Susan Meiselas – War Photojournalist

Since she first took up photography almost 40 years ago, Susan Meiselas has earned herself many different awards and internal recognition. Her photographs are worldwide, in newspapers, magazines, school-books and even museums. She’s an American photographer, born in Baltimore, Maryland,1948. Graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in Visual Education and later on earned her Masters in Harvard University in 1971.

She’s famously known as a war photojournalists, but before that, she started off as a documentary photographer in which she took a different approach. In 1976, she published her first ever photo-book where her subjects were Carnival strippers. From 1972 to 1975 she travelled with women who stripped in small towns in New England and documented their day to day lives both on and off the stage. These women were ranged from seventeen to thirty-five, who in which most had fled their homes looking for some sort of movement and change from their day to day lives. She interviewed the strippers, their managers, their boyfriends and their paying customers. This project of hers was around the time of the women’s movement in America which inspired Susan to create this photo-book in a way to represent the ‘strippers’ search for their identities during an era of change.

One of the most famous project that she’s ever taken on was the Nicaragua Civil war. Courageous and passionate are two words that I would describe Susan Meiselas as she covered the event in 1978.  The story behind on why she went to Nicaragua was because after reading an article on the assassination of a well-known newspaper publisher in Nicaragua, Meiselas decided to travel down to the place out of her own expenses and decided to cover the war. Most war photojournalists normally would have been given an assignment to go to another place and cover a story but what I find interesting with Meiselas was that she was the complete opposite who did whatever she wanted to do.

She arrived just before the actual bloodbath of the war giving her the chance to capture the protest that took place. Right after violence broke out, other reporters and photographers decided to fled the scene but Meiselas chose to stay showing a great deal of determination of her character as a war photojournalist. She travelled throughout Nicaragua for one whole year documenting the war and getting to know the lives of the people affected by it. She wanted to reach out and understand the peoples stories so she could portray it in her pictures.

Her photographs of the “people revolt” in Nicaragua became a world wide talk as most war-photographs were normally done in black and white tradition. However, Meiselas was bravely enough to use colour film for her pictures in her Nicaragua book which was published in 1981. Her outstanding work became international, being published in magazines and books all around the world giving her a place in Magnum in 1980. Susan Meiselas famous photograph from her Nicaragua book is the ‘Molotov Man’ in which a man is captured with an angry expression on his face with a gun in his hand and a lit fire-bottle on the other.

Molotov Man

Molotov Man

 It shows a great depth of emotions with the fighter who is ready to take actions in his own hands.

Another famous photograph of Meiselas work would be the man with the half body laying on the ground.

DqkOPVk Here we see the scenery behind the corpse of a beautiful hillside with a peaceful skyline and lake. The background itself presents a contrast to the painful action that took place that led to the unfortunate missing half of the body. This photograph was taken at the Cuesta del Plomo, a site outside Managua that was said to be Somoza’s National Guard often used for political executions. The question remains to what exactly happened, how the disturbing murder occurred that it was possible to have completely removed the upper body with the exception of the spine, while leaving the legs and jeans untouched.

I find Susan Meiselas such a ‘kick-ass’ photographer because her pictures shows that she was in the actual war. Not reporting behind the scenes or the after the war but during the on going conflicts in Nicaragua.

NICARAGUA. Managua. June 1978. Student demonstration broken up by National Guard using tear gas.

NICARAGUA. Managua. June 1978. Student demonstration broken up by National Guard using tear gas.

NICARAGUA. Esteli. September 20, 1978. Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Esteli.

These images shows that she took her life into danger just to capture the photos. The tear gas in the first photo as we all know is very dangerous once being exposed to it and yet Meiselas took the chance, just to capture the battle between the students and the National Guard. The second photo itself is a woman carrying a younger sibling or a young child of theirs, fleeing the scene from the bombings that was happening in their area, Esteli, heading towards safety. The people are running for their lives as bombs are exploding yet Susan decides to take out her camera and not care where the next explosion will take place as long as she captures the photo. I admire her fearless attitude to just go and capture whats front.

25 years later, Susan Meiselas returned back to Nicaragua and redid the shots that she took back in 1978-79. It astonishes me with Meiselas character that she would go back to a place that had been through a horrible state of war. Most war-photojournalists that I’ve studied have recalled they would not go back due to the awful memories that they made. But with Meiselas situation, she was willing to look beyond that and continue on with the work that she wanted to do, which was to retrace back her photographs and recapture and re-tell the story of the people on how their lives have changed after the war. I like this characteristic side of Susan as she cares for those who’s lives she’s changed after producing her photographs, to explore the difference between the past and the present.

Another war project that she took on was in 1991, Meiselas travelled down to Kurdistan and began photographing the Kurdish people who had been forced from their homes in Northern Iraq by Saddam Hussein. Throughout her project, she discovered an album containing a record of a woman’s own personal journey through Kurdistan which inspired her to create her book “Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History”. Trying to understand the devastation of what was in front of her, she realised that she couldn’t photograph the present without understanding the past. She photographed, gathered and edited a group of photos that would represent 100 years of Kurdish history all in which she did not live through.

I admire Susan’s passion for her work, not only as a photographer who just captures the moments of whats in front but as a human being who knows exactly what she wants to show to the world. Meiselas created unforgettable images but as well as that, she has collections that challenges the traditional beliefs of women during the women’s movement (the carnival strippers), a then and now documentation of the Nicaraguan’s history in which she captured herself during specific periods of her life and an understanding knowledge of the Kurdistan’s history. Throughout her years as a photographer, Susan developed a nature to connect with her subjects during her photography/documentation projects. That’s my favourite thing about Susan, “Photography should not be about the photographer,” photojournalist Susan Meiselas said when she spoke at the Library of Congress in 1999. And it’s true, it’s not about the photographer. I love her mind on how she views her subject before capturing it in camera. The fact that throughout her different projects Susan may have gone beyond her comfort zone to create relationships with many different people. She’s able to get people to open up to her about their own personal lives and share their story. The fact that Susan is not only there to capture photos but to capture the story behind it and to understand the situation. To further on develop her knowledge and her audiences understanding.


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