Though the relationship between photographer and subject has always been central to Meiselas’s work, it was the explicit focus of a commission she completed for an exhibition in Morocco, in 2013. Working on a short timeline and in an unfamiliar culture, Meiselas faced a further challenge: the people of Marrakech did not want to be photographed. With two young Moroccan women as her assistants, Meiselas interviewed women in the spice market and learned that this was not due to modesty or religious custom, as she had assumed. They simply wanted to be paid.
Meiselas took this opportunity to open a dialogue about the value of imagery, in both monetary and symbolic terms. She set up a pop-up studio in the market and invited women working nearby to come have their pictures taken. Each participant could keep her portrait or be paid twenty dirhams—the average price of an ID photo—for allowing Meiselas to use it in the exhibition. By choosing an amount associated with a routine purchase, the artist shifted the significance of the exchange from a question of financial gain to one of agency. Sixty women opted to be paid, while eighteen chose to keep their portraits. In their place Meiselas exhibited twenty-dirham notes, as a symbol of their encounter. When Meiselas made additional copies of the installation, such as this one, she increased the sitters’ compensation to 50 dirhams.
Corey Keller Curator of Photography, SFMOMA, 2018
Installation view of '20 dirhams or 1 photo?' at SFMOMA, San Francisco, 2018. Photo by Katherine Du Tiel.
Photographs from '20 dirhams or 1 photo?' at SFMOMA, San Francisco, 2018. Photo by Katherine Du Tiel.