Susan Meiselas, Carnival Strippers

This is another book publication, but one that juxtaposes outsider images with insider text or verbal testimony. This project helped Meiselas gain entry into Magnum, where the photographs are also available for view. Many of the images are reminiscent of cattle markets.

The women I met ranged in age from seventeen to thirty-five. Most had left small towns, seeking mobility, money and something different from what was prescribed or proscribed by their lives that the carnival allowed them to leave. They were runaways, girlfriends of carnies, club dancers, both transient and professional.

They worked out of a traveling box, a truck that unfolded to form two stages, one opening to the public carnival grounds, another concealed under a tent for a private audience. A dressing room stands between them. Again and again, throughout the day and night, the woman performers moved from the front stage, with its bally call—the talker’s spiel that entices the crowd—to the stage, where they each perform for the duration of a 45 pop record.” (Meiselas, from Carnival Strippers book, 1976)

The images alternate between backstage glimpses and shots of the shows and the girls.

Reading the interview excerpts and looking at the images, the viewer is drawn into the sordid world of these marginalised, marketed women. Many of the images, along with sound recordings of the interviews and Meiselas’ sketches of how the final book should be laid out are available on her personal website.

The all-male audience typically included farmers, bankers, fathers, and sons, but “no ladies and no babies.” The degree of suggestion on the front stage and participation on the back stage under the tent varied greatly from town to town, depending on legislation and local leniency. The show stayed at each spot for three to five days each year; then the carnival was torn down, the truck packed up, and the women followed.” (From Carnival Strippers book, 1976)

From an article in the British Journal of Photography:

To look at the girls’ isolated faces now is to feel, somehow, like you might have once known them. Her public scenes look like stills from a film you once saw, and can only half remember.”

From the BJP website:

“But in no way was she ever complicit, or supportive, of the world she had so skilfully become embedded. “The recognition of this world is not the invention of it,” she says. “I wanted to present an account of the girl show that portrayed what I saw and revealed how the people involved felt about what they were doing.”

What she discovered was a complex, often contradictory set of motivations and attitudes towards their work, and to sex, money and men in general. Their plain spoken words caught the zeitgeist of the early women’s movement – of public sexuality, self-esteem and identity politics, of how women should respond to, and deal with, the male urge to consume and commodify the bodies of their opposite sex.”

Shown both from the point of view of the women and the punters, the images serve to expose a sleazy industry and degradation of women that I suspect few are actually aware exists. Some of the most poignant images are those taken of the women at rest backstage.

An exposé of what some people are capable of, and a testament to what others are capable of enduring. Once again, though, the use of first-hand testimony saves this from being a purely voyeuristic or revelatory document to one that speaks to the viewer in empathetic tones. Shelley Rice wrote of this project:

Meiselas moved into the margins of polite society and allowed her subjects to speak for themselves. Depicted in posed portraits and onstage, the women describe their feelings and experiences in lengthy interviews that serve to anchor fantasy flesh in the reality of women’s economic, social, and sexual lives – and to explode the rampant preconceptions about women during the postwar years” (Rice 2001, p 24).

In an interview with David Campany, Meiselas speaks of how her work shifted, in much the same way as mine, from merely showing images to combining images with testimony from her subjects:

When I started out I felt there was not much exploration into what to do with the image once you had it. My early work with ‘Carnival Strippers’ was concerned with bringing forth their voices as a part of the overall ‘picturing’. I felt that if I was in someone else’s world, they ought to be given the space to participate and collaborate, even though they didn’t become partners in the making of it.”

Unlike my subjects, the strippers did not really have a say in what images were to be used. I wonder if the project would have turned out differently if they had. On the other hand, Meiselas touches on the issue of whether one can ever really tell another’s story, another person’s truth:

Those debates about whether one can speak for or on behalf of the ‘other’ are very important. But I find myself working in areas where not all the pieces of the puzzle, or the argument are there. My projects are authored but I’d like to think they are not authoritative.”

This is the position that I came to by accident, after a false start trying to get some sort of medical evidence to back up my research. In the end, the stories are more human, more in touch with personal realities and this is far more important than pandering to the authority of medical science! She also questions whether her audience can fill in the gaps, since many of her narratives are fragmentary and discontinuous. Perhaps this is in fact what is required for audiences to engage more? I personally prefer to be challenged than merely provided with a set of answers to preconceived questions.

She also reveals that “Recently I discovered that Danny Lyon also made sound recordings while working on ‘The Bikeriders’ [1968]. Lyon and Clark also moved towards film, as I did, and both preceded me.” And me in my turn too. What is it that draws us away from static image to telling stories through image and text and then sound recordings, eventually dabbling in film? Frank did this as well. Perhaps this has something to do with what Campany observes:

In a recent interview the photographer and writer Allan Sekula spoke about the fact that he always found documentary film to be far more willing to engage with radical, experimental practices and formal innovation. Documentary photography has tended to congeal into knowable forms that fit the conventions of conventional magazines.”

While Meiselas concedes that documentary photography has an element of staticity about it. They also discuss the reductive impact of singling out moments deemed to be significant by the authors in advance. This obviates viewer interaction with the work, rendering it less of a discovery process and overly self-contained: “It goes back to the question of what is ‘the work’? Is the work the making people work? Hoping people will work?”

This leads to the final and to my mind most important part of the interview:

DC: I often think this has a great deal to do with whether Photography with a big ‘P’ is being presented as the subject matter, as it is in certain authorial exhibitions or books, or whether attention to the photography itself takes a back seat.

SM: I think of the way, which was brilliant in some respects, that an image lost in a print medium could be used by Benetton. Suddenly attention was forced onto an image in an inescapable way.

It is not easy to reinvent new contexts for images and make them matter. Images are generally, still, trapped in limited ghettos. As a consequence rarely do images have any kind of effect. So in a quiet way that’s why the Kurdistan project was important. The images were embraced by communities for whom the project was a meaningful process and exchange. In the broader scope this is a small thing but I do wonder just how much change images can effect. Probably not very much in the end .

DC: – but enough to matter.

SM: Yes, enough to matter and want to continue making them.

Using images in different way lends them a new lease of life (I looked at photojournalism moving into gallery spaces in the last module). The important thing is that we as photographers believe that our work will have at least some effect, even if it is only on a few individuals, this is enough to keep us at it!


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