Finally getting to this post after a long break of blogging about museums. The same day I went to Pier 24 I also walked over to SFMOMA. I chose not to see the fancy Magritte show* but did walk through the large Susan Meiselas exhibition.
*I’m opposed to paying surcharges to see traveling shows of big-name artists since they frequently emphasize “here are his most-famous works” and “here’s merchandise featuring his most famous works” and rarely offer good insights about the artist himself. Yes I’m using “him” on purpose. Yes this felt like a total FAMSF show.
One of the reason’s I’ve not blogged about this yet is that I’ve been struggling with what angle to take. The Meiselas show is good and interesting but not necessarily in a way that I always like. And I’m not saying I have to like it, just that in figuring out my critiques I have to figure out what exactly rubs me the wrong way and that was kind of hard.
First off, her early work is very good and demonstrates a lot of the things that we don’t get with the typical documentary photography. The photos of Little Italy are wonderful in that kids growing up way. Meiselas is at home and photographing people who trust her and it’s just a great unguarded—or as unguarded as possible— view of adolescence.
The especially great thing seeing these is recognizing the difference in comfort around the camera and photographer that the subjects show. I’ve seen way too many photographs by men where it’s clear that things are a little creepy. None of that is going on here.
The Carnival Strippers series take this a step further. It’s great to see a series like this without the male gaze. There’s no leering going on and the images concentrate on the lives of the women. Yes there’s a lot of skin on display but it’s more nakedness and exhausted vulnerability instead of nudity.
Where her early work is pretty much straight documentary photography, her subsequent work, starting with El Salvador and Nicaragua, gets more interesting the more you divorce it from photojournalism. Not that it’s not photojournalism—it very much is—just that what seems to interest Meiselas is the life of the image itself.
There’s a reason her work was featured in Princeton’s Itinerant Language of Photography show. Where most exhibitions show just prints and have a small case showing how they were originally published in magazines, Meiselas is putting her prints on the wall with the magazines and other publications so we can compare how they’ve been used.
It’s conceptual art about how photography exists in the world and the ways we use the images. I enjoy seeing it—both in a how the sausage is made way and in the way that it shows Meiselas thinking about the life of her images while she works. She’s appearing on campus this week and I’m looking forward to seeing the conversations.
Her work in Iraq documenting the Kurds moves even further away from straight photography and is as much about the history of the entire region rather than just what was happening while she was there. In addition to her photos there are archival images and maps which document western involvement in the area as well as the refugee diaspora.
How much of this is western responsibility? The archive photos show England getting involved in Kurdish politics in 1914. All too often photojourmalism feeds a narrative of awful things happening right now without considering the background of why people are suffering. Why they’re fighting. Why they’re fleeing. Why it’s impossible for the West to disassociate itself from the consequences of what’s going on.
All too often looking back into the history of the region—even just the photographic history—reveals our (“our” meaning “The West’s”) involvement in the area decades ago followed by decades of neglect after we destabilized the area. This lack of awareness makes it easy to claim that we have no responsibility for the current state of things and lay the blame at the people who we left holding the bag after we messed things up.
It’s a shame this kind of photojournalism seems more at home in museums than any current media. But it’s exciting to see photoland grappling with these issues.
The exhibition ends with a couple works where Meiselas is working collaboratively with her subjects. These two pieces are the primary cause for the delay in posting since I couldn’t wrap my head around my feelings about them.
The first one documents abuse in the UK. This is an important piece which is perfectly timed to hit at a moment when society has had a much-needed shift in its perception and framing of abuse and whose stories matter. Taking “portraits” of survivors’ rooms and letting their words hold equal weight to the image is a powerful way of centering their stories and making the point at both how important it is to listen to what victims say and how long-lasting the emotional and mental trauma from abuse can last.
At the same time, I got some weird vibes from this room in that I couldn’t escape the impression that this issue was an immigrant, refugee, non-white problem rather than a universal one. It’s hard. Small sample sizes like this are tough to handle and can produce inadvertent framing issues. I don’t know if by balancing for racial diversity meant we ended up with a mostly-immigrant one. Or maybe this is just the demographics of the refuge that Meiselas was working with. I just know that something felt off to me.
Twenty Dirhams or One Photo is another one that just doesn’t sit right with me. I do like some of the concept—especially the idea of trying to acknowledge the power issues which are at the core of most photography but especially haunt photojournalism and the way it’s frequently intertwined with colonialism. I like the idea of compensating sitters. I like the idea of considering whether or not people want you to take their photo. I like the idea of giving the sitters agency over whether or not to publish the photos. But something about the nature of this transaction still felt off to me.
One big thing is that the price feels like it’s something which is substantial enough to be tempting to the sitters but isn’t a big deal at all for Meiselas. Rather than a fair transaction, it’s more of a game where power is always with the photographer. This game aspect also gets triggered by the whole “decide before I take your photo” thing in the setup and how, while there’s agency in whether or not the photo gets published, I’m still wondering what brought the women into the studio to begin with. I’ve been a parent long enough to recognize how someone with power can offer the appearance of choice by controlling the options available to choose from.
Aside from the weirdness I felt about the experimental aspect of the piece,it is worth commenting on how the portraits themselves are quite nice. They show a wonderful variety of attire and age and really give a sense of the vitality of the market population.
So yeah. It’s been a couple months since I saw this show and the fact that I’m still grappling with conflicted feelings is ultimately a good thing. Even if I end up deciding I don’t like some parts, the fact that I had to think about it is great and even a failed experiment has value in what we can learn from it.
One of the most frustrating things about this show is how aggressively SFMOMA enforced the “no photography” rule. I’m not complaining about not being allowed to take photos but if you’re going to have your guards shout at people whenever they take out their iPhone and point it at the wall, you’d better not have wall text that tells you to open the SFMOMA app and scan the code. I even pointed out the mixed messages to a guard and he just shrugged.
Anyway if my phone was new enough to run the app I’d’ve considered squeaky wheeling it and seeing how often I could get yelled at for following the directions that the curator had written. As it is I just took it as another example of the new SFMOMA no longer knowing what it wants to be.
Along with this sense of SFMOMA incompetence, nothing was translated even though Meiselas is very good about including what the locals call places in her captions. My notes show that I was particularly indignant about how a location Meiselas called “cuesta de plomo” (hill of lead) is merely listed as an assacicination location.