11 November 2008

There is an Interview with Susan Meiselas ...

... in the November '08 issue of The Brooklyn Rail. You can find it here.
Update: Later that same day - actually that evening.

I have been stewing about this interview most of the day. Two things strike me as important to mention. The first is that the interviewer, Phong Bui (publisher of The Rail), initiates the conversation with what I think is an incredibly lame set of comments about a review in The New York Times of the current Meiselas retrospective at the ICP. Now, I've already noted here that the review was pathetic. But Bui launches into what I take to be a lament about the importance of "concerned" photography - a phrase and a notion I find insipid - and then punctuates his soliloquy with this gem from Eugene Smith:
“My camera, my intentions, could stop no man from falling. Nor could they aid him after he had fallen. [ . . .] If my photographs could cause the compassionate horror within that person, the viewer, they might also prod him into taking action.”
The problem here is not just that Bui repeats the canard linking compassion and documentary about which I've complained repeatedly before. If photographs prompt compassion in viewers they are politically useless. Failure to grasp that basic point, I think, disables much well-intentioned photography. Worse than that, Bui seems not to grasp Meiselas's work any more than the reviewer from The Times. He misses the political dimension of her work almost entirely. It seems to me that Meiselas is left trying to politely distance herself from the questioner's misinterpretations.

The second thing that has had me thinking is much more positive. Meiselas says this about some of her work among the Iraqi Kurds who were relentlessly, murderously persecuted (with the conniving of his American sponsors) by Saddam Hussein:
"... I don’t pretend that the making of the images stopped anything, though interestingly, they played an effective role as evidence in the trial against Saddam Hussein in 2006 (15 years after they were taken). But who was to know when I made them, and who would have thought that there would have been the invasion that put Saddam on trial as a result?"
This comment underscores two things. The first is obvious - photographs have uses that, sometimes quite fortuitously, escape the intentions of those who make them. So, when thinking about photography we need to keep our eye on use. Second, though, is the question of what counts as success in photography. This is something I've written about here before too [1] [2]. But the fortuitous use to which prosecutors put Meiselas's photographs of Iraqi Kurds is a potent reminder that success may be slow in coming and so difficult to foresee or assess.

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