A Career of Reflection: The Philosophy of Photography Icon Susan Meiselas

After nearly 50 years in photography, the iconic photographer still questions her artistic practice.

It always seems self-evident,” Susan Meiselas says, reflecting on the title of the exhibition that was to be at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Through a Woman’s Lens. “You’re so often asked that question, what’s it like to be a woman, and I wonder what it would be like to be a man.” 

The exhibition was slated to open mid-April before the coronavirus pandemic had other plans. It positioned to share the legendary photojournalist’s previously unseen images alongside several series focusing on stories about women. Included were Meiselas’s iconic 1972-1975 series “Carnival Strippers,” “Prince Street Girls,” her series documenting the lives of young women on Prince Street in Manhattan between 1975 and 1992; and a selection of her images of women at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, a time when women were becoming more and more present in the democratic process. 

Youths practice throwing contact bombs in forest surrounding Monimbo.NICARAGUA. June 1978. © Susan Meiselas/ Magnum Photos

While Meiselas’s womanhood is arguably essential to her work, she says “Certainly I wouldn’t have had the same connection I did develop in that early period of work with ‘Carnival Strippers’ [if I was a man]. Maybe I would have another  kind of access, but the perspective I think would have been different.” She is a photographer first. 

Meiselas is a Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow, a Magnum photographer, and the President of the Magnum Foundation. She is also a winner of prestigious photography awards like the Leica Award for Excellence and the Cornell Capa Infinity Award. Even after nearly 50 years in photography, she regularly thinks about ways to expand and deepen her practice. She re-engages with archival work and ideates new pathways to contemplate her own work and photography in general. 

Susan Meiselas. Photo © Meryl Levin

“For me, it’s finding different ways to strip away or add layers to a reflection on ‘what is this thing called the photograph?’ How did I come to this encounter? Who’s in it? What does that framed moment mean to them and to me?” Her philosophical inquiry into her own work is ongoing. “I think when you start to open up your archive and you discover notes you made…or bits and pieces of projects for various reasons you didn’t pursue, it is a kind of self-interrogation as much as it’s trying to share a process with the  public.” 

Making her process public was central to the Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition. It was a return to work that wasn’t necessarily a series, and thinking about other paths she could have taken. It’s not just important for historians, she says, but for anyone thinking about the artistic process and its evolution. 

USA. Essex Junction, Vermont. 1973. Lena on the Bally Box. From the series Carnival Strippers. © Susan Meiselas

Also important was the ongoing question of power relations. Meiselas often asks herself, “who am I to image another?” She continuously ponders the challenges of confronting representation and making sure her subject’s voice is present. She addresses these queries in all of her projects, whether it’s documenting a revolution in Nicaragua, a BDSM dungeon in Manhattan, or the Kurdish struggle for independence. 

Meiselas’s eye on subjects beyond herself exposed the world to stories that were still unheard of or developing. “Choosing work that brings us closer to places that are not familiar is part of what I think photography can still do.”  It’s not something Meiselas finds people do as often as they used to. 

Gas prevention exercise, US Army basic training, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, 1975. © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

“I’m very struck how intimidated people are to be in a world that’s beyond their own and that’s partly a political correctness of, ‘do I have a right to represent or image another?’ The world surrounding us can seem too complex, fragmented, and even frightening,” she says. “Therefore many image-makers today feel safest representing themselves literally, the kind of selfie culture or theme and my family or my neighborhood, or my culture or my, my…and I think that’s a great place to begin if that’s where you start, but I would hate to think all we can ever be curious about is ourselves.” 

Meiselas often thinks of the former Museum of Modern Art Department of Photography head John Szarkowski. Szarkowski posited with his 1978 exhibition and book Mirrors and Windows, that there were two kinds of photographic engagement: self-expression and exploration. One is a mirror (self-expression) and the other is a window (exploration). “I never identified as a mirror but I’m very aware that I’m looking through a window and I’m privileged and I’m protected and therefore the question is what am I contributing.”