A Photographic Ethics: Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline by Alexandra Nicolaides

“A photograph is always a record of a relationship.” —Susan Meiselas 

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Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline (Aperture, 2017).

In the career-spanning Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline, the words and images of the acclaimed documentary photographer engage with invisibility as something present yet hidden, as an intimate and a stranger, and as registering the implicit bonds between neighbors, workers, and entire peoples. Meiselas describes her first experience as a photographer making the series 44 Irving Street (1971) at the boarding house in which she was living:


I had a camera, a 4 x 5, which was very visible, yet I was hidden under a black cloth behind it… . I was also intruding, which is a very big first step. It felt like trespassing… . At the same time I felt invisible. That invisibility creates a tension throughout my work. I am present, but want to avoid the focus on myself. I am not a ‘fly on the wall’: I don’t pretend not to be there, but I am not the ‘story’. I might be the bridge, the guide, and in some sense the collaborator with the subject.


In her well-known Carnival Strippers series (1976), the hiding black cloth takes on a new facet. The women emerge from their private dressing room behind a curtain to the public stage: “At some point, one of the women pulled the curtain aside, saying, ‘There they are’. I could not imagine what going out on stage was like. They were leading me to look.” In Carnival Strippers, Meiselas photographs either from behind this curtain or in the audience disguised as a man. Invisibility and looking seem as if they should be oppositional and antagonistic, but here, invisibility intensifies looking: “The act of looking was shared, but the spectators were as central as the spectacle.” This incongruous relationship between invisibility and looking recurs throughout On the Frontline, and its variability and complexity is central to Meiselas’s practice.

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Susan Meiselas, Self-portrait, 44 Irving Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971; from Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline (Aperture, 2017). © 2017 Susan Meiselas.

Meiselas uses text in concert with her images with a dexterity that entwines a written history into her photographs: “From the outset, the idea of a narrative that extended beyond the single frame lay at the heart of my work. I can love certain photographs, that I have made, but that is often not quite enough for me. The making of an image and the image itself don’t always hold me long enough. Despite the pleasure of making a photograph, I still feel the need to stitch it and weave it into something more.” On the Frontline offers the reader narratives that reach beyond the image—from Meiselas’s iconic Nicaragua: June 1978–July 1979 (1981) to the more recent Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997)—to understand not only the situations Meiselas has captured, but her relationship to her photographic practice, and our experience of her photographs. The employment of both image and text is a crucial binding that emphasizes Meiselas’s ambitions for, and ethics, of photography.

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Susan Meiselas, Page spread from Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, showing Qala Diza, 1991, in comparison to Qala Diza, 2007, Northern Iraq, November 2007; from Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline (Aperture, 2017). © 2017 Susan Meiselas. 

On the Frontline opens with a series of photographs taken in the early 1990s in northern Iraq. While chronologically out of sync with the structure of the book, these photographs and her related work on Kurdistan show Meiselas going beyond the boundaries of the isolated photograph. One of the book’s first images is of a skull—still blindfolded—being lifted from a grave. The caption reads: “Dr Clyde Snow, internationally known forensic anthropologist, holds the blindfolded skull of an executed male teenager estimated to be between 15 and 18 years old, Arbil, Northern Iraq.” This skull is being disinterred from the bottom of the photograph and raised tenderly in the hand of Dr. Snow, who looks down upon it. Other men crouch and stand at the lip of the grave while gazing at the skull. In turn, it looks out toward us. We look back, yet the looking is unreciprocated. Meiselas writes about how the Kurdish people are seen but cannot see themselves: “I became preoccupied by the idea that ‘pictures are made and taken away’, so a culture might not get to see itself.”

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Susan Meiselas, Stencil mobilizing the popular militia against the Contras based on “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, 1984; from Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline (Aperture, 2017). © 2017 Susan Meiselas. 

Meiselas’s solution to this excavates a narrative beyond the limits of her own photographs, searching through archives and collections of the Kurdish people: “The burial released the metaphor for uncovering Kurdistan, which lives in the act of digging. The digging unleashed an obsessive gene that drove me to search for what had gone missing, and what remained unknown. The trawling through the archives was parallel with the witnessing and the actual exhumation of graves.” The work Meiselas constructs is “a mosaic of fragments” that encourages “the reader to think about the larger historical framework with small contributions both authored and anonymous.” Meiselas’s project moves beyond the fixed time of the discrete photograph to build “a collective memory.” The complexity of Kurdistan, and her writing in On the Frontline, along with considering this book as another iteration of the former, show an exciting experimentation and risk-taking for documentary photography. 

Meiselas demonstrates how the fundamental fungibility of photographs can be used in the aid of truth. Truth is too often conflated with fact. The fragments of intricate relationships that Meiselas photographs, writes, exhibits, and publishes are perhaps too slight to be facts. In concert, however, they offer crucial possibilities for how documentary photography can regain its much-needed ability to act as an agent for social justice.


Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline is available from Aperture.

Alexandra Nicolaides is based in New York. She received an MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts. For over a decade, she has worked as an art consultant for international clients. Currently, she is a PhD student in the Art History, Criticism, and Theory department at Stony Brook University. 

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