The celebrated Magnum Photos member opens an exhibition called Médiations at Jeu de Paume next month, showcasing work spanning five decades and asking probing questions about the nature of documentary photography
Susan Meiselas has been a pivotal figure in photography since her career began in the 1970s, a decade when the ethical discussion surrounding the inspiration, intent and dissemination of documentary image-making was rampant. Perpetually questioning the motivation and perception of her images, the American has spent her life grappling with these issues, practising what it means to document something outside of her own personal experience.
This spring (06 February to 20 May), Jeu de Paume in Paris presents Médiations, a retrospective revisiting her vast oeuvre, beginning with early portraits that include 44 Irving Street (1971) and Carnival Strippers (1972-75). With these early works, Meiselas’s initial immersive creations are presented, including audio recordings of her subjects, as well as their clients and managers. Setting the tone for her later projects, Meiselas’s work from the 1970s articulates her primary mode of making, in which her presence is minimised, resulting in what she considered to be more accurate observations.
Distinguished from other documentarians, she constantly addressed her role in each scenario – as a stranger, as someone in disguise, or as someone unnoticed. In a new publication of her work, Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline, she explains, “I don’t pretend not to be there, but I am not the ‘story’. I might be the bridge, the guide, and in some sense the collaborator with the subject.”
Meiselas currently lives in New York City’s Little Italy, where she made her long-term series Prince Street Girls (1975-99), also included in the show. Capturing a group of girls socialising in her neighbourhood, it is a record of their transition from adolescence into young adulthood, also showing how Meiselas’s own relationship with them evolved over that time.
The heart of the exhibition consists of three of her most pivotal series: Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Kurdistan, made between the late 1970s and 2000. Here her goal was to extend the practice initiated in her early years, focusing on the nuances of her subjects, who continue to live through war and unrest. Candid shots are layered with metaphor, and Meiselas’s transition from black-and-white to colour is best represented in this work.
A major retrospective would be incomplete without including her formal archiving projects, Archive of Abuse (1992) and Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997), the latter developed as an interdisciplinary work for the exhibition, comprising documents, images and videos made in collaboration with Kurdish people from around the world. Similarly, Archive of Abuse features collages made of police reports and photographs in response to close observations of the San Francisco Police Department’s documentation and mediation of domestic violence disputes. These collages were originally displayed in bus shelters throughout the city as an awareness campaign.
The exhibition will conclude with a site-specific installation of her latest work, A Room of Their Own, shot in the UK following a commission from Multistory, focusing on domestic violence against women and featuring five narrative video works that include first-person testimonies, collages and drawings, in addition to her own photographs. This symbiosis of method and information is an intuitive representation of the evolution of Meiselas’s ethical turmoil as a documentarian whose work has transformed into an impressively dynamic medium, articulating as accurately as possible the relationship between history and memory.