Susan Meiselas : Marrakesh Project (previously blogged here and here)
Mark Power, Jim Goldberg Abbas, Susan Meiselas and Mikhael Subotzky were commissioned by the nascent Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Art (MMPVA) to create a series of photo works on Marrakon Marrakech. However they found it harder than expected.
They found it impossible to photograph the people of Marrakech in the straightforwardly piratical manner that photographers normally regard as OK. This is partly because Marrakech in particular, more than many other places, has a huge tourist population that photographs incontinently. In Marrakech, people are used to holding out their hands for money to be photographed, and are used to photographs having absolutely no meaning in the wider scheme of things.
Meiselas’ solution was to come up with a pop-up studio, in a public space in the market, in which she asked women to volunteer to be pictured. […]
This simple strategy goes deep. There were stories of women weeping when they saw the respect with which the photographer had treated them and, at the other extreme, of women who hadn’t sat later putting pressure on those who had to withdraw for reasons of decency. Some of the sitters came to the opening night of the show, to be confronted for the first time not only by the strange paraphernalia of a museum but by the first representation of themselves done with honour and skill. You couldn’t have found a better way to raise awareness of issues around the roles and treatment of women in Morocco, to challenge preconceptions and to provoke debate.
Extremely interesting article on specific events at the exhibition
Perhaps because Mieselas agonised the most over her creative strategy, She created a series of portraits that, as the show grew closer, seemed to take on a life of their own. For the pop up project, In return for having their portrait taken, the local women could receive either 20 dirams (£2) or an original print. Some opted for the latter and, when Meiselas came to hang the show, she placed 20 diram notes in the places where their portraits would have been. She also invited the women whose photographs she had taken to come to the show on the day of the opening. Many turned up in their bright robes and burqas, and some incredibly emotional scenes ensued. Most of the older women had never been in an art gallery before and they seemed genuinely overjoyed by the sight of their portraits on the wall. There were hugs, hollers of delight and laughter and tears and you could see first-hand the extent of Meiselas’s emotional investment in the project and the equally intense response it engendered in her subjects. It really was something to behold.
Then one woman turned up with her sister, who had not participated in the project, and the atmosphere turned tense. Harsh words were exchanged and the women seemed incensed by the 20 diram notes on the wall. There were more tears, but not of joy. When things had died down, I spoke to Imane and Leila about it. “Everything is very complex here when it comes to making a portrait of a woman,” said Leila. “People are sick of photographers because of tourists being so intrusive. Plus, for this project, we let the women choose, and that is not the usual thing. The husbands or a family member could object, which is what happened.” Imane nods. “People are afraid about who will see the image, how it will be used. Often women do not feel comfortable to make the choice to sit for a photograph for many different reasons. Then, if one woman changes her mind and wants her photograph removed, that may cause others to do the same. That could very well happen in the next few days”
In the end Susan Meiselas’s complex and challenging project, featuring local women – many of whom had never willingly been photographed before – as the uncertain subjects, perfectly represented the increasingly contentious role of photography, both in Marrakech and the wider world, at a time when the medium is becoming ubiquitous and often intrusive. When I spoke to David Knaus, the ebullient managing director of the MMPVA, he said, “The Portrait of Marrakech project has been a real adventure that was tough at times, but generated some incredible work from the photographers. Morocco is an incredibly vibrant and complex place and the museum will reflect that as well as bringing international renowned photographers and images to Marrakech. This was a small and intense conversation that symbolises the bigger one yet to come.”