Susan Meiselas

20 dirhams or 1 photo?

2014

Not on display

Artist
Susan Meiselas born 1948
Medium
41 photographs, digital C-print on paper, 37 banknotes, ink on paper and graphite on board
Dimensions
Overall display dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds from the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2018
Reference
T15051

Summary

20 Dirhams or 1 Photo? 2014 is a photographic installation consisting of forty-one colour portraits, and nineteen 20-dirham Moroccan bank notes and eighteen 50-dirham notes. The portraits and bank notes are arranged in chronological order to represent the interaction between the photographer, Susan Meiselas, and the participants who had their portrait taken throughout the course of one day. They are framed in four frames and hung as an installation to form one work. The portraits are shot in a traditional style, with a backdrop and studio lighting. They were taken in Marrakech, Morocco during a two-week residency in 2013. For the project Meiselas set up a pop-up photographic studio in the spice market Rahba Kedima (Spice Square) in Marrakech and invited women to have their portrait taken. Each woman who agreed to participate was then given a choice: either she could receive the print of her portrait, or she could receive a payment of 20 dirhams (approximately £1.60) in exchange for giving the artist permission to keep and exhibit the print. Each woman was asked to make the choice before the portrait was taken. Of the seventy-eight women who participated, sixty agreed to let Meiselas use their portrait and were given the payment of 20 dirhams in exchange. Each woman’s signature can be found at the bottom of the print acknowledging their consent. Eighteen women decided to keep their print and as a result Meiselas decided to exhibit the eighteen remaining 20-dirham notes to indicate that no money had been exchanged.

In a country where photography is viewed with suspicion, Meiselas was able to overcome these barriers by actively confronting issues of authorship and ownership of an image, asking the question ‘What is the value of a photograph to the subject of the image?; and is this an aesthetic object or an economic exchange?’ Meiselas has explained:

A photograph is an expression of a relationship. What can I offer or exchange? Tourists taking pictures of people as objects merely part of the landscape; I see the pictures I am not taking. An outsider acknowledgement of the impossibility; No illusions to immerse. Doors open slightly only to reveal lives which cannot be entered. The challenge is to create active participation by those who protest the photograph being made: a collaboration of a pop-up Sunday studio to confront the question of the value of a photograph vs. the dirham to those imaged here?
(Susan Meiselas, quoted at https://mmpva.org/2014/02/a-portrait-of-marrakech-by-magnum/, accessed 20 September 2016.)

By only focusing on women and asking them directly for their permission to show their portraits in public, Meiselas was also raising questions around issues of gender, identity and ownership of one’s image in non-western cultures where public displays of photographic portraiture are not part of common practice.

20 Dirhams or 1 Photo? was made as part of the project A Portrait of Marrakech for which five prominent photographers from the Magnum photographic agency undertook a two-week residency in Marrakech. The residency project was a collaboration between Magnum and the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts (MMPVA) and culminated in an exhibition curated by Simon Njami at the historic El Badi Palace. Every woman who participated in Meiselas’s work by having their portrait taken received an invitation to the opening of the exhibition. The work has been produced in an edition of three. The first includes sixty photographs and eighteen 20-dirham notes. The second and third, which is Tate’s, comprise forty-one photographs, nineteen 20-dirham notes and eighteen 50-dirham notes. The eighteen 50-dirham notes represent the eighteen women who could not be found after the opening to grant permission for the work to be exhibited outside Morocco. The other two copies of the edition are in the collections of the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Over the past four decades Meiselas has been at the forefront of new photographic practice, repeatedly pushing the boundaries of politically challenging and socially engaged photography. She joined Magnum in 1976, and at the time was one of the only female members of the agency. She has pioneered collaboration and audience engagement in photographic practice and, in 20 Dirhams or 1 Photo?, has credited two Moroccan artists and the seventy-eight women involved in the project as co-authors of the work stating: ‘this is a collaborative project by Susan Meiselas, with Laila Hida, Imane Barakat, and 78 women from the spice market.’

Further reading
Susan Meiselas, Carnival Strippers, New York 1976; revised edition, New York 2003.
Susan Meiselas Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, London 1997; reprinted, Chicago 2008.

Shoair Mavlian
September 2016

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Display caption

Meiselas made this work during a two-week residency in Morocco. She set up a pop-up photographic studio in a spice market in Marrakech. Working with Moroccan photographers Imane Barakat and Laila Hida, she invited women who worked there to have their portrait taken. Each participant was given a choice: she could either receive the print of her portrait or a payment of 20 dirhams (approximately £1.60). By accepting the payment, a participant gave the artist permission to keep and exhibit the print. Through this process Meiselas raised questions about identify and the ownership of one’s own image.

Gallery label, December 2019

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