Sunday, August 12, 2007

Susan Meiselas and the Repatriation of Images

Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas is one of the greats, one of the photographers through whose eyes the world saw the chaotic and bloody violence in Central America during the Reagan years. The New York Times provides an interesting update on her career since then. Like many photojournalists, she has had to find new outlets and sources of financial support for her work, and she is working with Human Rights Watch photographing child domestic workers.

What really caught my eye was her ideas about returning people's images to them.
Taking photographs, she once said in an interview with Nicaraguan television, “is sometimes the least you can do.”

Much of what drives Ms. Meiselas’s work is a desire to step back through the looking glass to find the people she once photographed, to forge connections and return their pictures to them.

“We take pictures away and we don’t bring them back,” she said. “That became a central quest for me — relinking, revisiting, the repatriation of work: it’s become a kind of motif in my thinking.”

The notion of moving in circles is now central to her work, but in a way, she has long been doing it. She laments the demise of the Polaroid camera because it allowed her to give a photograph, on the spot, to people who did not have cameras of their own.

In a project involving the Kurds, she sought to restore a collective memory to a dispossessed people, spending several years searching for photographs that were scanned into an online archive of Kurdish history, “akaKurdistan” (akakurdistan.com).
The "repatriation of work" that Meiselas proposes certainly is different from the one-way exercise in voyeurism that photography usually becomes, no matter how good the motive. It raises difficult questions about the relationship between photographer and subject, and the ownership of images.

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