Susan Meiselas on shooting Carnival Strippers

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“It’s getting near show time!” the voice would boom out over the cheers of the punters. Susan Meiselas would hover at first near the back of the tent. “Don’t be shy, take your hands out of your pockets, take your money out of your wallets. Rest your elbows on the stage and look up into the whole, the whole goddamn show. Show time! Where they strip to please, not to tease!”

Susan Meiselas was 24 when she started Carnival Strippers. It was the summer of 1972, and her photography experience was limited to portraits of her housemates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She had just completed an MA from Harvard, yet she still was shy and unsure of herself – very unlike the direct intellect of today, who treats Magnum’s offices like second homes. But in the earliest of these early pictures, she had not yet been invited into the showgirls’ dressing room.

Meiselas has seen some terrible things, but rarely – if ever – has she flinched. When they exhumed Saddam Hussein’s mass graves, Meiselas was there, making us witness. When Pinochet’s murderous regime limped into its dog days, Meiselas was there too. On the wall opposite the Carnival Strippers exhibition at London’s Magnum office is her picture of a hillside in Nicaragua, mountains rolling away into the distance, water glinting in the valleys. In the foreground, a pair of legs, still wearing jeans, and the broken butt of a spinal cord snaking from the belt-line.

It was, and maybe still is, a favourite spot for executions, and animals lurk their to scavenge. “I had nightmares the first time I saw that image,” I say to her. “Good,” comes the instant reply. “That’s the idea.”

Extra Girl, Fryeburg, Maine, 1975. From Carnival Strippers © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

Yet she began in the midst of a travelling troupe of showgirls, who took their clothes off to music in a collapsable tent in towns across New England and South Carolina. “I was a young woman trying to figure out what was going on,” she says. “This was the early feminist movement, and the moment I saw the fair, it seemed to represent everything I was thinking about; should women project themselves as objects to be desired? Should we deconstruct that gaze to be taken seriously? I watched these women perform, saw how they were using their bodies. It was very potent.”

The tent would stay up for three to five days, before it was packed up and moved on. A dressing room divided the public entrance, where the girls would dance on stage, and a more private entrance: “The degree of suggestion on the front stage and participation on the back stage varies greatly from town to town, depending on legislation and local leniency,” Meiselas says. The audience ranged from bankers to farmers, and there was only one hard and fast rule: ‘No ladies, and no babies.’

“That, in itself, was reason enough to find a way of getting in,” she says. The women she photographed were between 17 and 35 years old – “runaways, girlfriends of carnies, club dancers, both transient and professional”. They were paid $15 to $50 a night, depending on how well they did, minus expenses.

“Most had left small towns, seeking mobility, money, something different from what was prescribed, or proscribed, by the lives the carnival allowed them to leave,” she writes in the introduction to the book, first published in 1976 (republished by Steidl in 2003). “The girl show is a business, and carnival stripping is competitive and seasonal. Those woman who make it a career find winter employment on a series of related circuits – go-go bars, strip clubs, stag parties, and occasional prostitution. For most women, the carnival is an interlude on the way to jobs as waitresses, secretaries, and housewives.”

Curtain call, Essex Junction, Vermont, 1973. From Carnival Strippers © Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

The next summer, she turned up again – and then again in 1974 and ’75. She became part of the girls’ inner social lives, sharing in their secrets and private politics. She began recording her subjects voices as well taking their picture, and was able to document the conflicts between their public, performative image and their private identities. Meiselas, who was made a Magnum Photos member in 1976, had the ability to layer these issues into the social milieu and emotional landscape of her subjects. The political and the performative are fused here into a dramatic whole.

But though she skilfully embedded herself in this work, she wasn’t complicit with it. “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.”

Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas is on show until 03 March at Danziger Gallery, 95 Rivington Street, New York