MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) -- Fierce hand-to-hand street bottles erupted in Masaya and other Nicaraguan cities yesterday as government troops fought rebel forces seeking to topple the government of President Anastasio Somoza. -- The Washington Post, Sept. 12, 1978
SUSAN MEISELAS, American photographer, was there: "There was shooting in the street and we were on one side, trying to cross over. We went one at a time. But when it was my turn, I just stood there a minute. There was one more person behind me, and I didn't want to be the last person to cross. The others kept shouting, 'Come on!' I thought, 'Well s---, if i'm going to do this, better go with these people.'
"So I ran across and on other side of the street, we crouched behind a very low barricade, maybe six inches. I thought to myself, 'I don't want to be here.' Then a grenade landed about three feet away from us. When you're crouching down on the ground, you're not really in a position to get it quickly and throw it back. I had this feeling -- this is it. But it didn't go off . . .It was a dud. But at that point, I decided I didn't want to go on with them. I had reached my limit."
Susan Meiselas' limit stretches like a ribbon at the finish line, just beyond a patch of thin ice. It is a limit, in many cases, beyond common sense. The same kind of daring drove her colleagues, the Vietnam war photographers who rode their Hondas through combat areas. Some got injured on assignment, as she did, went away to heal, and came back. Michael Herr, in his book, "Dispatches", wrote about them -- and the soldiers who watched them:
As far as any of them knew, we were crazy, maybe even dangerous. It made sense: They had to be here, they knew that. We did not have to be here, and they were sure enough of that too . . . A GI would walk clear across a firebase for a look at you if he'd never seen a correspondent before because it was like going to see the Geek, and worth the walk.
"I don't think people can understand why you do what you do," Susan Meiselas says without apparent resentment, sitting in a Washington newspaper office.
Says filmmaker Dick Rogers, the man she once lived with: "There's a good chance that Susan will get killed, but the risk of giving in to the fears is a higher fear. She's in mamy ways confronting her fears. Going all out is her way of doing it. She's very aware that the people she's photographing are taking risks and she feels she should be part of those risks. It made me terribly angry sometimes."
Says another photographer who has covered Central America, "I think she goes for two reasons -- because she's the kind of photographer who likes to be where the action is, where the boys are. Where there's fighting, there's action. And she goes to change the conceptions of what people think is happening there."
Meiselas shakes her head: "It's something other than war that interests me."
She pauses. "I imagine I might be in a period where intensity is interesting to me . . ."
The hair is long, the face has wide hazel eyes and pale skin. She is the grown-up hippie from an idealistic generation: daughter of a well-to-do Jewish doctor, cheerleader at Hewlett High in Long Island, volunteer in a voter registration drive before going to Sarah Lawrence. Spun, in her words, from the "liberal Democratic, social reformist tradition."
The intensity comes out in where she's been -- Nicaragua for seven months, from before the insurrection, through the civil war, and up to the overthrow of the Somoza regime. Sometimes she stayed overnight in the bombed towns and barrios, sometimes she just walked around the streets talking to people, letting them pull her into their homes either for cover or to tell their stories. The results of her daring have just been published in a book of photographs called "Nicaragua."
After Nicaragua came El Salvador where she suffered minor injuries in a mine explosion that injured one of her companies, South African cameraman Ian Mates -- who later died from his wounds, and injured another, photographer John Hoagland.
She has been to Mozambique and to Argentina, but those were strangely disappointing assignments -- documenting governmental changes or human rights tragedies already played out. They were writers' stories, not photographers' scenes, she says.
Her photographs trace a little over a year of turbulence in Nicaragua -- leading to the overthrow of the Somoza regime -- some grim, some energetic, some festive. Most grim -- bringing out the raw desolation of a country in the midst of war. Meiselas' own politics color the book in the eyes of at least one reviewer (Andy Grundberg, New York Times Book Review, June 14) who wrote: "The dead some of them children, are always victims of Somoza's National Guard, although presumably the rebels did a share of the killing."
In the book is a picture of two badly hurt children, dazed, lying on the floor of a makeshift emergency center in Managua. Meiselas was walking through a part of the capital which had been taken by the Sandinistas and was being bombed heavily by the National Guard.
"A bomb would land and totally destroy half a block and there would be hysteria -- people bringing bodies out into the church. They were dropping 500 kilos. You could look up and see where the plane was bombing and then you could run in the other direction."
She decided on a day-to-day basis whether to stay in a town under seige."When you stayed in the town, you had a better sense of what was going on. And what was going on at night was important. Mortars were falling on people's houses and there was a sense of terror.
"Every time we went back to the hotel, I hated it," she says. "I hated the fact that I had a right to the hotel. But," she sighs, "on the other hand, I needed the hotel. You have to have some distance to cover this. And I had to ship my film back."
Susan Meiselas spent her 30th birthday, in June 1978, in a hotel in Managua, three weeks after arriving. She didn't know anyone, didn't speak the language, had left behind family and the boyfriend she had lived with for seven years, and sat there thinking about the kids she didn't have, thinking about being 30 . . .
"I thought, 'Oh, no, is this what my life is going to be like? Yuck, what am I doing here?'"
The man she left behind, Dick Rogers, says, "Of course, it was difficult." Rogers, 37, lives in New York and sees Meiselas when she's in town."The risks she put herself in were hard for me. It's a common problem for men and women. It's easy to think if they love their cause, they don't love you. It's not true, but it's still painful."
In the three years since, she has drifted still farther into the life style of her work, picking up Spanish along the way. "I see the patterns very easily," she says enthusiastically. "I come from a history of public service. I majored in social sciences." She spent years teaching photography in the Bronx -- but admits she couldn't handle living there. She tried being poor. "I don't think I paid taxes until 1979," she says.
"My work is like an anthropologist's," she says. "You go to a little place and observe it. All the elements are important."
In Nicaragua, she skipped most of the pictures of refugees and people hiding under beds. She wanted people doing things.
She draws a parallel with her previous book on carnival strippers --