UCL Anthropology


Ileana Selejan

Citizens of Photography in Nicaragua

My research investigates Nicaraguan citizens’ engagement with politics through photography, and how photographs are circulated across the public sphere. First and foremost, I want to understand how photography and politics are interrelated. Secondly, I ask how do citizens and communities engage with photography in their everyday. And thirdly, I seek to map out relationships between the three (politics, photography and citizenship) – an issue that lies at the core of the overarching “Citizens of Photography” project.

A series of research questions arise from this, including: how do photographs participate in the Nicaraguan social landscape, or are they mostly understood as being embedded passively therein, as street-signage, advertising, etc.? Is the camera perceived as an observational device, used for reporting purposes by the media, or has it gained testimonial value beyond? Do citizens feel empowered by its presence or potentially at risk?

During the 1980s, the Sandinista revolution promoted a model for political participation through direct citizen engagement. Photography had an important role within this system, and due to its mobilization on a grand scale countrywide, it strengthened citizen identification with the Sandinista party. Yet, as the ideals of the revolution faltered, such a sense of action and responsibility became gradually corroded in the public sphere. How has this shift affected the perceived role of photography in Nicaraguan society today? And how do these attitudes and mentalities vary depending on their local / regional context? Alternative modes of constructing meaning around citizenship and civic engagement via photography must be considered here, be they supportive of, or resistant against the sweeping changes brought about by the Sandinista reshaping of politics and society.

More recently, the ways in which individuals understand what a camera is and what it does have changed fundamentally, due to smart phones accessibility and the omnipresence of social media. This technical change, entails some reshaping of my main research question: “how do citizens and communities engage with photography in their everyday.” It may be that photography is summoned to perform subtler actions, that are indirectly political, especially in a context as deeply enmeshed in Cold War revolutionary ideology as that of Nicaragua. To an even greater extent, I am interested in exploring how photography enters the private realm, or rather how it straddles between the private and the public, areas that have been marginally discussed in recent scholarship. I would thus foreground my description by adding “and how these practices help users devise, or imagine possibilities for their future.”

Over a period of 9 months, I conducted fieldwork in the capital city of Managua, as well as in Leon, Granada, Matagalpa, and along the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, primarily in the regional capital Bluefields. I explored a variety of photographic practices, studio and street based, professional and amateur. My research was interrupted by the onset of a major political crisis, and weeks of protests. This context nonetheless enabled me to widen the scope of my research, and to observe “citizen journalism” and related forms of photography in action, on the streets and as shared via social media platforms.

Conferences, Talks, Workshops

3 Dec 2018: “Criminalised minorities: Political violence and repression of dissidence in Latin America” roundtable presenter. University of London, Institute of Latin American Studies, School of Advanced Studies.

24 Nov 2018: “¡Patria Libre y Vivir! Photography and Protest in Nicaragua” paper given at the 5th International Conference on Photography and Theory: Photographies and Conflict, Archiving and Consuming Images of Strife (Nicosia, Cyprus).

26 Oct 2018: Guest Lecture. Course: “Visual Anthropology Theory” at the School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent. Instructor: Dr. Natalia Garcia-Bonet.

19 Oct 2018: Lab panel session “Photodemos: Citizens of Photography” at ASA 2018 conference Sociality, matter, and the imagination: re-creating Anthropology, Oxford.

1 Aug 2018: Visiting lecture, as part of the photography workshop led by Josué Samol Navichoc, Vision Guatemala, San Juan la Laguna.

July – August 2018: Visiting scholar, Vienal del Lago, San Pedro La Laguna, lake Atitlán, Department of Sololá, Guatemala.

14 Apr 2018: Photography Workshop at the Fundación Luisa Mercado, Masatepe, Nicaragua.

12 Mar 2018: Panel with Margarita Montealegre and Claudia Gordillo, organized by the Fundación Ortiz-Gurdian in conjunction with their exhibition "Frida Kahlo en el lente de diez grandes." Press here:24 Feb and 7 Mar 2018: Lecture series on art and photography for artists, artisans and the general public in Solentiname, Nicaragua.

Feb – March 2018: participant in 2-week residency project organized in Solentiname, by Marcos Agudelo, with the support of the Centro Cultural de España en Nicaragua (CCEN).

10 Dec 2017 "Change of Background: Shedding Light on Nicaragua’s Photographic Pasts and Presents" paper presented as part of the conference and workshop “Uneasy Photography, The Politics of Images in a Time of Crisis” organized by Photodemos with Panteion University, Athens. 

7 Dec 2017 "Darkroom Revolutions: Photography and Political Life in Nicaragua" presented as part of the Latin American Anthropology Seminar Series at the University of London, Institute of Latin American Studies, School of Advanced Studies.

4 Dec 2017 Lecture at the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamerica, Universidad Centroamericana de Nicaragua (UCA): "Fragile Objects: Aesthetics, Ethics and War Photography."

9 Oct 2017 (Untitled) talk on photography and politics for a continuing education program in film-making at the Cinemateca Nacional de Nicaragua (course led by Ernesto Salmeron) 

8 April 2017 "By Other Means: War, and the Implication of the Photographic Image in Postmodernism" (addressing Nicaraguan context) presented as part of the panel session: “Circulating Conflict: Photography and the Representation of War” at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, New Orleans (delivered via Skype) 


“Some Notes on the Past and Present of Art-Making in Solentiname,” introductory text to accompany the Soletiname Residency Project (2019): https://residenciaensolentiname.weebly.com/

“Susan Meiselas, Awaiting Counter Attack by the Guard in Nicaragua, Matagalpa, 1978” and “Ann Parker, Country boy with cityscape, Sololá ca. 1970s,” in Art_Latin_America: Against the Survey, ed. James Oles (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019 and Davis Museum at Wellesley College)

“The Burning House,” essay for exhibition catalogue, Matty Davis, Until it reached into our lives and destroyed the tranquillity that we had (Fayetteville: Fine Arts Centre Gallery, 2019).

“Pictures in Dispute: Documentary photography in Sandinista Nicaragua,” photographies, 10:3 (2017): 283-302.