20 Dirhams or 1 Photo? • Susan Meiselas • Magnum Photos

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Theory & Practice

20 Dirhams or 1 Photo?

Watch a short film on the making of Susan Meiselas’ collaborative 2013 project, which goes on display at London's Tate Modern this month

Susan Meiselas

Susan Meiselas Signed portrait, from the project 20 dirhams or 1 photo? Marrakech. Morocco. 2013. © Susan Meiselas | Magnum Photos

What is the value of a photograph to the subject of the image?

This is the question that underpinned a 2013 project by Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, with Morrocan artists Laila Hida and Imane Barakat, and 78 women from the spice market in Marrakech.

As part of a broader undertaking which saw five Magnum photographers collaborating with local artists in Marrakech, Susan Meiselas and her team embarked upon a novel, collaborative portraiture project that would put the decisions about inclusion in the hands of its subjects. The work highlights issues of authorship, ownership, and consent in the medium to the fore – all of which were heightened further by the choice to create and exhibit in a nation where photography is often viewed with a degree of suspicion.

Susan Meiselas Signed portrait, from the project 20 dirhams or 1 photo? Marrakech. Morocco. 2013. © Susan Meiselas | Magnum Photos
Susan Meiselas Signed portrait, from the project 20 dirhams or 1 photo? Marrakech. Morocco. 2013. © Susan Meiselas | Magnum Photos

"A photograph is an expression of a relationship. What can I offer or exchange?"

- Susan Meiselas
Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas | Magnum Photos

Meiselas and her partners set up a pop-up, open air photo studio in Marrakech’s famed marketplace, Rahba Kedima, and offered passing women the opportunity to have their portraits taken.  Each subject who agreed was then offered a choice: she could take her print away with her, or she could allow Meiselas to keep it for display in an exhibition—in exchange for a fee of 20 dirhams (roughly $2), the cost of making a portrait in a local studio. Those who agreed to having their portrait exhibited signed the print, denoting consent. Everyone who participated in having their portrait made received an invitation to the opening of the exhibition a few days later.

“A photograph is an expression of a relationship,” said Meiselas in an interview reflecting about the process behind the project. “What can I offer or exchange? Tourists are taking pictures of people as objects, as 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?”

“As a photographer I don’t want to look at people as objects,” explains Meiselas in a lesson from Magnum’s online education course, The Art of Street Photography, “I want to find other entry points to making photographs that bridge a relationship, that is different not only between me and the photographed person – the subject, but also the public, or the person who is not in the photograph.”

Susan Meiselas Signed portrait, from the project 20 dirhams or 1 photo? Marrakech. Morocco. 2013. © Susan Meiselas | Magnum Photos

"In 20 Dirhams or 1 Photo? [Meiselas] has deftly navigated issues of gender, identity and ownership of one’s image in non-western cultures"

- Sarah Allen
Instalation of the project 20 dirhams or 1 photo? Marrakech. Morocco. 2013.

20 Dirhams or 1 Photo goes on show at Tate Modern on November 25 as part of a group exhibit on ethics and responsibilities in portrait photography, making use of works held in Tate’s permanent collection. The 20 Dirhams display is composed of the portraits made in the market as well as the 20 Dirham banknotes – 18 of them – which represent those women who opted to keep their printed portraits for themselves and decline the offered usage fee. The work will be displayed alongside three other projects – Claudia Andujar’s Amazonia series, Sheba Chhachhi’s Seven Lives and a Dream and Paz Errazuriz’s Adams Apple.

Sarah Allen, co-curator of the Portraits and Community display at Tate Modern, explains the inclusion of Meiselas’ Marrakech work in this new group show as follows, “Meiselas’ decades long investigation into the ethics of representation made her an obvious artist to feature. In 20 Dirhams or 1 Photo? she has deftly navigated issues of gender, identity and ownership of one’s image in non-western cultures.”

This group display of work, which opens November 25, was conceptualised to coincide with, and offer some points of departure for, the upcoming conference taking place at Tate Modern: Fast Forward: How do Women Work? 

Below, we share a short film about the making of the work.