ARTICLE

Susan Meiselas: 5 lessons from a life in photography

Magnum Photos member Susan Meiselas has photographed stories about people around the world in the course of a career spanning more than 4 decades – including indigenous people in Papua. © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

It was 16 July 1979, the day before President Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled Nicaragua and the Sandinista insurgents gained control of the country. As American documentary photographer Susan Meiselas pressed her shutter and captured Pablo de Jesus "Bareta" Araúz on the point of throwing a Molotov cocktail, she created what has become an iconic image of the revolution. In 2016, Time magazine declared the photo, known as Molotov Man, one of the 100 most influential photographs of all time.

A member of Magnum Photos since 1976, Susan has documented social and political issues in Latin America and globally for more than 40 years. She has pioneered projects to document cultural and social memory, including curating a hundred-year photographic history of Kurdistan and spending six years working with indigenous people of the highlands of Papua.

Still working in her 70s, Susan won the 2019 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize. The prize organisers declared she had "made a consistently outstanding contribution to photography, influencing the way that audiences encounter and understand the form and exemplifying a commitment and personal investment to her subject matter and subjects that has left an indelible mark on the history of photography."

She was also the recipient of the 2019 Kraszna-Krausz Fellowship Award, which "recognises photographers whose careers exemplify the highest standards of photography book production, and who have inspired creativity, created rigorous projects, and have had a lasting impact on both their fellow artists and the practice of image-making."

Susan has authored books on many of her major projects – from Carnival Strippers, which documents America’s traveling ‘girl shows’ in the early 1970s, through to A Room of Their Own, which portrays experiences of women in a UK women's refuge. "Books have always been a vital form for me to bring my work together, building around what I've seen while giving presence to other voices and contextualising materials," she says.

Here, Susan shares five things she's learnt across her distinguished career and life in photography, from her creative approach to the ongoing evolution of her imagery.

People sit on a beach looking at a wall with graffiti on. Photo by Susan Meiselas.
Susan says she rarely arrives in a place with a pre-determined idea of how a project will pan out, preferring to let stories evolve as she gets to know people and stories there. She has also revisited several former projects and places, including Tijuana on the Mexico-USA border. © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos
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1. Concepts evolve in the field

"You don't always know how you'll begin a project – the process involves coming to know a subject, which can be over many decades or a relatively short time," says Susan. While she does detailed research before heading to a new destination or embarking on a story, she has found that the real work begins once you're on the ground.

"I rarely come to a place with a pre-determined idea," she continues. "Rather, the concept evolves from being in the field and interacting with people and getting a sense of what seems appropriate." This was the case with a recent project, A Room Of Their Own, exploring the experiences of women in a women's refuge in the Black Country, an area in England's West Midlands. Commissioned by UK arts organisation Multistory, Susan led a series of workshops with women in the refuge to create visual narratives combining photographs, first-hand testimonies and original artwork, producing a project that was published in 2017.

"This project was collaborative in the sense that I didn't really know how much the women who were in this domestic violence shelter would want to participate at all – not only in being photographed, but also in sharing their stories," she says. "It evolved through doing some workshops with other local artists and gaining a sense of what I could contribute, which became portraits of their private space. I didn't begin with that idea, it evolved from being there."

Conversely, when covering unfolding events, you're inherently led by the situations you find yourself in. "With my work in Central America, things were changing daily, so the dynamic was way beyond what I could imagine," Susan says. "I was responding as best I could to an ever-evolving situation, which is a different process to being within the boundaries of one place, such as the women's shelter. You can't really anticipate what you're going to confront, so it's very intuitive work. It's about being as exposed as possible to the challenges of being a witness."

A large group of people gathers around mounds of earth. Photo by Susan Meiselas.
Susan currently photographs with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III paired with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM or Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens. She says her preferred focal length is "somewhere between a 28mm and a 35mm. I think that says a lot about where I want to be – to be able to be that close, without distorting or being too imposing on the space and the people I hope to have a relationship with." In this photo, taken in 1991, the people were standing beside graves in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

2. Uncover your own photographic approach

"You're always working with your own thoughts, feelings and evaluation of moments," says Susan. "It's how you present yourself and your engagement with your subject that is the most essential. It's not only what you carry in your mind, it's also what you carry on your body. I often use one camera, sometimes one lens, and keep it as simple as it can be.

"Many people talk about photographers being like a particular lens themselves," she says. "In other words, there are people who shoot with longer lenses, closer or wider lenses. I'm somewhere between a 28mm and a 35mm. I think that says a lot about just where I want to be – to be able to be that close, without distorting. Some people make 21mm and 24mm work, but for me that's just a little bit too imposing on the space and the people I hope to have a relationship with."

Susan has relied on Canon cameras over the years, progressing with the evolution of the EOS range and now shooting on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, often paired with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens.

Her personal style has evolved around favouring prime lenses, while turning to zoom lenses when covering conflict and situations where she wanted to be as responsive and as unencumbered as possible.

"Canon was important especially when I used zoom lenses in more conflict settings, and I find the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens is a great lens when I'm really going low-key," she says.

"I don't have a fixed approach. It varies depending on the person who's participating by being photographed. With people particularly, you place your physical self with the choice of your lens."

