This article was originally published in a small “alternative” newspaper, and it functioned as a book review of Susan Meiselas’s book Nicaragua1 . The publication of Meiselas’s book was significant: a high-budget, high-profile photo book, put out by the important publisher Pantheon Books, about a leftist revolution in the Third World— just the area of the world that we in the United States considered our fiefdom—at the start of the “Reagan revolution” and the historic swing to the right in the United States. The present version of my short article substantially restores the original text, which reflects my concern with the appearance and context of war images and their effects on the reception of those images by various viewing publics. It restores my criticism of publishers that the newspaper was reluctant to print, which led to editing that appeared to lay too much responsibility for the book’s format, and my estimate of its likely reception, at Meiselas’s feet. In the intervening years I have gotten to know Susan Meiselas and her practice, and my admiration for her commitment, skill, and resourcefulness—which I had already felt at the time of this consideration of her work—has grown. It is interesting to consider whether the shock caused by seeing war photos in color is no longer quite such an important issue, since color images of all photojournalistic subjects are now the norm. These remarks are not, however, meant to defuse the questions that I put forward about aspects of war photography, questions to which I have returned several times in my thinking and writing and which continue to engage me.
Thus, it is best to divorce a reading of this early text from its consideration of a particular book by a particular person— one who has proved her commitment to the people and the politics of conflict, acute and institutionalized, represented in her work—and regard it as a meditation on the complex and changing politics of representation. I write this at a moment when two photos of ultimate victims, an elderly, protected lion in Zimbabwe killed for sport and the drowned body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, a war refugee, washed up on a beach in Turkey, have drawn widespread outrage on behalf of victims of their class and have eventuated in the social and political (in the second case) mobilization of people toward state and communal action. The public conversations about the content of these two images have, as ever, also focused on the uses and abuses of photographs and the presumptive teetering on the brink of abjection and horror as opposed to a determination to act.
Once there was a brutal dictator in a small banana republic in steamy Central America who so abused his people, grabbing most of the wealth, stifling initiative, and causing misery, that waves of discontent spread throughout the entire population until finally peasants, lawyers, housewives, businessmen, and even priests and nuns rose up in outrage. Despite incredible atrocities, they eventually succeeded in driving out the beast and his minions, and they looked forward to living in peace forever after.
It would be easy to garner this fairy-tale impression of the Nicaraguan revolution from photojournalist Susan Meiselas’s book Nicaragua. Meiselas’s book is one of the very few journalistic works that are sympathetic to a popular struggle. But the book bears evidence of contradictory aims and approaches to the laying out of meaning, contradictions whose collision damages the book’s ability to inform and to mobilize opinion. The claims to truth of documentary photography, at least for the general public, rely on the principles of realism to convince us of their accuracy. Meiselas, a member of the important news-photo agency Magnum, provides many images that are affecting and convincing. Unfortunately, the design, organization, and possibly the overall conception of the book, which were presumably intended to deepen their appeal to the photo-book audience—essentially an art audience—mar the book’s reportorial work.
The movement from photojournalism to art photography travels a well-worn path, but it is a difficult one to negotiate if specific information is not to fall by the wayside. It is especially difficult when the situation is not only recent but still at issue, for as “art” takes center stage, “news” is pushed to the margins. Furthermore, there are disturbing qualities in Meiselas’s photographic style that, while grounded in historical trends within photography, nevertheless have an antirealist effect.
MYSTERY AND ROMANCE
Pick up the book . . . at first sight it looks like a catalogue for an art show. On the cover, young men in bandanas crouch or stand against a pink and brown, graffiti-marked wall. The words “Nicaragua” and, smaller, “Susan Meiselas” appear above and below, white letters in mock-crude stenciling on a black ground. Open the book; just the word “Nicaragua” . . . but how can one book, a photo book, represent Nicaragua? Turn the page, and you are being looked at by a close up face in an expressionless, gauzy mask, seemingly young and male, with a hand on a strand of barbed wire. Mystery.
Central to the book is that the photos are in color. Although color photography is becoming the standard in such magazines as Time and Newsweek, cut loose from their overwhelmingly text-dominated format a photojournalist work in color is still unexpected, especially when the subject is war.
The color, of course, functions in several ways at once, some of them contradictory, some of which have resonance only for specialized audiences. Color photography is most widely used in advertising, signifying commodification, a certain culinary appeal. In advertising and in other fields, it is often used to portray the exotic, the desirable Other or fantasy identification, with implications of primitiveness, mysteriousness, romance. This is National Geographic photography, a genre modernized by Geo magazine, in whose pages Meiselas originally published some of her Nicaraguan photos. In Meiselas’s book, the color, while emphasizing the tropical surroundings, the pastel buildings, the intensely blue sky, also calls our attention to the ordinariness of the people shown. This impression is largely conveyed through clothing, which is like our clothing. These aren’t scarified “primitives” or shanty-town dwellers in a jungly fantasy vision of Latin America. A boy on the cover wears a hat saying “New Orleans”; men and women in summer dress line up, hands raised, facing their bus for a weapons search. With whatever irony we may approach the fashion dominance exercised by the United States over Latin America, we can’t help apprehending the arbitrariness of war in seeing these eminently “civilian” people. But, oddly, by appearing in the same lushly colorful mode as do the representations of tourism of the colonized, Meiselas’s photos also evoke the question of whether these people are really like us—are they, or are they impostors? Some images take on the hint of a fashion show masquerade.
