In 1978, as violence and revolution gripped Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas traveled there to document the fall of the stifling Somoza regime there. She was prompted to go by the murder – apparently by members of Nicaragua’s National Guard – of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the opposition leader and journalist publisher of La Prensa newspaper. His death also proved a decisive event in uniting opposition to the regime, stirring the beginnings of a revolution.
She took many powerful images of the Sandinistas revolt, including the photo later came to be known as ‘The Molotov Man’. Unlike her other photos from Nicaragua, the photo above was not published anywhere at the time, but only reproduced in her book, emphatically named, “Nicaragua: June, 1978-July, 1979”, which is considered to be one of the best photojournalistic works.
Meiselas worked with two cameras – one loaded with black and white, the other with colour film – but she thought Nicaragua needed to be told in colour. Yet newspapers still printed in black and white and colour was for commercial and art photography, and only sometimes for magazines like LIFE. She writes: “Some critics thought it romanticised the young Sandinistas and glamorised the conflict. For me, the black and white became like a sketchbook, because I could process it locally.” The unprocessed colour rolls were dispatched, by hand to Managua, then to Miami, and eventually to New York, where they were processed by the Magnum office.
The photo above was taken on July 16, 1979, a day before Anastasio Somoza Debayle — the last of the Somozas who had ruled Nicaragua since 1936 — fled the country. A Sandinistas rebel (later revealed to be a man named Pablo Arauz) was throwing a bomb at a Somoza national guard garrison — an image made all the more ironic by the pepsi-cola bottle he had appropriated to hurl at the nepotist regime long-supported by the United States. The Sandinistas eagerly reproduced the photo, which appeared on matchbooks, T-shirts, billboards and brochures throughout the country.
When the New York Times magazine sent a writer to cover the emerging revolution, it picked up Meiselas’s unpublished photos. They were featured in The New York Times Magazine on July 30, 1978, with a photo of three men wearing traditional Nicaraguan folk masks and holding homemade contact bombs on the cover (Meiselas’s first magazine cover). Traditional Indian dance masks from the town of Monimbo were adopted by the rebels to conceal identity. In the middle of the photo is a young shoemaker named Justo Gonzalez who would later save Meiselas from a dicey situation in Masaya during the insurrection.
In the end, the Somoza-Sandinistas conflict left 40,000 people dead (1.5 percent of the population); 40,000 children orphaned; and over 200,000 families (one fifth of the population) homeless. As for The Molotov Man, it would later play a crucial role in a copyrights debate. In 2004, Joy Garnett, an appropriation artist based one of her paintings on the photo. Meiselas issued a cease and desist letter and demanded rights to the painting. Viral internet outrage followed; and two years later, two artists reached a compromise, appearing jointly at a fair-use symposium and penning together an article on the whole controversy in Harper’s (pdf).