Between 1978 and 2004, the American photographer Susan Meiselas made three extended visits to Nicaragua. Time-stamped, they are like hinges of a play.
In Act I, which spans roughly a year, Meiselas works as a photojournalist, covering the Sandinistas’ extraordinary guerrilla insurrection, which topples Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last in the lineage of US-backed dictators. She compiles about 70 photos from this trip into a book, Nicaragua: June 1978–July 1979. Act II opens with the Sandinistas’ first election loss, which her friend Alma Guillermoprieto describes in The New Yorker as “a plebiscite on the Sandinista regime.” With a small film crew, Meiselas returns to the country. She seeks out her book’s protagonists, shows them the old photos, and solicits their responses. These moving and painful reflections are woven into a documentary, Pictures From a Revolution (1991). The closing act, dated 2004, marks the insurrection’s 25th anniversary. Meiselas travels back with large murals of her images, which she erects, with help from the local Institute of History, in the places they were originally shot.
Time, in this play, unfolds at two rates. There is chronos, linear time, events piling up one after the other, pitilessly discrediting a people’s revolution then leveling all notion of progress. (The Sandinista front, or what was left of it, returned to power in 2006, yet Nicaragua remains one of the poorest and most unequal countries in Latin America; 10 percent of its population earns nearly 40 percent of its national income, while almost two-thirds of the rural population subsists on less than two dollars a day.) There is also a nonlinear and redemptive time, what the Greeks called kairos, in which certain moments, or traces of those moments, are preserved, through photographs.
When, in 1991, and again in 2004, Meiselas brought her original photographs back to Nicaragua, she was resisting linear time. “The witness has always to protect memory from erasure,” she writes in her new photo-memoir, On the Frontline. “Time and the world’s attention move on.” As a witness, she may protect memory, but only the people she photographed can renew it. This is why, in ’91, Meiselas interviewed her original subjects; their words, in turn, layered her images with new meaning. In 2004, she photographed passersby responding to her murals, provoking, or giving shape to, “postmemory,” theorist Marianne Hirsch’s term for the relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births. “I especially wanted to know how they spoke to the next generation who had only heard about their history and not participated in it,” Meiselas writes.