Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Susan Meiselas: Diving into gritty realism

Susan Meiselas

Cuesta del Plomo

           The International Center of Photography, one of the world’s premier exhibitors of photographic art, currently contains works from renowned photographer Susan Meiselas. Best known for her coverage of political conflicts in Central America, Meseilas explored “issues of nationalism and identity.” Organized by Kristen Lubben, Susan Meiselas: In History includes three of her main projects: Carnival Strippers (1972-76); Nicaragua (1978-present); and Kurdistan (1991-present). Meiselas sets herself apart through her exceptional ability to encompass her photographs with “larger contexts and deeper histories.” Her desire to capture and reveal the truths of the world places her as a “leading voice in the debate on contemporary documentary practice.”

           Walking down the stairs, we are immediately struck by an array of vibrant and powerful colors in Meiselas’ images. Although each project has a beauty and meaning of its own, Nicaragua, is perhaps her most controversial, gruesome, and disturbing work.              Meiselas succeeds in illuminating the horrors during the Sandinista Revolution. During this time, the Somaza family, a dictatorship, ruled the country in unscrupulous ways. The corrupt dynasty was overthrown when the revolutionary group, “Sandinista National Liberation Front” (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional -FSLN), was born. Meiselas’ photographs capture the distress and gritty realism during this period of aggression, social distress, and chaos.

           The image, “NICARAGUA. Managua. 1979. Children rescued from a house destroyed by 1,000-pound bomb dropped in Managua. They died shortly after,” will surely make viewers shudder. Sprawled across a soot covered and blood stained checkered floor, we are overwhelmed with the grotesque image of two young boys on the verge of death. The boy on the left looks as though he is taking his last breath, as an adult’s hand is placed over the stomach apparently checking for vital signs. The drips of blood on every inch of his body, and his lifeless hands further diminish any hopes of his survival. While the boy on the left is taking his last gasps of air, the boy on the lower right is fixated on him. His enlarged pupils and lack of expression indicate that he knows the fate of his friend. The smears, streaks, and pool of blood from under his arm make it hard to look at the image before growing uneasy and disgusted. The discoloration, bruises, cuts, gashes, and dirt enveloped on their youthful bodies causes a feeling of utter disdain for those responsible for dropping the 1,000 lb. bomb; a bomb that cheated and snatched the innocent lives and futures away from these two young boys. The title blatantly states that they boys die shortly afterwards, further erupting a rush of repugnance and antipathy for the ruthless killers of the Somoza dictatorship.

           In the image “Cuesta del Plomo,” we are confronted with a seemingly lush hillside, with a beautiful skyline and lake in the background. The beautiful setting presents a stark contrast to the painful and eerie mood evoked by the lower half of a human body on the grass. It almost looks like an abandoned pair of jeans on the ground, or even half of a mannequin. However, Cuesta del Plomo is actually a “well known site for many assassinations carried out by the National Guard,” where people “search daily for missing persons.” Here we see a human spine sticking out from the corpse, surrounded by pieces of bones. Perhaps the most disturbing question is how this murder occurred, how it is possible to have completely mauled the upper body with the exception of the spine, while leaving the legs and jeans intact. Again, Meiselas highlights the suffering caused by the war through her raw depiction of the grim environment and reality of the Sandinista Revolution.

           Through her travels to Central America, Susan Meiselas provides a moving and rare glimpse into the daily conflicts and violence Nicaraguans in the 1970s and 1980s experienced. Meiselas states, “the problem for the photographer remains: how to create images and a sequence that’s sustaining and engaging, but asks people to wait, to not think they know, but to be suspended and uncertain along with those pictured whose lives are unpredictable and unraveling.” However, this problem was nonexistent in her work; while the majority of these thought-provoking images illustrate brutal and unsettling events and subjects, she effortlessly grasps the focus and attention of her viewers. Meiselas craftily creates a dilemma in her project Nicaragua; viewers are repulsed while simultaneously unable to take their eyes off of her images.

1 comment

1 Kamellia Saroop { 12.11.08 at 9:54 pm }

As I was lurking around the blog, I noticed this piece on Meisalas. I was immediately shocked due to the gritty details of your included photos and appreciate the accompanying piece. I would say this review reminds me of hardcore journalism.