The prestigious Deutsche Börse photography prize has been won by Susan Meiselas, an American whose work over five decades has seen her engage deeply with her subjects, from the scattered communities of the Kurdish diaspora to the women in her still edgy Carnival Strippers series.
The award, which in the past has tended to favour more conceptually driven artists, is a vindication of sorts for this socially committed documentarian. At the Photographers’ Gallery in London, which hosts the prize, Meiselas chose to exhibit In the Shadow of History, her long-term engagement with the plight of the Kurdish people, which was part of her recent touring retrospective, Mediations. Begun in 1977, it traces the lives of ordinary Kurds living in exile across the globe using photographs, film, text and projections, all of which reflect the depth of her collaboration with scholars, historians and local communities.
On one wall, a map of the world is bedecked with chains that hang from each location where Kurdish communities have formed. From the chains dangle handmade books of personal testimonies and family photographs. They were made by displaced Kurds in workshops that Meiselas organised in cities where her work was shown. In March, she hosted a workshop at the gallery aimed at members of London’s Kurdish communities.
Brett Rogers, chairman of the judging panel and director of the Photographer’s Gallery, praised Meiselas’s “consistent approach to the medium and her personal investment in the stories, histories and communities she documents”. She said she “has carved out a new and important form of socially engaged photography”.
Meiselas’s collaborative engagement gives her work a sense of humanity that is often absent in traditional reportage. “They brought their photographs and their memories,” she said last year of a similar workshop held in Paris before the opening of the Mediations retrospective in the city. “In this way, the work grows each time it is exhibited.”
Mediations began with her 1971 series 44 Irving Street, a portrait of her neighbours made when she was still at Harvard University in Massachusetts. The exhibition traced a journey ever outwards, from the intimate observation of Prince Street Girls to the Carnival Strippers series, photographed in the early 1970s from the point of view of a male onlooker, and on to her iconic images of the wars in Central America in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
She has been a Magnum photographer since 1976, when she was one of only five women members of the esteemed photographic agency. “It’s a complicated issue,” she said last year, referring to the gender imbalance that still dogs the photography world despite the rise of a generation of young female photographers, one of whom, Laia Abril, was also in contention for the prize for her timely and hard-hitting series, On Abortion.
She added: “Do I want to say, ‘I’m a woman photographer and that’s what validates my view on the world?’ Really? Is that it? But, on the other hand, I do speak from a different perspective. I do have a different approach. Part of my role is to be a mediator, someone who brings people together.”
Rogers also noted that Meiselas’s “sustainable and ongoing relationship with the people and their contexts and feels especially relevant and resonant today.”
It seems that the world, and the art world in particular, may have finally caught up with Meiselas’s vision when activism and protest suddenly seem more urgent creative responses than theory and process.