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Empathetic observer

Last modified: 5/27/2010 12:00:00 AM
They look, at first, like a group of boys, playing a dramatic game of cops and robbers, bandito style, with their ragtag, colorful kerchiefs. But as you look more closely at the photo - and the ones that follow - it becomes clear that this is no game. The guns are real. The burned-out homes are real. The maimed, the wounded, the dead, are real. There is no play here.

The photo - one of a stark, stunning, and distressing series shot during what would become the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua- was taken by Susan Meiselas, and it is featured in the intense and emotionally exhausting exhibit Susan Meiselas: In History at Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art in Hanover.

Like her photos, Meiselas is hard to reduce to a few words. She lands somewhere in the land between photojournalist and camera-toting archeologist, at once too involved to meet the traditional objective tenets of journalism but just dispassionate enough to be driven to record what is encountered, rather than trying to intercede.

Meiselas has clearly struggled with the ethics of her work for decades - that jaded dispassion was clearly never a part of her essential self - and it may be the evidence of that struggle that makes her photographs so compelling. The Hood Museum show offers an exhaustive look at three of her most rightfully respected series: her documentation of the revolution in Nicaragua and her return visits to see what happened to those she caught in her lens; her study of the tent-at-the-back-of-the-carnival stripper girls who were used to separate men from their sweaty dollar bills at county fairs and carnivals throughout New England until the early 1980s; and the shattered remains, devastated landscapes, and systemic genocide of a people in Kurdistan and Iraq.

As a visitor takes in the show from the perspective of time, it's clear that Meiselas has so internalized that struggle between observing and wanting to fix things that she has moved beyond the realm of photographer. In her ongoing work with the Kurds, she has become a historian and seeks to tell a story beyond the one she has been able to capture with her lens.

"Susan is becoming an archivist," explained Hood assistant director Juliette Bianco, who worked intently with Meiselas on the exhibit. In the Hood show and in the story she tells about the Kurds, Meiselas does not rely on her images alone - she reveals 100-year-old photographs found in junkshops, news clippings of atrocities from the 1940s and family photos she was permitted to copy by families she befriended in the region.

Meiselas's sense of empathy and connection is on display in all of the work; in each series there are audio clips or films to complement and offer details of the story behind, literally, each shot. Meiselas routinely revisits the scenes of her shots and the subjects she has captured. Even in the short term, Meiselas always tried to find some small, tangible thing to give back to the subjects who trust and give so much of themselves to her.

"She bemoans the loss of the Polaroid camera because she could often take a Polaroid and offer it back to her subject immediately in exchange, in thanks," said Bianco, in a walking lecture she led about the exhibit last weekend.

Meiselas first major photographic work was focused on those X-rated, men-only tents at the county fairs. She was teaching school in the Bronx at the time, and she couldn't help but be amazed by the age of her students back in the Bronx and the girls - desperate, often abused, and dreaming completely impossible dreams - she photographed in the early 1970s.

Even then, Meiselas was driven to forge bonds, if not friendships, with her subjects. She would return to the same subjects again and again, armed with camera and tape recorder. She revisited them long enough to witness the death of those impossible dreams, long enough to see girls transformed from vaguely hopeful teens resigned to temporary exploitation to hardened, dead-eyed, old-beyond-their-years women.

In her carnival stripper series, Meiselas is on hand to document as the lives of her subjects grow darker and the goings-on in those tents became increasingly perverse and hands-on. These are lewd and disturbing images, triple-X rated and exactly the opposite of titillating.

Loss of innocence and loss of childhood connects all of Meiselas's works: the carnival strippers and the baby soldiers in Nicaragua traded in youth far too soon for guns and g-strings. Mass graves in Nicaragua and Iraq reflect lives cut brutally short over and over again; recent images from Iraq offer stark and striking images of a Ferris wheel and a kiddie swan boat ride against a barren and unlikely to be reclaimed landscape.

The images in the show pack such an emotional punch that the viewer can be left overwhelmed and paradoxically disconnected from the individual stories, which may be the one flaw of the ambitious design and content. Meiselas uses her camera to move the viewer from the big story to the stories of individuals who make up that story. The show offers so many of those stories of the individuals - often gut-wrenching - that the viewer may reach a point of numbness.

That numbness doesn't last, however. Days after seeing the show, the viewer's mind is likely to flash back on one of Meiselas's scenes: so-called Molotov Man, caught tossing an explosive in a Pepsi bottle in Nicaragua, or the barker holding the dollar bills as a girl dances on a small stage that looks like an auction block in the carnival series.

Flashbacks to the exhibit aren't always pleasant, but they continue to be provoke thought.

(Susan Meiselas: In History runs at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover through June 20. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 to 5, Sundays from noon to 5, and Wednesday evenings until 9. Admission is free. For more info, call 646-2808 or check hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu.)


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