After the first mysterious images, a single page of quotations sets the scene: an intransigent remark by Somoza followed by statements from a Sandinista commander, a lawyer, and a rich but despairing economist. The images begin: They include Somoza, the National Guard in its training school, a sweating sack-carrier under a glorious sky, a grimacing dark-skinned woman in a pink uniform tending rich, light-skinned toddlers.
Then the book, in horror-movie fashion, establishes its legitimacy as a book of war photography in a war with very few battles, slamming the viewer with a terrible photo, a lush lake-and-mountain vista on whose hillside lies a body clad from the waist down in intact dungarees and consisting from the waist up of nothing but a thick spinal cord studded with a few rib stumps, with severed hands and naked bones nearby. This grisliest image, partly dependent for its effect on clothing again, becomes the context for the rest of the photos.
There are many other strong images in the book, but few are images of atrocities, though there are a number of photos of fires and burning bodies. War photographers complain that magazine editors demand photos of extreme violence, counterpart to TV’s gore-squad coverage of local accidents for the nightly news, and particularly favor photos of fire now that color is the norm in magazine coverage. In this, Meiselas, or her editor, showed restraint, and most of the photos are of the people, civilian and guerrilla.
GORE AND COMPASSION
Although the increasing nihilism and sensationalism of photojournalism and war photography leave Meiselas far behind, her photos are marked by a noticeable streak of alienation—including the fashion bizarrerie and color fantasia— that places her well within the traditions of modern photography. War photography oscillates between the ideological poles of gore for gore’s sake and exaggerated compassion, in which the anguish and heroism of the photographer command most attention. We should acknowledge Meiselas’s bravery, especially since she has recently been wounded in El Salvador, but this is, after all, her chosen work; unfortunately, war zones are dangerous, and the injury and even the death of photojournalists and war correspondents occur far too frequently.
I recently attended a panel of war photographers held at New York’s New School that began with a memorial showing of photos taken by Olivier Rebbott in San Salvador before his death in Miami from a wound sustained in El Salvador. The panelists expressed confusion about their own usefulness. Many said they were pacifists, but they were shaky about their relation to the struggles they photographed—and even shakier about whether they ought to believe in the struggles they photographed. One suggested that, as in Method acting, one should adopt a cause and force oneself to take on its values in order to obtain powerful and passionate images. They wanted to make an end run around the “photo opportunities” of captured arms caches that anxious governments arrange for photographers who parachute in, so to speak, for a short stay. But other photographers expressed frustration that images of war didn’t end war. Cornell Capa—photographer and founder of New York’s International Center of Photography, as well as brother of the great leftist war photographer Robert Capa, founder of Magnum, Meiselas’s agency, who died stepping on a land mine in Indochina in 1954—complained that war used to be blamed on “lack of communication.” Yet since the 1930s there has been an inundating amount of information about the horror of war and there are now more wars than ever.
The term “documentary” itself did not appear until the 1930s, a time of social combat over the control of meaning. After that era, in which documentary in the United States was anchored above all by the gigantic Photographic Section of Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration, documentary as an expression of ideological commitment declined. By the 1960s, documentary was regarded as a bore. Photojournalism, not only in the service of reportage but also for “human interest” stories—and, of course, war—kept the photo magazines such as Life and Look healthy until TV killed them off. (The new Life consciously addresses a different audience.) At the same time, the more ambiguous, noncommercial tradition of “street photography” produced the Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s book The Americans. His photos, taken on a Guggenheim-financed American odyssey, could find no U.S. publisher and appeared first in France, in 1958.2 By the mid-sixties the book’s underground influence was undeniable. The Americans portrayed the fifties’ alienated “lonely crowd” with unstrung imagery, championing the socially marginalized. With its beat preference for peripatetic individualism, Frank’s work ushered in the overwhelming subjectivization of street photography that still covers its spectrum of tendencies and that marks most other types of art photography as well.
IMAGES WITHOUT WORDS
In Meiselas’s book we do not often see “people united.” Many of the photos, as in Frank’s book, show individuals isolated in the frame, looking off, moving in diverse directions, or joined in an unfathomable project. The impression of posturing, the hint of sexualization of the young male fighters, that originates in this antiheroic style, is intensified by the design of the book in the collision of the aims of journalism and art photography, as I’ve indicated. The most damaging element of the design is the placement of the photos all together in a single section, without captions or text. The captions, some markedly inadequate, appear at the back of the book, accompanying small black-and-white reproductions—just as in an art catalogue—that run alongside the text.
