How Susan Meiselas Recorded Nicaragua’s Fight for Freedom in the 1970s

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Wall. Managua, Nicaragua. July 1979© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

A captivating photograph of a Nicaraguan revolutionary features in Magnum’s new print sale, the theme of which is Freedom

Nicaragua in the midst of war and revolution is a subject that Susan Meiselas has become renowned for photographing during her decades-long career. The American image-maker got close to the revolutionaries (literally: her agency encouraged her to use a 400 millimetre lens for fear her proximity to danger was too great) in the late 70s, as the Somoza family’s 40-year dictatorship was threatened and eventually overthrown by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, or the Sandinistas) in a tumultuous, violent era. Most famously, Meiselas’ Molotov Man – which depicts rebels mid-offensive, the central figure throwing a petrol bomb with one hand and holding a machine gun in the other – has become a symbol of not only the Nicaraguan revolution, but of the spirit of rebellion the world over.

By capturing Nicaraguan insurgents in crisp, rich colour, Meiselas brought the bloody events of the conflict to the world’s attention. Her images appeared in global publications, and with their prominence the photographer grew aware of the power of her role; Meiselas remembers the publication in Time of images showing the identity of child rebels in the country as “the first time that I realised that a photograph could kill”, since the magazine was stocked just around the corner from the Nicaraguan government headquarters.

“I can’t help but think of the dreams that propelled the Nicaraguan people nearly 40 years ago” – Susan Meiselas

In a quieter moment of rebellion, a young man is pictured painting an evocative mural of a masked revolutionary holding a gun. The spiked fencing of the wall hints at the tension permeating Nicaragua at that time, despite the confidence of the subject’s stance and action in creating the potentially incendiary image. Alongside this image, Meiselas quotes a letter from a son to his parents: “Dear Parents: I’m sure you’ve noticed my odd behavior over the past months. I no longer go to parties. I appear and disappear. This is because I’ve become a revolutionary... Our country is full of misery and backwardness. All Nicaraguans have the sacred mission to fight for the freedom of our people.” The letter was from Edgard Lang Sacasa, whose father supported the Somoza regime, and who died at the hands of the National Guard – which was controlled by the dictatorship – months before it was overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979.

Meiselas’ photographs did not just depict the brutality of the events, but equally how those taking part in the revolution were motivated by hope and a fight for freedom. It’s the latter sentiment that Magnum Photos’ latest Square Print Sale is centred on; entitled Freedom, the selection of more than 100 shots encapsulates the concept in various ways, from Rene Burri’s image of Che Guevara to Martin Parr’s vivid shot of a flame-haired woman driving in an open-top car. For Meiselas, the struggle for freedom she recorded in the 70s is still resonant. “Watching from afar as events rapidly unfold in Nicaragua today, I can’t help but think of the dreams that propelled the Nicaraguan people nearly 40 years ago,” she says of her powerful photograph, “and what they continue to demand and deserve as they struggle again for their future.”

The Magnum Square Print Sale: Freedom runs until June 8, 2018.