“Who has the power to look, and why?” Susan Meiselas, 72, has been asking herself that question for nearly 50 years, since she became seriously interested in photography in the 1970s and began documenting the lives of a group of New England women who earned a living performing stripteases at county fairs.
Since then, the New York-based photographer has shot Sandinista soldiers in Nicaragua, documented human rights atrocities in El Salvador and helped preserve the cultural history of Kurdistan. But she’s never lost interest in the relationship between artist and subject, viewer and viewee. And we can see that interest throughout “Susan Meiselas: Through a Woman’s Lens,” a retrospective of Meiselas’ work currently on view (virtually) at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
At a glance, the photographs in the exhibit seem strikingly varied. Portraits of bikini-clad bodybuilders, for instance, hang near images of Moroccan women wearing hijab. But viewers who stop to listen to the audiovisual clips accompanying the art – which include commentary from Meiselas, her collaborators and MAM curator Lisa Sutcliffe – will start to see some commonalities. Meiselas regularly reaches out to her subjects after she’s shot them. Sometimes she’ll ask them to write about the photograph they appear in, and she’ll then exhibit their letters alongside their images. Other times she’ll ask them to sign their portraits, or check in with them to make sure they’re open to having their likeness shared.
It’s clear from all of these back-and-forth exchanges that – unlike many documentary photographers – Meiselas doesn’t think of herself as a distant or impartial observer who drops in and out of her subjects’ lives. She gets to know the people she’s photographing. She develops relationships with them. In some cases, she stays in touch with them for years. “I think about the power of the camera, and the potential exchange,” Meiselas says. “I want to be a bridge.”
It’s Meiselas’ commitment to seeing the people in her photographs as human beings first and artistic subjects second that unites the work on display throughout the exhibit. And it’s what makes her work so striking. The people in her portraits aren’t looking at Meiselas askance, wondering why she stopped to take their picture. They know her. They trust her. And, whether they’re survivors of domestic abuse or beauty pageant contestants, they feel comfortable sharing a slice of their lives with her, and, by extension, us.
As of press time, the MAM was closed to in-person visitors. But “Susan Meiselas: Through a Woman’s Lens” can be seen for free online at mam.org /exhibitions/details/susan-meiselas.php. And viewers may be able to see the show in-person at a later date, if it becomes safe to do so.