The Photojournalist Who Embraced Reality and Captured History

Deserted muddy roads; neat rows of soldiers dressed in their elegantly starched white uniforms; overturned pickup trucks ablaze with orange flames; a 14-year-old Nubian barefoot in her red dress, wheeling away her burlap-covered husband in a wooden cart to bury him away from the open field where he was gunned down. These are the images that open Pictures from a Revolution, the 1991 documentary that photojournalist Susan Meiselas made with filmmakers Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti, which is on view in an exhibition compiling decades of her work as a Magnum photographer—as well as an independent surveyor of the times—at Jeu de Paume in Paris. The film returned Meiselas to Nicaragua, a place where she had previously documented the left-wing Sandinistas’ revolution in 1979. She reflects on going back there in Revolution: “When I first went to Nicaragua, I never imagined that I’d spend the next ten years or more photographing there. By chance I arrived right before the insurrection, in June ’78. I got up every day without a plan, and just photographed what I saw…History was being made in the streets, and no one knew where it would lead. People believed what they were doing mattered. I felt the necessity to witness and document what they did.”

Meiselas recorded the violent consequences of every explosive flash she found throughout her journeys, an embrace of reality she had prepared well for at home: After studying under Ansel Adams, the tack her career would take began just outside her own door. For her 44 Irving Street series from 1971, completed while she was still in graduate school at Harvard, she photographed the tenants in her boarding house. Four years later, when she was living in the Little Italy community of Manhattan, she lost her balance on her bicycle, but caught the attention—and taunts—of the young girls on the block. We see Roe, JoJo, Carol, Dee, Lisa, Julia, and Frankie—the subjects of her series Prince Street Girls—get into hair-pulling fistfights or propping themselves up languorously against brick walls and iron gates. Meiselas’s lens caught them consumed with their own adolescence, chasing the exhilarating thrill of independence just out of reach.

While she never shied away from geopolitical conflicts—documenting upheaval in El Salvador and Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurdish ethnic minority in Iraq, to name but a few—the other through line in Meiselas’s output that started in her series with the neighborhood girls emerges in this show: Women, as documented throughout all the stages of their lives. The 1972–1975 photo series “Carnival Strippers” serves as a backstage pass to the milieu of ladies who worked the circuit of tents that traveled around New England during the summer. Her tender portraits give us the the performers’ vantage point of the men in their audience, of cigarette breaks and vanity-mirror pampering, illustrating an erratic phase in the working lives of these young women. The exhibition ends with a chapter devoted to one of the photographer’s newest projects, A Room of Their Own, 2015-2017. Visiting a group home for victims of domestic abuse in England, a number of the women in residence gladly gave Meiselas a tour of their modest yet dignified new bedrooms, some accommodating a crib. The touching portraits she made of them, like so much of her work, prompt one to reconsider what are the meaningful occasions, and subjects, deserving of attention.

retrospective of Susan Meiseilas's work runs through May 20th at Jeu de Paume in Paris.

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