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William T. Vollmann and Susan Meiselas talk photography

March 17, 2011 |  8:38 am

Meiselas_vollmannRobert Capa Gold Medal-winning and MacArthur "genius" fellow photographer Susan Meiselas and National Book Award-winning author William T. Vollmann sat down at the Hammer Museum on Tuesday night for an open, onstage conversation. It was the first time the two had met in person. The only communication they'd had before -- Vollmann doesn't use e-mail -- was a six-minute phone conversation in advance of the event, during which they'd talked about what they wouldn't talk about.

Not surprisingly, at times it was awkward.

But that awkwardness was entirely fitting, revealing an actual thinking-in-the-moment. It was a geniune and fascinating conversation, with occasional halts for considerations, rather than a prepared talk.

To get things started, they each showed 10 of their photographs. Vollmann went first because the other way around would be "anti-climactic" he said. "She's a great photographer, and I'm a writer who likes to take pictures."

Vollmann explained his motivation for taking photos of fighters and others he encountered in Afghanistan: "Everybody deserves to be made immortal in some way."

Meiselas wasn't so sure. "This question of how it serves them plagues me," she said. Meiselas was a photojournalist who went to Nicaragua in 1978, taking pictures of its revolutionaries, who often felt compelled to conceal their faces from her for safety. She showed images of people crossing the border from Mexico into the United states on foot -- people who also would not want to be identified.

"I'm so fascinated by what it means for a writer to make pictures," Meiselas said. She later went back to this idea. "My photographs are hoping you'll be in that scene -- I'm trying to link you into that narrative space." As a kind of response, Vollman spoke about his presence as a witness. Fittingly, in his photos, his own shadow often fell partially on his subject, literally inserting him into the frame.

How being witness can affect events is something the two discussed without reaching resolution."I'm always hoping I can do some kind of good," Vollmann said. But "good" is a complicated path.

Meiselas showed photographs she'd taken of mass graves in Kurdistan, photographs she called "evidential" (as opposed to "narrative"). Those photographs, which helped bring the story of the Kurds' suffering to light, were taken in advance of the latest Iraq war, which both Meiselas and Vollmann said they opposed. "The complicated thing for me," Meiselas said, "all my Kurdish friends were pro-war. They wanted exactly what they got."

In the audience: a revolutionary and an Oscar-winner.

During the Q&A, a white-haired man in a baseball cap in the front row raised his hand and got the microphone. "Susan," he began.

"Haskell!" she said, surprised. "What are you doing here?"

It was Haskell Wexler, Academy Award-winning cinematographer ("Bound for Glory," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), and he was there to talk about the power of photography to create dialogue. Photography, he said, can help "people realize that there is a universal humanness -- keep us from saying, 'These kind of people are OK to kill." Creating photographs that do this, he said, is "a given for a photographer with a conscience."

Some of Wexler's films show a clear sense of conscience -- he directed "Medium Cool" and shot "Matewan" and the benefit concert "No Nukes." He also encouraged young photgraphers, including Meiselas, who said he had given her the Widelux panoramic camera she used to shoot the Mexican-U.S.  border.

Gioconda Belli, who was press liaison for Nicaragua's leftist Sandinistas in the early 1980s, was another friend of Meiselas' in the audience. Belli married an American journalist and now lives in Southern California where she is an author, most recently of the book "Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve."

That this gathering took place is not unique, but it is interesting that it took place in a public forum. And this may be unique to Los Angeles: We are a city where the public space can be as open and interesting as what happens at the most elite dinner tables.

Meanwhile, Vollmann and Meiselas came to no resolutions about how captions can enable or constrain photographs, how much the form of presentation -- magazine, gallery, book -- affects narrative or, ultimately, how photography can do good. That was all right -- the conversation will continue, there and elsewhere.

Most evening events at the Hammer, like this one, are free.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Susan Meiselas and William T. Vollmann during the question and answer session at the Hammer March 15. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg