Susan Meiselas: In History Exhibition at the Hood Museum

Best known for her work covering political upheavals in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, Susan Meiselas has always experimented with photojournalism in radical and challenging ways. Grappling with questions about her relationship to her subjects, the use and circulation of her images in the media, and the relationship of images to history and memory, she has become a leading voice in the debate over the function and practice of contemporary documentary photography.

From April 10 through June 20, 2010, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College will become the only college or university museum to present the striking multimedia overview Susan Meiselas: In History, and only the second North American venue after the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York, the exhibition’s organizer, before the show travels to Barcelona.

This exhibition is structured around three key projects, that exemplify the evolution of Meiselas’s process and approach: photographs and audio of New England carnival strippers (1972–76), including workers at the famous fairs in Essex Junction and Tunbridge, Vermont; photographs, films, and public installations from Nicaragua (1978–2004); and photographs and collected archival objects and video from Kurdistan (1991–present). About the opportunity for her work to be shown at the Hood Museum of Art, Meiselas said, “I am excited to see the show in the Dartmouth College community, where students will have the opportunity to delve into the histories and issues it raises. A teaching museum is the perfect context to explore the challenges of the documentary process and hopefully inspire students to find their own engagement with the world.”

Susan Meiselas’s interest in global issues involving politics, civil war, and America’s relationships with other nations, as well as domestic social conflicts involving women, has attracted an unprecedented range of Dartmouth faculty members involved in a broad array of disciplines and pursuits, including Latin American culture, society, and politics, the art of photography, death and dying, genocide, and women’s and gender studies. At a time when College President Jim Yong Kim has advocated for students’ engagement with the world, museum staff members have worked especially to bring exhibitions to campus that prompt discussion and dialogue. The museum will draw upon the contents of this exhibition to explore all aspects of visual literacy, the ability to construct meaning from images, which is at the heart of the museum’s teaching mission. Partnerships have been established across campus to teach classes and present programs related to the exhibition, working with The Dickey Center for International Understanding, The Tucker Foundation (in particular its Cross-Cultural Education and Service Program to Nicaragua), Institutional Diversity and Equity, and the Departments of Comparative Literature, Studio Art, Art History, Philosophy, Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies, Women and Gender Studies, Film and Media Studies, English, and History. Following Susan Meiselas’s opening lecture on Friday, April 16, exhibition-related programs will include guest lectures by photography writer and commentator David Levi Strauss and journalist William Gasperini, as well as faculty talks by Lisa Baldez, Virginia Beahan, Gene R. Garthwaite, Brian Miller, and Jeffrey Ruoff, and a special walking tour with the exhibition’s curator, Kristen Lubben of ICP.

Susan Meiselas: In History revisits three career-long projects by the internationally renowned photographer. The first section of the exhibition presents Carnival Strippers, an intimate and uncompromising depiction of the lives of a group of women working the strip tents of traveling carnivals in New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Taken at the height of the women’s movement in the United States, the photographs portray women alternately endangered by and commanding their seamy environment, and supported by a community of other women. As she photographed public performances and private moments, Meiselas made a series of audio interviews with the strippers and the men surrounding them: audience members, managers, and boyfriends. The black-and-white photographs and accompanying interviews were published in the book Carnival Strippers, which appeared in 1976 and was recently reissued. Meiselas maintains a long-term engagement with her subjects—a hallmark of her process in future projects—and the resulting photographs offer a resonant and complex portrait. The project represents an early effort to integrate the voice and intent of the documentary subject into the work. The exhibition will present vintage prints accompanied by audio interviews playing on speakers in the gallery.

The second section of the exhibition will be devoted to Meiselas’s work in Nicaragua in 1978–79. Still considered by many to be her signature work, these startling color photographs of the lead-up to the overthrow of the Somoza regime and subsequent Sandinista victory were widely distributed in the international press and published in the 1981 book Nicaragua. A landmark in war photography for its pioneering and controversial use of color, Meiselas’s work in Nicaragua remains a model of engaged, partisan documentary coverage. It was Meiselas’s first experience as a photojournalist, and she was forced to contend with the mixed blessing of seeing her work in wide distribution and out of her control. Three films will be shown in conjunction with the Nicaragua photographs: Voyages, a documentary from 1985 produced with Marc Karlin that presents Meiselas’s reflections on her relationship to the history she witnessed; Pictures from a Revolution, Meiselas’s 1991 film following her search for the people featured in the photographs twenty years earlier; and Reframing History, which traces her return to Nicaragua in 2004 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolution to install mural-sized images of her photographs in the site where they were originally taken.

The final section of the exhibition will present Meiselas’s work with Kurdish communities in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. In 1991, after more than a decade of work in Latin America, Meiselas obtained access to the “liberated” zone in northern Iraq and later accompanied a forensic anthropologist to document the mass graves of Kurds killed in Saddam Hussein’s “Anfal” campaign three years earlier. Her interest in understanding the cultural identity of the Kurds let to a six-year foray into the photographic history of the region. Meiselas gathered family photographs, portraits, documents, and stories that interweave with her own photos to create “a sourcebook of suppressed history.” Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History was published in 1997, and an associated website called akaKURDISTAN allows viewers to add their own images and stories, creating a virtual national archive for a stateless people. In its massive scope and meticulous detail, Kurdistan is a major statement about the relationships between photography, memory, archives, and history. It also represents an important shift in Meiselas’s practice toward collecting and curating found images, presaging the rising cultural interest in vernacular photography and archives.

Image: Susan Meiselas, A funeral procession for assassinated student leaders. (detail), Nicaragua, 1978, chromogenic print. Collection of the artist. © Susan Meiselas, Magnum