Eyes seething, mouth contorted in a scream, body exuding destructive energy. In his left hand, he holds a rifle—in his right, a lit Molotov cocktail that he is poised to hurl into the enemy camp. Over the decades, Susan Meiselas’ 1979 photograph of a guerilla fighter in Nicaragua has become an international symbol of revolution and resistance against oppression. The image is etched in our collective visual memory and has been reproduced ad infinitum in graffiti, on posters, and on t-shirts. But what remains of the photographic message when the relationship between photographer, subject, and the story behind the picture has been dissolved in the commercialization of the image?
The exhibition Susan Meiselas . Mediations is the first retrospective in Germany of the Magnum photographer’s over 50-year oeuvre—from her early portraits of neighbors to intimate shots of strippers to her iconic photographs from crisis and war zones.
„How do you work as a photographer? There’s always this uncomfortable, unequal balance of power. How do you break that down? How can it become a dialog?“ – Susan Meiselas
The American photographer’s works, many of them long-term studies, cover a broad range of themes and countries and draw attention to minorities and conflicts that are often overlooked by the global public. Today, Meiselas is considered to have paved the way not only for politically engaged photographers who carefully document, reflect on, and contextualize their work, but also for photographers who work collaboratively with their subjects.
In her series 44 Irving Street (1971) and Porch Portraits (1974), Meiselas explored different realities of life in the United States. Two decades after the start of the US civil rights movement, these works illustrate the persistence of inequality in living conditions. In her photographic essay Carnival Strippers (1972-1975), Meiselas took an approach that was sensitive, empathetic, and interactive in portraying the everyday lives of women who earned their living as striptease dancers at fairs across the northeastern United States. In her long-term study Prince Street Girls (1975-1992), she documented the lives of a group of pre-teen girls in New York City, following them through adolescence and into adulthood. With Archives of Abuse (1991-1992) and A Room of Their Own (2015-2017), Meiselas created works opposing domestic and family violence. In her long-term project Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, beginning in 1991, she documented the genocide of the Kurdish population in northern Iraq, under the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and then gathered a visual record with diverse historical materials to portray one hundred years of the Kurdish diaspora.
To this day, Susan Meiselas seeks direct contact and dialogue with the people she portrays. Her approach is collaborative and includes her subjects’ perspectives. She carries out visual field studies, sometimes over periods of many years, in which photographs seldom stand alone. Instead, they appear alongside interviews, sound recordings, videos, archival material, and notes. These collages not only reveal the underlying contexts of the images, they also invite reflection on the photographic practice itself, on bearing witness, on the hierarchies in the photographic act, and on the reception and dissemination of images.
With Susan Meiselas . Mediations, C/O Berlin presents the largest retrospective of her work ever shown in Germany. The exhibition includes around 250 photographs and video installations from the 1970s to the present day. The book Carnival Strippers Revisited, published by Steidl Verlag, has been released in tandem with the exhibition. Curated by Felix Hoffmann, C/O Berlin Foundation.
Susan Meiselas (b. 1948, Baltimore, USA) studied at Sarah Lawrence College and received her Masters in Education from Harvard University. She has lived and worked in New York since the 1970s. A documentary photographer, Meiselas joined the photo agency Magnum Photos in 1976 as one of its few women members. She became internationally known for her coverage of the revolution in Nicaragua (1978-1928). Her works are shown in the world’s most important museums—including the Jeu de Paume, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2018), and Kunsthaus Wien (2021-2022)—and published in numerous books. Meiselas has received many major awards, including the MacArthur ‘genius’ award (1992) and more recently the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal (2006), the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize (2019), and the first Women in Motion Award (2019) in recognition of her outstanding career.