The text consists almost solely of quotations from participants, moving testimony about atrocities, battles, victories. There is a wonderfully ironic telegram lampooning Somoza’s self-puffery in his captive press, there are poems and documents and a final chronology. But the list of encyclopedia-style statistics fails to mention anything about the country’s economic base (except the people’s impoverishment), which is symptomatic of the book. Just as the photos, in avoiding “revolutionary” poses, do not stress collectivity and united purpose, the text omits all mention of political convictions and their possibility. Even the naming of political organizations is minimal, hit-and-miss. What, for instance is the G.P.P., whose initials appear on the front cover and elsewhere? (This fuzziness about details underlies the fairy-tale impression I suggested at the outset.) This is the liberal pipe dream of revolution, occurring on a moral plane and anointed by the blood of the innocent. In this context, particularizing the struggle into a set of images and a set of testimonies, the revolutionary process itself is depicted as fragmented, and the politics that inflect the Nicaraguan revolution are paradoxically lost. We do not gain a sense of the systematic relation between U.S. policies and exploitation of the Third World. Further, by inadequately describing the currents within the united front, particularly the mixture of leftist, business, and religious interests, by ending the chronology at the moment of entry of the victorious provisional government into the central plaza of Managua, the book fails to build a bridge to the Nicaraguan present. Thus, the sympathy the book intends to incite falls short of the political complexities of reconstruction.
Despite the “humanization” of Nicaragua, the provision of concrete imagery and human voices, the stereotypes of Latin American underdevelopment and carnivalism can remain unchallenged. Images without the verbal anchoring of what they show cannot rightly be termed journalism. They can nudge the viewer away from reading out of images toward reading into them. With the kind of projection that accompanies art photography, they can convert reality into metaphor and generalize the particular. The conversion from reportage to art attempts to hurry a historical process, abridging the decent interval that is supposed to elapse before war photos are taken as universalized testaments to a set of ideological themes with a powerful hold on the collective imaginary: War Is Hell, Admire the Little People, Everything Important Occurs within the Individual, and finally, The Photographer Is Brave. One of the important messages of most photojournalism is the assumption by the photojournalist of the burden of pain, compassion, and bravery that inspires but simultaneously absolves the rest of us.
A focus on war photographers’ heroism is a permanent feature of their reputations, yet Nicaragua provides no biographical information, no hype and puffery, about Meiselas; a silence I assume to be her own. Her refusal to be lionized, her modesty, is particularly admirable for a woman, for the adulation of women war photographers, including Margaret Bourke-White, is so glibly available. I see it as counterpoint to her refusal in her photographs to probe the psyches of the victims of misery, avoiding the conversion of grief into spectacle, a standard trick of most war photography and much human interest reportage. Nor does she suggest, as these approaches often do, that war is like a natural calamity.
Just how spare Meiselas’s book is in relation to the orgies of blood, fire, pain, and photographic heroism that form the backbone of war-photo books can be gauged by comparison with another just-published book, Don McCullin’s Hearts of Darkness.3 The book of black-and-white, gritty, grainy photos, mostly classically composed images of war combatants and casualties, is indeed a catalogue, of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum late in 1980. This book, too, has its captions collected at the back, and it is explicitly claimed in the introduction by spy-novel writer John Le Carré to be about the photographer: “His work is an externalization of his own fragmented identity.” On the cover of this book, the order of titling on Meiselas’s is reversed: McCullin’s name is at the top and larger than the book title below the photo. That fits publishers’ logic, for Nicaragua is better known than Susan Meiselas, but Don McCullin is better known than the dark hearts the photographs.
After amply establishing, through sexual anecdotes, McCullin’s moral superiority to the scruffy crew of war photographers, Le Carré writes of a photo of a dead Vietnamese boy with whose body McCullin had shared a foxhole:
“If it were a painting, I would call it sentimental; but it isn’t, it’s life, and it’s love outraged, it’s a cry of fury from deep in McCullin’s feeling heart, but I think he wants me to understand that it’s also a cry of fury about his own truncated childhood.”
Most of the photos, from England, Cyprus, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Congo, Biafra, India, Palestine, Lebanon, and Ireland, were taken during the 1960s and early 1970s. A few landscapes near the end are of his property in the English countryside, shrouded in mist, and a dead sparrow in the snow.
