Nicanotes: Susan Meiselas

Nincanotes : A blog about nicaragua by solidarity activists
By John Kotula

Molotov man nicaragua revolution

I want to pitch the premise that art — painting, music, poetry, dance, photography, etc. — is essential to our understanding of the world. It has the ability to inform us about the vast space that exists between what we know and what is true. This is not empty space. It is packed full with multiple meanings, tangential references, echoes, antecedents, feelings, contradictions, and counter intuitions. It is art that explores this space and takes us deeply into the profundities of truth, of the world as it really exists.

For people interested in Nicaragua, I propose that there is no better illustration of this premise than the work of photographer Susan Meiselas and especially her 1991 documentary film Pictures of a Revolution. It is a flat out masterpiece.

In 1972, when Meiselas was 24 years old, and teaching in the New York City public schools, she started a project of photographing a traveling carnival strip show. For three summers she traveled around New England with the show documenting the performances, but also the life of the girls off stage. The images she produced are powerful, beautiful, intimate, and, in some cases, deeply disturbing. This body of work led to membership with Magnum Photo, the photography cooperative founded by Robert Capa, perhaps the greatest war photographer of all time. It is easy to understand why someone seeing Carnival Strippers would think Meiselas could document conflict. Between the strippers, the men who hawk them, and the rubes who pay to watch and sometimes grope them, there is, at best, an uneasy truce.

However, she says about the time she spent in Nicaragua, initially 1978-1979, “I am not a war photographer in the sense that I didn’t go there for that purpose. I’m really interested in how things come about and not just in the surface of what it is.” She further explains what she was doing in Nicaragua this way, during a demonstration she was photographing “…someone confronted me with a bullet made in the U.S.A. and asked me what I was doing there, and which side I was on. It went beyond the question of ‘Why am I taking photographs?’ or ‘Who am I taking pictures for?’ It was a pivotal moment. It gradually became clear to me that as an American, I had a responsibility to know what the U.S. was doing in other countries.” This would seem to be the opposite of dispassionate photojournalism. It sounds more like advocacy and solidarity through art.

I have a young Nicaraguan friend named Alfonso Cuevas who is developing a career as a photographer. I showed him Meiselas’ book Nicaragua: June 1978 – July 1979. (There is a gorgeous version of this book in Spanish, published in 2016 by IHNICA – Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamerica.) He went through the 71 images page by page, studying each one carefully. He told me, I know many of these photos. This one is the most famous, (The Molotov Man). It was a surprise that the most famous was hers, that a foreigner put herself in danger to take it. I imagined it was taken by a reporter from here. The photo of all the soldiers celebrating the victory in front of the cathedral, that is also very famous. My grandfather wrote a book about the war. He watched a lot of videos. It was when I was very young and It had a big effect on me. These photos show what the war was really like. It is important to have these to show kids in the future. People will forget what it was like. If I was there in that time I couldn’t have done it. I would have been too afraid. My mother and grandfather told me the war was fought by guys 15 and up. Because of this my grandfather sent my uncle Juan to the United States. He still lives there. Many of the young people died or went away. it was a very sad time.

Meiselas’ photo Molotov Man may very well be the most reproduced picture ever taken in Latin America. What would the competition be? Perhaps some of the iconic photos of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, maybe pictures of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but most likely it is Molotov Man. In any case it is certainly ubiquitous in Nicaragua, appearing in murals, as stenciled graffiti, in official government publications, on matchbooks, innumerable tee shirts, and an official seal commemorating the 25th anniversary of the revolution. The image was also at the center of an art world brouhaha in 2005 during which people chose up sides supporting either Meiselas’ right to control the context in which her photo was presented or the right of the artist Joy Garnett to make a painting based the image and exhibit it as her own work. Those supporting Garnett quickly filled the internet with their own versions of Molotov Man, proliferating the image and undermining Meiselas’ control of how it was used.

As powerful as Molotov man is, the collection has scene after scene that is equally as impactful. Here are three examples:


Contact Bombs
In this shot, revolutionaries were in the woods near Monimbó practicing throwing contact bombs, a kind of crude, handmade grenade that explodes on impact. Traditional Nicaraguan dance masks were donned to prevent the National Guard from identifying the fighters. It was often a woman behind the mask. Kids as young as 12 fought in the revolution.


Widow
The woman in this photo was 14 when Meiselas took it. Her husband had been killed in the street. Alone, she brought his body home and buried it in the yard of their house.


Burning Body
Near the end of the fighting, Meiselas captured this image. The corpse of a National Guardsman, killed in the streets of Jinotepe, has been set on fire. Someone has tossed an official photo of Somoza on the pyre.

After having been widely used in newspapers and magazines, Meiselas Nicaragua photos came out in book format in 1981. However, she was not done with these images. Something that Meiselas cares deeply about is the context in which her photos exist. She is a case study in the power of recontextualizing and reframing artwork.

Ten years after she took the pictures, she returned to Nicaragua with a dog eared copy of the book and two collaborating film makers, Alfred Guzzetti and Richard P. Rogers. They drove around the country looking for the people who appeared in the photos. In markets and on street corners, Meiselas stopped people passing by, showed them the photos in the book and said, I’m looking for this guy. I took his picture ten years ago. He used to live near here. Do you know him? She took notes in the margins of the book.

The documentary team found a surprising number of the subjects, from Managua to Miami. They interviewed them and filmed them living their lives, not in battle or triumph, but ten years on, just as the US initiated, directed, and funded Contra War was reaching its conclusion. Meiselas supplies some voice over commentary, but mainly the people tell their own stories. The resulting 90 minutes of film is revelatory. Meiselas shows us a country overwhelmed by grief, material deprivation, disappointment, and anxiety. The triumph of the revolution had brought so much hope, joy, and solidarity that it is heartbreaking to see and hear about all that was destroyed by US aggression. Near the end of the film, in a voice over, Meiselas says that for her one of the saddest things is that we will never know what could have happened if the US had just left Nicaragua alone.

On the 25th anniversary of the revolution, Meiselas took on another project to recontextualize the images. She returned to Nicaragua with nineteen billboard sized prints of her photos and worked with municipalities to install them as near as possible to the location where they had been taken. This project was also documented on film, Reframing History, but it is much shorter and less engaging, and perhaps does not serve the project well, because it is hard to judge what impact the installations had.

If you have not seen the book, Nicaragua: June 1978 – July 1979, or the movie, Pictures of a Revolution, or have not looked at them for a while, I urge you to get copies and spend some time with them. For the last couple of weeks I have been immersed in the material to research this essay. I feel inspired by the experience as someone interested in Nicaragua, but also as an artist and as a person. Meiselas’ work is much too multilayered to reduce to a slogan, but here goes: with the NICA Act looming, it is essential to fight any US interference in the internal affairs of Nicaragua.


BRIEFS

  • Holy Week saw 4.5 million people take to the roads during the national vacation week ending in Easter Sunday. The police estimated 751,000 vehicles carried families to the beaches, mountains and other popular tourist destinations or religious activities. Sixteen people died in traffic accidents, 23 drowned, and 11 were killed in homicides. Alcohol is usually a factor in Holy Week deaths. (El Nuevo Diario, Apr. 2)
  • Penn State University Professor Christelle Wauthier, using satellite data to measure Masaya Volcano ground elevation changes declared that there is a high risk of eruption of this popular tourist destination near Managua. The volcano last erupted in 1772, but satellite imagery show the lava pool feeding the caldera has been growing. Wauthier said, “The volcano has the potential to be very explosive and to create very large eruptions. That’s why we focus on this area because there are so many people living there.” (Informe Pastran, Mar. 30)