Thursday, 6 November 2008

Documentary Photography (3)

Susan Meiselas’ Nicaragua was first published in 1981 and reprinted by Aperture in 2008. The book is divided into three parts: The Somoza Regime (June 1978); Insurrection (September 1978); The Final Offensive (June 1979 – July 1979) and introduced by the following declaration:

A year or news,
as if nothing had happened before,
as if the roots were not there,
and the victory not earned.
This book was made,
so that we remember.

Already the first photo – some rural place, in the rain, a pig on (main?) street, strangely timeless – demonstrates impressively that this country, like any other country, has a past and a present, whether noticed by the rest of the world (who noticed this particular country only when a civil war was going on) or not.

The colour (that is rather unique for pictures from war) photos radiate something magic although I couldn’t say why that is. I don’t think it’s the subjects (labourers at work, groups of people in uniforms, burned out cars, political demonstrations, street fighting, dead bodies, barricades, tanks etc) but maybe also. There is a strange presence about these pictures, they made me feel like being there.

One photograph, at first glance, doesn’t seem to fit at all: a black limousine at the bottom of stairs that lead (one supposes) up to the entrance of some official building, a chauffeur in a white uniform with a white hat, who holds open the car door; men in white suits who climb up the stairs; in the background formations of soldiers, all in white uniforms. What is this? And, how come it is to be found in a book about a civil war? The caption (on the last pages of the book! No, I do not even want to know why the captions were put there …) informs that: „President Anastasio Somoza Debayle opening new session of the National Congress 1978“. A bit thin, I’d say.

A very famous photograph shows a young woman running on a road with a near-naked little boy hanging from one arm and a bag slung over her shoulder. The caption explains: “Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí, Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.” The caption says: „Fleeing the bombing to seek refuge outside of Estelí, Nicaragua, Sept. 20, 1978.”

Years later, in a documentary about her work in Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas comments: “That photograph is taken by at least five different photographers, at different points during her journey. She is literally vultured by us. No one is thinking to help her, including myself.”

That is indeed the question/problem, not only of war photography, but of journalism in general: It lives off the misery of others. As Janet Malcolm famously wrote in „The Journalist and the Murderer“: „The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the ‘public’s right to now’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

The war photographer and the ones who simply look at these pictures share the same dilemma: both know that these photos should not exist and both are glad that they do.

Susan Meiselas
Nicaragua, June 1978 – July 1979
Aperture, New York, 2008

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