In the Shadow of History

American photographer Susan Meiselas created an extensive visual archive in collaboration with the Kurdish community. A retrospective of her work is now on show in FOMU, Antwerp.

Kurdistan, Iraq, 1991.

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

For nearly five decades, Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas (US, 1948) has been using her camera to bear witness and to connect with people. She draws attention to what is often hidden or ignored by the public. Susan Meiselas continually seeks direct contact and dialogue with the people she portrays. Her approach is collaborative and incorporates her subjects’ perspectives.

In 1988 Meiselas traveled to Northern Iraq to record the crimes of Saddam Husseins regime against the Kurds. When documenting mass graves she realized that she knew not enough about the history of Kurdistan: ‘I felt strange—photographing the present while understanding so little about the past.’ So she decided to learn about the history of Kurdistan by creating a visual archive, in collaboration with the Kurdish community. She talked to people, initiated a website where people could upload their images, rephotographed family photos in Kurdistan, printed glass negatives that were buried in order to prevent them from destruction, and went looking for Kurdish images in Western archives—where ‘Kurdistan’ is rarely indexed as a search tag.

‘Most of the images and written artifacts about the Kurds that survive, survive in the West. In part this is because the Kurds have little security and limited funds to maintain museums and libraries or to protect private collections’, Meiselas writes. ‘Ironically, interpretations of their culture offered by outsiders—missionaries, colonial administrators, and early travelers—have become indispensable sources of written and visual information.’

Photographs of 20-year-old Ka moron Abdullah Saber are held by his family at Saiwan Hill cemetery. He was killed in July 1991 during a student demonstration against Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, 1991.

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

It became an ongoing, growing archive, also published in a book: Kurdistan, In the Shadow of History (1997). The book does not pretend to give a definite history of the Kurds: ‘Texts and images are presented as fragments, to expose the inherent partiality of our knowledge. This is a book of quotations, with multiple and interwoven narratives taken from primary sources—the raw materials from which history is constructed.’

The book, her photographs and a lot of original material is now to be seen in Antwerp:
Till June 4, 2023
FOMU, Antwerp