The summer of 1972 launched Meiselas’ life as a photographer. When she arrived in Bangor, Maine, Meiselas encountered two large tents advertising “men-only” girl shows. As a woman, she was barred from entering, which intensified her curiosity. This exclusion inspired her to meet, photograph and share the stories of the carnival strippers as she followed them for the next four summers. Meiselas traveled with the ‘girl shows’ to 15 locations across the USA, documenting their working lives. This sustained personal engagement resulted in an immersive body of work exploring themes of intimacy, vulnerability, gender politics and sexuality.
Honest to god, the men are the performers. The women are the audience, it’s [the men’s] show that I’m going to see, it’s not mine. I’m getting paid for being in the audience—it’s audience participation.
Against the backdrop of the emerging women’s rights movement, Carnival Strippers became a seminal visual reference in conversations around gender politics and sexual expression. For Meiselas to bring the hidden world of carnival stripping to public attention was provocative.
In an era where women’s rights can never be taken for granted, this incredible body of work acts as a metaphor for the strength and fragility of women around the world. These remarkable images epitomize the societal tensions women face every day. This body of work remains a tour de force.
A guided tour of Carnival Strippers Revisited by Susan Meiselas.
What I saw from inside was that the girls pictured themselves differently. Stripping was an opportunity for many of them. I felt a tension between how they perceived themselves and how society was looking at them—not just the men but the women’s liberation movement.
Over the years, I had forgotten my first chance encounter with a stripper in the carnival bathroom in 1972. Meeting that dark-haired woman led to a journey of many returns. It compelled me to meet and speak to the women who participated in the girl shows.
I was filled with questions like any woman of that time about women's liberation. I was wondering who I was in relation to these working women with the privileges I had. It was a really intense set of questions that I think I've carried with me through my life.
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