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SHOOTING THE REVOLUTION
Photojournalist Susan Meiselas' riveting scenes from Nicaragua, El Salvador on display at UC Berkeley
Sam Whiting, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 1999
The rebel rises from the sandbags, wearing a Che Guevara beret and beard, crucifix and a face of revolutionary rage. As he lifts his rifle in left hand, Molotov cocktail in right, Susan Meiselas raises her camera.
That instant marks the beginning of an image that would become a wall mural, poster, matchbox cover and symbol of the 1979 Sandinista insurrection in Nicaragua.
Susan Meiselas' picture of a Sandinista rebel in the 1979 Nicaraguan revolt became a symbol of the insurrection. She made notes in the margins years later when she returned to track down the subject....
Twenty years later, Meiselas is still studying the construction and deconstruction of a documentary picture. Both ends are represented in "Central America Documentation/Mediation,'' which opened Thursday at the Center for Photography Gallery at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
The Sandinista series, published in Meiselas' book "Nicaragua,'' is complemented by pictures from subsequent books, moving up the Central American isthmus to conflict in El Salvador and the struggle at the U.S.- Mexico border.
The vintage prints from Nicaragua are enhanced by spectacular color. Some of the street fighters, far from wearing camouflage, have on bright red masks, and the poor people Meiselas follows like to wear bold colors to offset the bleak taupe of the rubble and the florid green of the countryside. In con trast, the Salvador work is traditional black- and-white war photography. The border images are panoramic and wide like the fence.
Viewed together, the works span a decade of "going places where I don't belong,'' says Meiselas, who has been rewarded for her bravery and eye with a MacArthur "genius'' grant, Capa Gold Medal and about every other award for valor in photojournalism.
"We as Americans know very little about the people of the world,'' she says. "So what I do is go out there to find out the best I can what's happening, who these people are, and make some sense of it and bring it back.''
A veteran free-lancer with the international cooperative Magnum Photos, Meiselas is based in New York. She has had solo shows in New York, Chicago, London, Stockholm, Paris. But this is the first time that her prints have been given context through outtakes, layouts in the major newsmagazines and images from her book.
The full evolution describes the "trafficking of images,'' says Meiselas, who is here for a week working on a domestic violence project. Five years ago she worked with the San Francisco police and district attorney's office to make a series of collages about battered women. The collages appeared in bus shelters.
"I'm going to find the people and talk about, in the intervening time, what has happened in their lives,'' says Meiselas, who followed the same hunch to Nicaragua 10 years after the Sandinista revolt. A film of that journey, "Pictures From a Revolution'' (1991), was screened last night at the Berkeley journalism school.
"I'm trying to bring the material together and create a home for it so that someone from this world can experience that world,'' says Meiselas, 50, who knew nothing of that world herself when she was intrigued by a New York Times story in January 1978 about the assassination of newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. His son, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, is the first person she met on arrival. He is now a fellow at the Berkeley journalism school. Meiselas didn't know any of the subjects, or even their names, and over the years became curious about meeting them.
Susan Meiselas says, "We as Americans know very little about the people of the world." Chronicle Photo by Frederic Larson
"What I didn't know was how people in Nicaragua experienced those images -- when they knew of them and what had happened in their lives, in relation to the act that the photograph happens to capture,'' she says, "so I was very interested in that process for the protagonists of those photographs.''
To find them, in 1989 she went back to the same street corners, carrying "Nicaragua'' like a yearbook under her arm. She would show pictures and in Spanish inquire about the people, marking names and clues to their whereabouts in the margins. Some of her subjects were still in the same place, their routine no different after the revolution than before. For others, someone would recognize a face in a crowd. She'd circle it, get a name, jump in her car and follow the hint down a pock-marked dirt road. "Sometimes I had to go halfway across the country, crisscrossing.''
In search of the Molotov man, she marked up her book with directions and finally found him quietly hauling wood in a beat-up truck. His material life hadn't improved, but he told Meiselas something she wouldn't forget.
"The revolutionary spirit,'' he said, "is in my blood.''