys club and networks of power. Those are still there and are being challenged more now, which is great.

PDN: You’ve said that in some of your earliest work, “44 Irving Street” and “Carnival Strippers,” it was important for you to have the women’s voices included and for the subjects to be able to see themselves in the pictures you made. How has that concern evolved over time?
SM: “44 Irving Street” speaks to the discomfort of the power of authoring. The conflict and contradictions that come with that power have been there for me from the beginning.

“Carnival Strippers” has taken on a new life in the context of the current #metoo movement. It’s work from over 40 years ago and the fact that it feels relevant for people to rethink and look at women’s relationships to each other and the power dynamics between them and their audience—it’s exciting to me that those women’s voices will continue to speak through the “Mediations” exhibition at Jeu de Paume. It multiplies what the photograph means and to whom—the maker, the subject, the audience.

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