Photographer Meiselas discusses power of image as 'political persuasion'

Photographer Susan Meiselas spoke to a roomful of Yale students and professors about on Oct. 3 about her work covering violence and political crises in Latin America over the past four decades. Her presentation was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale.

Meiselas — best known for work she has done covering revolution and political upheaval in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Chile — described the arc of her career thus far, while projecting images from these projects.

At the beginning of her career as a photographer, said Meiselas, she was drawn to the dangerous, political dramas unfolding in Latin America, and quickly realized “the power of an image as an instrument for political persuasion.”

Meiselas said she regards her work from Nicaragua and El Salvador as periods of inspiration. At the time, however, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. “There was the ‘getting-on-the-plane’ terror of not knowing were I was going,” she explained, “but the whole photographic process is about uncertainty. You fix [a shot] but don’t always know what it will mean.”

This work that Meiselas did from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s was about telling what she calls “a hidden history,” a story that remains largely untold to this day, she noted. The nature of her project in Nicaragua and the motivation she felt to mobilize other reporters and photographers to join in her efforts meant that its impact has stayed with her, she told the audience. “I never would have imagined that 30 years later I’d still be thinking about that place and time.”

For the last half of her talk Meiselas showed images from her new eBook, “Chile From Within,” a re-released electronic version of a collection she had published in 1990. Meiselas  said she believes the eBook, whose release date on Sept. 11 coincided with the 40th anniversary of General Pinochet’s coup in Chile, will continue the still-relevant conversation about violence and protest that she began in her work so many years ago.

In recent years, Meiselas has focused on her work as a curator, aggregating pieces into collections and exhibits. But as far as she is concerned, she said, this work is still challenging and meaningful since the goal of telling stories and hidden histories remains the same. As Meiselas explained, “it’s not who is important … it’s about what you’re contributing.”