Susan Meiselas: Lessons from the Life of a Photographer

Susan has been with Magnum Photos since 1976 and has been documenting social and political issues

in Latin America and around the world for over 40 years. She was one of the first to undertake projects dedicated to cultural heritage and social memory, including the creation of a 100-year photographic history of Kurdistan and 6 years spent in Papua New Guinea, where she collected materials about the local indigenous peoples of the highlands.

Now in her 70s, Susan won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation award in 2019. The organizers of the competition noted that she “has made an invaluable contribution to photography for a long time, influences the variety of forms of presentation of material to the viewer, is an example of passion for her work and approaches the subjects in such a way that they subsequently become an integral part of the history of photography.”

In addition, she received the 2019 Kraszna-Krausz Fellowship Award; The award is given to “photographers whose careers have been exemplary of excellence in photobook creation, meticulous and creative project work, and who have had a profound impact on their peers and the way they create images.”

Susan has written numerous books about her major projects, from Carnival Strippers, which chronicles the life of traveling “girl shows” in the early 1970s, to A Room Of Their Own, which about the life of women in one of the shelters in the UK. “Books have always been an important way for me to bring my work together — in this format, I could build a narrative on my experiences and other people’s stories, fitting it all into a common context,” she says.
Susan says she rarely arrives at a location with a project idea in mind and lets the story develop as she learns more about the local people and listens to their stories. In addition, she revisited places where her previous projects were created, including Tijuana on the border of Mexico and the United States.

Ideas develop on location

“You don’t always know how to start a project – the process involves collecting information about the object, and this can take both a short and very long time, up to tens of years,” Susan says. She does detailed research before heading to a new location or taking on a new project, but has found that the real work begins after she arrives at a location.

“I rarely arrive on site with an idea in mind,” she continues.

“Rather, these ideas develop on location while you interact with people and try to understand what is happening from what can be taken as a basis.” This is also the case with the photographer’s recent project, A Room Of Their Own, which focuses on women from an orphanage in the Black Country, West Midlands, England. Commissioned for this work by the British arts organization Multistory, Susan conducted a series of workshops with the women of the shelter to create stories from photographs, eyewitness accounts and original artwork, resulting in a project published in 2017.

“This project was a collective one because I didn’t know if the women who live in this domestic violence shelter would be willing to participate in it, both to be photographed and to tell their stories,” she says. “It was developed through workshops with other local artists, in which I realized how I could be useful – this idea turned into the creation of portraits with the personal space of these women. The project did not start with this idea, but the idea itself was born as part of the work on the project.”

Conversely, when shooting a developing situation, it inevitably leads you, and you find yourself drawn into the ongoing events. “When I worked in Central America, every day the situation changed, and this dynamic was something beyond my imagination,” says Susan. “I’ve tried to be as responsive as possible to change, but it’s very different from working in one place, like a women’s shelter. You can’t predict what you’re going to face, so it’s an intuitive job. It is important to be fully aware of how difficult it is to witness such events.”