Susan Meiselas- Contemporary Story Teller and the Carnival Strippers.

For my third master documentary photographer, I wanted to find someone more current. Someone with who demonstrated understanding of the earlier practices and developed over time to a more contemporary approach. Susan Meiselas perfectly fits that profile.

Fig. 1 Self-Portrait 1977 by Susan Meiselas (Meiselas, 2019)

Figure 1 was taken as part of her first project 11 Irwin street During her studies. It illustrates her approach to photography. “The way I most like to work is to immerse myself. To be present over time without knowing where it’s going to lead me (Meister 2019)”, but invisible. She preferred being behind the camera.

As usual, who was Susan Meiselas and what was her context from her website (Meseiles, 2019)

  • Meseilas was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1948,
  • BA from Sarah Lawrence College
  • MA in visual education from Harvard University.
  • Her first major photographic essay focused on the lives of women doing striptease at New England country fairs, who she photographed during three consecutive summers while teaching photography in New York public schools. 
  • Carnival Strippers was originally published in 1976 and a selection was installed at the Whitney Museum of Art in June 2000.
  • Meiselas joined Magnum Photos in 1976 and has worked as a freelance photographer since then.
  • She is best known for her coverage of the insurrection in Nicaragua and her extensive documentation of human rights issues in Latin America.
  • She published her second monograph, Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979, in 1981.
  • Served as an editor and contributor to the book El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers (1983)
  • Edited Chile from Within (1991)
  • She has co-directed three films, Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1986); Pictures from a Revolution (1991) with Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti and  Re-framing History (2004)
  • In 1997, she completed a six-year project curating a hundred-year photographic history of Kurdistan, integrating her own work into the book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997)
  • Her 2001 monograph Pandora’s Box (2001) which explores a New York S & M club, has been exhibited both at home and abroad.
  • The 2003 book and exhibition Encounters with the Dani documents a sixty-year history of outsiders’ discovery and interactions with the Dani, an indigenous people of the highlands of Papua in Indonesia.
  • Her retrospective book and recent exhibition In History (2008) was produced with the International Center for Photography, New York and Steidl.
  • Her most recent project A Room Of Their Own (2015-2016) explores the experiences of women in a refuge in the Black Country UK. A Room Of Their Own was published by Multistory in 2017.
  • Meiselas has had one-woman exhibitions in Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and her work is included in collections around the world.
  • She has received the Robert Capa Gold Medal for her work in Nicaragua (1979); the Leica Award for Excellence (1982);
  • the Engelhard Award from the Institute of Contemporary Art (1985); the Hasselblad Foundation Photography prize (1994);
  • the Cornell Capa Infinity Award (2005);
  • the Harvard Arts Medal (2011)
  • and most recently was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015).

Her work is excellently presented on her website.

In this initial blog about her photography I reflect her early work Carnival Strippers. Marseilas describes her approach in this work as follows:

“Carnival Strippers is the first real body of work. So it’s not my very first pictures, but the first time I kind of discovered a way to be a photographer that felt right for me. I didn’t go out looking for carnival strippers or researching carnival strippers. I was travelling in summer actually following small circuses that were crossing America going out to the Midwest. When I came back through to New England and I was in Essex Junction and really everything unfolded. And then I spent two more summers really committing to following the path. (Meister, 2019)

Fig. 2. “Lena on the Bally” (Meisellas,2019)

“Carnival Strippers begins with a series of encounters, and the photograph we’re looking at, Lena of the Bally, is not the first of the images I made, but really the first time I felt like it all clicked it all made sense, why I was looking at her everyone else the world around her (Meister, 2019) .”

Referring to Fig 1, Meiselas initially photographed in black and white and used vignetting created by the spotlight to create a focus on the subject. This is an introductory shot setting up the scene. She used a wide-angle perspective to include the environment. The dark tones reinforce the story.

She continues: “I just felt magnetical, I need to know more. There were so many issues for me looking at the woman who became Lena, who I didn’t know was Lena when I made the photograph. The idea of projecting a self to attract a male gaze was completely counter to my sense
of culture, what I wanted for myself. So I was fascinated by women who were choosing to do that. Who is she looking at? She’s looking out and looking above and looking beyond, with, I think, a really strong sense of self. The feminists of that period were perceiving the girl shows as exploitative institutions that should be closed down. And so I actually was positioned in the place of feeling these voices should be heard. They should self define as to who they are and what their economic realities are
(Meister, 2019). “

Fig 3 Susan Photographing Ginger (Meiselas, 2019)

I was virtually introduced to Meiselas in a video interview with Sarrah Meister, curator of MOMA where her Carnival was presented as a masterwork in documentary photography. Meiselas’ first major project shares much in common with David Goldblatt’s work Some Afrikaners photographed. They both engaged with something that personally challenged them. A sense of dissonance. They sought understanding, not judgement. The contradiction is what fascinated them. Both became the work that defined their work and established them as master practitioners. My current project on Ubuntu has the same fascination for me not that I have such grand expectations from it.

