Susan Meiselas' Retrospective Provokes Questions About the Ethics of Photojournalism

Susan Meiselas, 'Rufina Amaya. Survivor of "El Mozote" massacre. El Salvador,' 1982. (© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

For more than 45 years, Susan Meiselas has blurred the lines between photojournalism and fine art photography, documenting subjects ranging from a group of girls in New York’s Little Italy to the Salvadoran Civil War.

Much of Meiselas’ work provokes uncomfortable but familiar ethical questions about encounters between artists and victims of civil and human rights abuses, or merely those who have less to gain than the photographer. The breadth of work in Susan Meiselas: Mediations, a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, provides an opportunity to consider these challenging issues.

In one of Meiselas’ photographs from 1992, an Iraqi Kurdish woman looks down intently at an exhumed mass grave with at least five skeletons, still dressed and with the tread of their sneakers visible. The woman presses her hand against her right cheek and holds her left hand behind her back. The photograph’s caption identifies this woman as a widow, but it’s not clear if she is looking at her husband, family members, or unknown individuals. Her glance is not emotionless, but it is difficult to read beyond its obvious solemnity. She seems understandably distant.

I can’t look at this image without wondering what her relationship was with Meiselas. Did Meiselas happen upon a random mourner? Or did the widow share her family’s history with Meiselas earlier in the day? Does she want to be photographed with the skeletons of her family or neighbors? Is she in a state to object to being photographed?

Susan Meiselas, 'Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq,' 1992.
Susan Meiselas, 'Widow at mass grave found in Koreme, Northern Iraq,' 1992. (© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

Ten years earlier, Meiselas took a photograph in El Salvador, during the 12-year civil war, of a couple bound and laying face down in a street, surrounded by armed men. The couple might appear to have been killed if not for the caption indicating that they were being interrogated. Here, the relationship between subject and photographer is a bit more clear. Surely these individuals didn’t consent to being photographed by Meiselas. But does that mean this story, and others like it, shouldn’t be told? If they knew of this photograph, might these individuals feel endangered or embarrassed?

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And although the distance between Meiselas and her subjects can seem vast, it is not always insurmountable. Much of the work in Mediations suggests a deep connection between the artist and her subjects. The story behind Meiselas’ portrait of Rufina Amaya is as brutal as any of the other war photographs—the Salvadoran government killed every single person in the town of El Mozote, except for Amaya, who escaped—but the photograph itself is sensitive.

In it, Amaya kneels on the ground in a clearing and looks down mournfully at a point in the distance, or at nothing in particular. Though the gravity of her trauma is visible in her body and in her face, a viewer like myself, thousands of miles and three decades away, feels a sense of closeness with her. Meiselas presents her as an individual—as Rufina—and as much more than an anonymous news subject.

Susan Meiselas, 'Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979,' 1979.
Susan Meiselas, 'Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters, “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979,' 1979. (© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

In a recent project, A Room of Their Own (2015–17), Meiselas worked with survivors of domestic abuse in the United Kingdom in a process that was more collaborative than strictly documentary. Though many of the photographs from this series are on display at SFMOMA, the project originally took the form of a book that also included original artwork from the survivors and their testimonies created and documented during workshops. With this project, Meiselas photographed survivors in order to tell their stories to others, but she also participated in a process of healing, aided by professional service organizations on the ground in England.

It may be the case that photographing those who suffer is always somewhat exploitative. After the shutter closes, the photographer goes home and gets paid, but the subject’s life may remain unchanged by the encounter. This does not mean that the photographer is acting in bad faith or that she has sold out or harmed the subject. In Meiselas’ case, one can see, especially with Amaya and A Room of Their Own, that the photographer is committed to her subjects, a commitment that probably extends to less obvious cases.

Susan Meiselas, 'Janet,' from the project 'A Room Of Their Own,' 2015–17.
Susan Meiselas, 'Janet,' from the project 'A Room Of Their Own,' 2015–17. (© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

We must resist the temptation to treat battlefields and refugee camps as no different than, say, a fashion photographer’s studio. This cedes power to abusers who are not bound by standards of decorum or journalistic ethics. In such situations, photojournalists like Meiselas must navigate moral black holes that are created by the abusers, and the latter’s responsibility for the resulting dilemmas cannot be forgotten.

This does not, however, excuse photographers from scrutiny. The ways in which they depict atrocities and handle power imbalances should always be questioned and reevaluated. And none of these considerations would be new to Meiselas.

When working in Marrakech in 2013, she found that many people did not want to be photographed. So she set up a temporary studio and photographed women, giving them the option to either keep the resulting portrait or let Meiselas use it in an upcoming exhibition in exchange for 20 dirham (worth about $2.40 at the time).

This piece self-consciously addresses the fact that subjects and models have monetary value to photographers. But while the women who consented to their images being used walked away with enough money to pay for half of a ticket to the city’s Maison de la Photographie, the piece itself was collected by the Tate Modern and is now on display at SFMOMA.

'Susan Meiselas: Meditations' is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Oct. 21. Details here.

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