The legs of two men are seen, looking at a poster that reads ‘Girls’. Photo by Susan Meiselas.
Susan's 1974 exhibition combining still photographs with audio interviews, Carnival Strippers, was one of the first of its kind, she says. © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

3. Multimedia offers boundless possibilities

Susan has experimented with bringing different media into her projects since the early days of her visual projects, when she photographed American carnival strippers across the summers of 1972 to 1975 while teaching photography in New York public schools.

While following the girls around small town carnivals in the New England region, Susan also recorded interviews with the dancers, their boyfriends, the show managers and paying customers, which were then played as ambient sound over the exhibition of the work – a pioneering presentation at the time.

A child peeks through a gap between two large metal doors.

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"Most people, if they were recording sound, were making films," she says. "I certainly didn't see another still photographic exhibition with live sound – sound not specifically linked to a particular image but as ambient in the space complementing the photographs. It was a complex assemblage of sound. That was 1974 and it's still a powerful form to me today, but I've never worked with it quite in the same way since."

Susan has continued to harness the power of audio, including in her Mediations exhibition in 2018, which featured audio from the neighbourhood featured in her 1970s New York body of work called Prince Street Girls. She has also experimented with digital developments, such as the innovative website akaKURDISTAN, launched in 1998 to accompany the book of her six-year project curating a hundred-year photographic history of the Kurdistan region. The online archive serves as an ongoing cultural exchange, as well as a site for collective memory, and lives in a physical space through a show which continues to tour the world and draw the Kurdish diaspora together.

"I've tried to experiment as technology has evolved, and created new opportunities. But I wish I was 20 years younger," laughs Susan. "The idea of collaboration has probably been in my mind throughout my four decades of work. Today there are wonderful environments for young people to be studying, and of course the more you're exposed to possibilities the more your imagination can grow."

Three people look at a large mural print of people picking through the remains of their collapsed house. Photo by Susan Meiselas.
Susan's Re-Framing History project saw her return to Nicaragua in 2004 to install murals based on her original photographs taken in 1978. © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

4. There's a personal power in revisiting projects

While covering a huge breadth of subjects, Susan has also revisited projects, including through a return visit to Tijuana, Mexico in 2018, which brought back memories of covering migrants trying to cross the US-Mexico border in 1989.

"I went to Tijuana for a relatively short time, just on the cusp of the migrant caravan arriving and with focus on the wall and debates about immigration," she says. "It was poignant for me to remember that it was only a wire meshed fence on the border just 20 years before. When there is the opportunity, revisiting a story is particularly meaningful for me."

Returning is something Susan has continued to do. After first charting the popular resistance, insurrection and triumph of the revolution in Nicaragua, 10 years later she made Pictures From a Revolution, a film about her search for the subjects of her photos. She returned again in 2004 to place 19 murals of her images in the landscape where they were first made for the 25th anniversary of the revolution, in a project called Reframing History. With the reissue of her book of Nicaraguan images, Susan customised the Look & Listen app to allow the photographs in the book to trigger short film clips.

"The clips were either my memories of making the photograph or were the subject themselves remembering the time of the photograph," says Susan. "That works differently when it's in the book or from a photograph in an exhibition, but both, I think, are very effective."

Graffiti on a blue wall showing a stencil of ‘Molotov Man’ - a Sandinista throwing a Molotov cocktail.
Susan's iconic Molotov Man image has been replicated all over Nicaragua – including in this graffiti, which Susan photographed in 1982. © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

5. Once images are out in the world, they're no longer only yours

Part of being an image-maker is accepting a loss of control once your work is in the public arena. "I don't think anyone can work today in a digital environment and assume that they can control either the use or the meaning of their work," Susan says. "We are all at risk in a sense, because photographs move in a viral environment."

Susan has experienced having images misconstrued or adapted by others. "It's happened many times, going back to how they were used in magazines in the late 70s; misrepresenting what clearly was written on a caption on the back of a print," she says. "There was no confusion as to what the circumstances were, and it was used in another context. People have taken images and used them on blogs for their own purposes that have nothing to do with what the subject and my relationship to that subject was about."

Famously, Molotov Man – her 1979 image of a Nicaraguan insurgent throwing a Molotov cocktail during the struggle between the Somoza dictatorship and the socialist Sandinista insurgents – took on a life of its own. It became a defining symbol of the revolution, appearing throughout Nicaragua on matchboxes, T-shirts, brochures and painted on walls.

"Once the images are out there, they're gone and not totally yours any more," says Susan. "Sometimes I welcome the new discoveries that come from what people create from those photographs. I prefer it when it's in an exchange and dialogue, so it's shared. But photographers don't always have control over what happens, so you can just counteract with counter-narratives or hope to re-contextualise if need be."

Scris de Lucy Fulford


Susan Meiselas's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160).

Lenses

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

A professional grade wide-angle lens with a natural perspective, an f/1.4 aperture and low light capabilities. "I think [this lens] says a lot about just where I want to be – to be able to be that close, without distorting," says Susan.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

This standard zoom lens goes just that little bit further, whether you’re shooting photography or video. This lens is ideal for capturing exceptional image quality across an extended zoom range, while travelling light. "I find this is a great lens when I'm really going low-key," Susan says.

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