“There weren’t many other cameras. I mean if we were making this picture today it’s interesting the differences of how many people would have been with cameras, iPhones, etc. So I don’t think she’s performing for me. She’s performing for the public. I think now we find many more people performing for the cameras. So navigating from a public fairgrounds to the place where I’m invited by the women to see the world that they are within, which is the dressing room and is their zone, and just staying as long as I could and being as part of that full working process of their lives. You can’t anticipate how long you’re going to be there. Every night is unique. The dynamics of the girls that happen to come together was varied. Some were more connected to each other, and others, there were great tensions, and I was as interested in how to visualize these relationships with women and their bodies and their comfort zones and their competitiveness.”

Fig 4 The contact sheet: A series of interactions – (Meiselas 2019)

Fig 4 is a series of photographs showing how Meiselas continuously takes photographs, varying her visual perspectives to find that defining photograph that illustrates what she wants to present and keep. This series shows how she won’t hold back and use a full film. She kept the same wide-angle lens and moved and changed her angle while choosing moments. And from the series of 30 photographs, she seemed to have selected only one with a possible 4 more, illustrating how she curated her work.

Fig 5. “Comfort zones and competitiveness” – (Meiselas, 2019)

Why did she select figure 5. I sense it is the paradox between the stripper having to expose themselves, merely a sex object and a confident person with thoughts of her own. The intense closeness and framing merely enhance the tension between the three subjects ( front torso, the seated stripper and the reflected torso in the background.). The photographs dark tones remind me of Brassai’s Paris nightlife and aesthetic. Meiselas used available light and from the grain a film a high ISO film. She wanted to keep things natural and candid and almost become part of this closed environment. in much the same way as Annie Leibowitz who embedded her with the rock and roll stars. But it is their continued immersion within the lives of their subjects and presence over a significant period of time that allowed them to gain the trust of their subjects to capture the honest moments, be they aesthetically beautiful, or ugly, important or mundane. “The relationships evolved with some to be deeper in the sense that they went over multiple years (Meister, 2019).” But all special in their own right.

Meiselas continues: “My working process was to be somewhere on a weekend, go back to Boston which at the time was my base and process the work and bring back the contact sheets and show whoever was there the following weekend what the pictures were, and they left little initials saying I like this one. I don’t like that one. And I think one of the richest things that came form that sharing was the idea that they wanted portraits. I did not see myself and I still don’t today really, as a portraitist but it was to honor them. It’s what they wanted, it’s what they needed, for their fathers, for their boyfriends. They wanted to have this controlled presentation of self, and chose where they would be in relation to the tent and which costume they would wear, more or less, some less and some more. (Meister,2019)”

Fig 6″Before the show 1974 (Meiseilas 2019)”

I particularly love the photograph Fig 6. Before the show. I love the way she introduces innuendo trough implying the stripper and her engagement with the audience. In a way, the young boy or girl seems to represent Sarah, herself surrounded by sexed-up men, but the face is showing fascination, respect and awe. The strippers hand points as if to select her from the crowd. The dark tones backing and enhancing the face.

Her being female made the ladies trust her and allow her to blend in. Susan Sontag may accuse her as being a flaneur, but Meseilas contests that as she concludes in the interview with Sarah Meister with: “This negotiated, or collaborative space with photography really still fascinates me. It’s a kind of offering, it’s a moment in which someone says, I want you to be here with us, and I wait a long time to feel that moment. The challenge of making that moment, creating that moment. That’s what still intrigues me, I think, and keeps me engaged with photography (Meister, 2019).” Her female sensibilities made the ladies trust her and allow her to blend in, but her immersion, continued commitment and sensitivity gave her permission to enter their world and freely share their lives.

Fig 7. “Ginger 1975” from a series of portraits (Meiselas, 2019)

Meseilas did not limit her storytelling to the photographs but expanded it in her books an website. She presents them as a series reminiscent of the storytelling technique presented in my blog on Unearthing the photo essay (Nagel, 2019)

Fig 8 Web page “Front stage” layout 1 (Meiselas,2015)
Fig 9 “Backstage” (Meiselas, 2019)

Figures 8 and 9 Illustrate the introduction of rhythm in her presentation varying her photograph sizes. The larger photographs are the key photographs. I also love the way she introduces artefacts such as letters and sound bytes to add the story. I suggested a similar approach in my pitch to OXFAM even before seeing this website. It makes these subjects real and moves them outside the realm of fantasy.

Meiselas being an educator and documentary photographer matches my practice directly and she has a lot to teach me. I will revisit and reflect on her later work in a future blog.


Meiselas, S. (2019). Susan Meiselas. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].

Meister, S. (2019). 3.6 Susan Meiselas. Carnival Strippers. 1973-75 – Documentary Photography | Coursera. [online] Coursera. Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].

Nagel, A. (2019). Unearthing the Photo Essay. [online] André Nagel’s Critical Research Journal. Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].

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