On a late spring day in New York, the acclaimed documentary photographer Susan Meiselas was in her basement studio on Mott Street preparing for a summer retrospective of her work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
But with news of a percolating insurrection trickling out of Nicaragua, where she made her name in the 1970s with gritty, intimate images of the Sandinista Revolution, she was itching to get on a plane. “If I go, I know I will not be able to come back,” the 70-year-old Ms. Meiselas said. “I know I will be pulled into the current of history. It’s very hard for me now: do I pack my bag?” For 12 years, she added, “I never unpacked it except to do laundry.”
A few weeks after this interview, cameras in hand, she was back in Managua, as paramilitary groups closed in on student protestersoccupying the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (Unan). “I just decided I had to,” she said, by phone, after she returned.
That unyielding dedication has enabled her to capture images like the famed “Molotov Man” (1979), as it’s known, a Sandinista rebel (later identified as Pablo Araúz) about to hurl a Pepsi bottle-turned-homemade explosive, which became so symbolic of resistance that current protesters have resurrected it 40 years later. Her photographs of masked rebels and rotting corpses, including those of American nuns executed by Salvadoran soldiers, brought the political oppression and brutality of the Latin American conflicts in the 1970s and ’80s to viewers worldwide. When she returned last month, she found a country in chaos, where friends, including one-time Sandinistas, have turned against President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, whom they see as having shed democratic reforms, reverting to an authoritarian regime.
Ms. Meiselas made photographs as a group heading for Unan was attacked on the road by unidentified, armed men after a major march. Protesters, she said, wielded homemade mortars that created smoky diversions. Their attackers fired live ammunition. “It was a very eerie past, present and imagined-future journey,” she recalled.
But Magnum, which has represented Ms. Meiselas since 1976, was unable to place these latest images of Central American violence. “The media is distracted,” she lamented. “We have Trump and Putin. We have World Cup soccer.”
The SFMoMA retrospective, through Oct. 21, also demonstrates how much more Ms. Meiselas’s oeuvre encompasses: Projects on domestic violence, and women working in a Moroccan spice market — whom she offered to compensate with money or their portrait in exchange for a sitting — also define her humanistic approach.
“It’s astonishing how rich a narrative Susan knits around her work,” Corey Keller, the museum’s curator of photography, said. “She facilitates the voices of people who might not otherwise have their stories told.”
As Ms. Meiselas observed, “Listening is a big part of my work.” She added, “Street photography is hit and run — grab it and move on. It’s very focused on the object of the photograph and not the relationship. I’m not comfortable doing that.”
That empathy was palpable in her earliest work, “44 Irving St” (1971), depicting her fellow boardinghouse residents in their rooms, along with texts they wrote about their lives there. Ms. Meiselas made the piece for the only photography class she ever took, as a graduate student at Harvard. After moving to Mott Street in 1974, when it was solidly part of Little Italy, she began to shoot middle-school girls hanging out on the corner. She continued to photograph them on and off for years. It was “an unintended project,” she said. “I just kept bumping into them and found them so fascinating as they were shifting in age and sense of self.”
Revisiting past subjects is a key difference between Ms. Meiselas and other documentary photographers. “I’ve never met another photographer who goes back again and again to see how the story plays out over time,” Ms. Keller said.
It’s impossible not to view the parochial-school girls — wearing tube tops, smoking, gawping at a friend applying lipstick — as an offshoot of the raw “Carnival Strippers,” Ms. Meiselas’s breakthrough project, for which she followed a traveling striptease show through New England.
“It’s that difference between working with women who were doing something that was unimaginable to me at the time, then seeing these girls,” she said. “This wonderful age, the 10- to 12-year-old age — they’re so spirited and defiant and full of confidence, which sadly gets eroded in the next chapter because sexuality opens up other issues very often.”
Ms. Meiselas’s girlhood, in Queens and Long Island, was defined by sports. She played field hockey, volleyball and basketball and was a long-distance runner. The theme of women moving into traditionally male environments, including professional sports and the army, has cropped up in her work over the years.
While earning her masters in visual education at Harvard, she worked on Frederick Wiseman’s 1971 anti-Vietnam War documentary “Basic Training.” Later, she frequently collaborated with her husband, Richard P. Rogers, on films like “Pictures From a Revolution (1991),” which brought them back to Nicaragua to explore the legacy of the revolution and the ways her images were appropriated for Sandinista propaganda. (He died in 2001.)
When the couple moved to Mott Street she taught underserved kids in the Bronx and used her summers off to make “Carnival Strippers.” After compiling a book, she caught the attention of Magnum and finally envisioned a full-time photography career.
Her coverage from Nicaragua and El Salvador landed prominent placement in The New York Times Magazine, Time and elsewhere, but her mind was always more on history than news. “Artist, photojournalist, visual historian — I don’t think it’s useful vocabulary,” she said.
Her piece “Mediations” (1978-82), which lends the retrospective its name, explores with curiosity how the global media and the art world — as well as the political sphere — digested her war photography. In 2004, 25 years after “Molotov Man,” she returned to Nicaragua and hung murals of her photographs where she had shot them, such as the hill that was an execution site, where she made “Cuesta del Plomo,” an image of half a corpse.
“She wasn’t interested in just showcasing her greatest hits,” says Kristen Lubben, an adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography, who has organized several shows with Ms. Meiselas. “She was trying to make it a more transparent system of how photographs circulate and the meaning behind that.”
By incorporating text, sound and augmented reality — the latest edition of her book “Nicaragua” enables readers to hold their smartphones over pages to watch film clips of her subjects speaking — Ms. Meiselas is attempting to “push against the constraint” of photography’s inherent limitations, said Ms. Lubben, who is also executive director of the Magnum Foundation, where Ms. Meiselas serves as president.
Following her decade in Latin America, which earned her a prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant, the aftermath of the Gulf War led her to shoot the mass graves from the Kurdish genocide, but then, as she listened to survivors’ stories, she began to rephotograph their own family pictures, making a sort of collective album of the persecuted ethnic group. Using archival material, viewed as radical at the time, has since become commonplace among contemporary artists, Ms. Lubben said.
Since returning from Nicaragua, Ms. Meiselas has produced a postcard featuring a diptych of “Molotov Man” and a found work, by an uncredited photographer, of a protester in a similar stance, preparing to throw what appears to be a mortar round, to hand out to museum visitors in San Francisco. On the other side is a new image by Ms. Meiselas: a young man, a scarf wrapped around his face to hide his identity, scrawls graffiti on a wall. “SOS,” it reads in black, as he writes, in red, “Las balas,” the bullets.
“It’s strange putting up something so historical and have it be so relevant today,” the photographer said. “We’re always living history, except we think of it as daily life.”