A dead sparrow in the snow? At the New School panel of war photographers, I asked McCullin whether what war photographers do, given their own expressed frustration over editors’ demands and their evident inability to “end war,” is not somewhat pornographic. I asked him whether, in his own case, it was not deplorable to publish his photos captionless and with an introduction anointing him as artist. McCullin, a soft-spoken person, showed a strange incoherence about his reasons for taking photos and his feelings about war. But he agreed with me: War photos are far more pornographic than any sexual image, he said. Now a staff photographer for the London Sunday Times, he said he’d rather photograph slums but that the market was slight. As he spoke I forgave him a bit for the book, with its blind construction of a photographer-artist-hero, its flattening of all the photos to War is Hell and Man’s Inhumanity, its title bearing the racist weight suggested by Conrad’s story.
In the 1980s, cynicism and the cult of decadence are far more acceptable in the art world than the image of compulsive empathizing on which McCullin’s reputation has been built. Le Carré injects a suggestion of a modish chasing after violence in lieu of meaning, more Sid Vicious than Cornell Capa: “I expect that McCullin has committed suicide through his camera many times, only to lower the viewfinder and discover himself once again, sane and intact, and obliged to continue ‘a normal life’ . . . perhaps it is . . . possible to feel nostalgia for physical suffering as a form of human nobility from which our good luck frequently withholds us. ”How does one read such an introduction in conjunction with photos of the dying and the dead, the starving and the destitute, most of whom, dead or alive, are looking right at you from the frame? Le Carré exults over the suggestive surrender of the photographed person to McCullin’s camera, the “yes” the literate might associate with Molly Bloom: “Yes, take me . . . Yes, show the world my pain. And I remember reading . . . that an ailing buck has been seen . . . to turn and face his predator with acceptance: ‘yes.’” Le Carré strikes just the right note for the eighties: The photographer stalks the creature given into the final embrace of death.
Don McCullin meditatively told the audience that he sought out the worst atrocities, for who ever said that a dead body had no use? Its use was to be photographed. His point was not the framing of a spectacle; it was the obsessive need to create and to re-create the one telling image, the one that would finally do the work. He expressed, in answer to my question, embarrassment at Le Carré’s introduction; he had been, he said, captive to his editor, who had sat on the book for a year until he found a big name to write. In comparison, Meiselas seems lucky to have escaped with no introduction, even though the book cries out for an analysis of Nicaraguan reality.
What the war correspondents at that conference could not face squarely, but could only worriedly circle around, was the possibility of the meaninglessness of their work, or worse, its translation into sentimentality or sports photography. One panelist suggested that photojournalists had to write more of the copy themselves. But most of the panelists rejected this idea, as they had others. They backed away from personal commitment, in part because, if nothing else, that might damage their saleability and head them toward despair. And was it really even an option for most of them?
Meiselas, in American Photographer, provided a modern rationale for photojournalism: that her photos, appearing almost immediately in American magazines, were quickly seen in Nicaragua and—presumably—served to reinvigorate the rebel cause. Excellent. But if internal circulation were the only aim, one could bypass Geo, Der Spiegel, and Time-Newsweek in favor of direct distribution (though, to be fair, these publications pay the bills and provide access and legitimacy). It is when one sends one’s photos outside the circle of the convinced that the problems begin—problems compounded by publication in book form. Science fiction has pictured a time in which “bush” wars will serve as gladiatorial entertainment for stay-at-home TV viewers. (Until the U.S. Civil War dragged war into the modern age with its change in technology and scale, spectators in fact often gathered at battle sites at a safe viewing distance from engaged combatants, watching a battle as an extension of sport.) Is it unreasonable to conceive of an image-consuming public responding with a similar detached aesthetic appreciation to a photojournalistic style deriving not only from the “anomic” street-photo tradition but also from the feral exoticism of fashion photography? Even the most committed photographer, such as Meiselas, is so far hostage to the interests of editors and publishers and their products, which in the main have little to do with “truth” but which willingly merchandise a nihilistic fascination with death, death, and more death, to help us steer a course between intolerable personal anxiety and its alternative numbness.
Martha Rosler is an artist who works with multiple media, including photography, sculpture, video, and installation. Her interests are centered on the public sphere and landscapes of everyday life—actual and virtual—especially as they affect women. Related projects focus on housing, on the one hand, and systems of transportation, on the other. She has long produced works on war and the “national security climate,” connecting everyday experiences at home with the conduct of war abroad. Other works, from bus tours to sculptural recreations of architectural details, are excavations of history.
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|1.||↑||This essay was originally published under the title “A Revolution in Living Color: The Photojournalism of Susan Meiselas,” In These Times (Chicago), June 17–30, 1981. A later version was published in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings 1975-2001(MIT Press, 2004). We would like to thank Martha Rosler for allowing us to republish this text once more as part of Regarding Spectatorship.|
|2.||↑||Robert Frank, Les Américains, ed. Alain Bousquet (Paris:Robert Delpire, 1958)|
|3.||↑||Don McCullin, Hearts of Darkness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981).|