PRINT December 1991


Susan Meiselas's Pictures from a Revolution

NICARAGUA IS NOT IN THE news much these days, at least not in the United States. We hear of so much other fast-unfolding history that its loss as a North American political and military fixation is felt only by those who cared about the country to begin with. One person who came to care about Nicaragua was photographer Susan Meiselas who gained renown for her harrowing frontline photographs of the popular revolution that toppled Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979 Just as she recorded those heady years of revolution in still photographs, she (along with filmmakers Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzetti) has now tracked its demise in a gripping, profoundly moving, and finally tragic film entitled Pictures from a Revolution, debuted at the New York Film Festival this fall.

Anyone looking for a crashing indictment of the U.S. government’s barbaraous role in Nicaragua had better look elsewhere, however. For when Meiselas set out on her journey across Nicaragua the people who appeared in the pictures, published in her 1981 book, Nicaragua: June 1978–July 1979, she was looking for their personal stories, for the human face behind the famous photographs and epochal events. Meiselas is clearly still questioning her own part in the revolutionary process, wondering what photography can ever show of complexities of both public and private history. Although the film beautifully raises those issues, Meiselas doesn’t have any answers. What she shows instead is the extraordinary bravery and dedication to the idea of revolutionary change that the ordinary, poor Nicaraguan displayed, and continues to live with, especially in the form of sometimes proud and often bitter memories of the enormous sacrifices made at the time of the Sandinista revolution. What we in the U.S. have forgotten, with our own Civil War so far behind us, is that the trauma of political violence on one’s home soil lives on long after the event and that civil war can be as close and as personal as family conflict.

Meiselas first went to Nicaragua a naïf, about both the country itself and the unique methods Central American dictators use to terrorize their populations and keep them in line, such “counterinsurgency” training often paid for and delivered by the U.S. military. When Meiselas got to Nicaragua, she says she didn’t even know what to photograph, a problem resolved when years of antigovernment agitation ignited a popular uprising in the town of Matagalpa in August 1978. Meiselas was not only fortuitously on hand for the birth of the insurrection—90 percent of covering the news is being there when it happens—but was able to convert its enormous risks personal sacrifices, and passionate commitment into some of the most compelling photographs ever taken of a fight for liberation. Within a short time she became a symbol both here and in Central America.

In the U.S., Meiselas represented the possibility that women could be celebrated photojournalists working in difficult and even violent situations, an idea that had lost its currency since World War II when the likes of Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller put themselves on the front lines. Meiselas also breathed new life into a notion that had seemingly died of its own hopeless idealism: that a “concerned” photographer who shared the ideals and goals of a group of oppressed people could in some way help further their cause with pictures. In Nicaragua itself she has become nothing short of a popular heroine, whose colorful and very brave photographs have recorded for all Nicaraguans the unlikely victory that would become known as “the Triumph.”

During the 1980s Meiselas continued to photograph in Nicaragua, shuttling back and forth and recording the deterioration of the country as it unsuccessfully tried to fight off a host of U.S. funded assaults. Seven months before the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in July 1990, on the tenth anniversary of the Triumph, Meiselas, Rogers, and Guzetti began making their film.

As Meiselas has described it, the three had a simple modus operandi: they took a copy of her book of photographs and went to Nicaragua to find the people who figured in them. Following her memory of where certain images had been taken. Meiselas is shown in the film walking up to houses and stopping people on the street to ask if they know the names of the people pictured. Her informal but direct search brings the large events of the news down to a mundane and even intimate level for the viewer. A man shown in one photograph at a makeshift barricade in the middle of a street describes to her what it was like to spend days feeling so vulnerable and exposed. A rifle-toting female Sandinista seen in another photograph talks about the difficulties of being a woman in an armed insurrection and the irony of now living with a contra. And two men identified as being members of Somoza’s National Guard repeatedly deny that they are the ones shown in a group of Somocista prisoners.

Each person Meiselas locates talks with varying levels of emotion about the events of a decade before. Many of the stories are told matter-of-factly. “I was 14 in that picture,” one woman says, and then goes on to tell how she alone trundled the body of her husband home, and how she buried him herself. “Only one man helped me,” she remembers, her expression both forlorn and angry. For others, the pain of the experience of the revolution is still very near the surface. A former National Guardsman, who lost part of one arm, expresses dismay that the Somocistas lost, and cries as he talks. Another woman, who aided the Sandinistas, fights back tears and seems incapable of verbalizing what she feels. The drama of these individual lives builds the narrative to an anguished conclusion. The revolution failed. So many were lost. The people are worse off in some ways than they were before.

During a discussion period after the New York showing of the film, Meiselas tried to shed some light on what they had done. Meiselas’ impetus to make the film came partly from what she explained as “living with images that seem so inadequate.” She seemed especially disturbed by the fact that although she questions the value and meaning of photographic representation, no one else seems to. “We come back with little frames,” she said, alluding to the job of the photojournalist. “You see them in newspapers and magazines and you think you understand what they mean.”

The audience was more interested in nailing Meiselas for not providing a thorough documentary of the Sandinista years than in considering what photographs mean. Which points up the difficulties not only of communicating via photographs but of doing effective criticism of them, especially when they are made for publication in the mass media. People tend to conflate photographs with their subjects and to ignore the formal attributes that give them power, that is, the ability of the photographer to choose the best vantage point to shoot from, to frame a picture, to get as close as necessary to the action. Television, on the other hand, communicates primarily by the illusory immediacy that videotaped transcription offers. A videocamera can capture the craziness of battle, the frightened shouts, the fugitive emotions that transform the otherwise rather uniform faces of the news in ways that still photography cannot.

It was Meiselas’ skill as a photographer and her sympathy for what the Nicaraguan revolutionaries were doing that allowed her to make her dramatic, memorable pictures. It is only in this film, however, that we perceive the modest character of the street corners and doorways she photographed, that we see how ordinary these people are underneath the heroic, masked exteriors that the camera captures so well. Which is not to say that the photographic evidence isn’t true. It is simply that still photographs are good at showing one thing at a time. In her photographs, Meiselas shows the larger-than-life truth of matchless sacrifice and bravery; it took the film to show the parallel, mundane truths of powerlessness, uncertainty, fragility, and defeat. That difference in expressive power is something every still photographer needs to grapple with.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator, and senior editor at American Photo. She contributes this column regularly to Artforum.