Object Highlight | The Life of an Image: “Molotov Man," 1979–2009

Molotov Man is the single best-known image by Susan Meiselas, a Magnum photographer who has worked between and interrogated traditions of documentary over her decades-long career. The photograph captures Pablo Aráuz, known as Bareta, a member of the leftist Sandinista resistance during the Nicaraguan popular insurrection, throwing a Molotov cocktail in a Pepsi bottle at the National Guard headquarters in Esteli, one of the last strongholds of governmental power at the conflict’s end. Meiselas’s composition, with its strong convergence of action, silhouette, and defiance, became an icon and, as such, an image that began to move beyond her control as its maker. The Life of an Image: “Molotov Man,” 1979–2009 is the installation piece she created to explore the potency of circulation, revealing the contrasting perspectives that have evolved through the image’s multiple lives.

Meiselas arrived in Nicaragua on June 1, 1978, compelled by news of the assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the editor of the newspaper La Prensa, who opposed the American–supported right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Meiselas first made contact with Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the son of the assassinated editor, and began to accompany local journalists as they reported on student protests. She used her privilege as an American citizen to access the training of Somoza’s National Guard, armed by the United States. Access to both sides was key in order for her to explore, in her words, the “reality behind American foreign policy,” namely its support for violent right-wing dictatorships in Latin America as part of a Cold War strategy to prevent the spread of Communism. 

Meiselas’s images of Nicaragua, among the first war photographs in color, were published widely while the conflict was ongoing in publications like Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. After the Sandinistas overthrew Somoza, on July 19, 1979, she continued to cover civil conflicts in Central America. Meiselas became engaged with the afterlife of her Nicaraguan photographs as she discovered that Molotov Man in particular had become the symbol of the Nicaraguan revolution. Meiselas then created new contexts for her pictures, through exhibition, publication, and cinematic narrative, to account for the historical and personal experiences of those she photographed. Her first such attempt, the book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979, published in 1981, sought to link together isolated images and to gather primary texts that would counteract previous media publications. Her images made visible a part of the Nicaraguan people’s political history, and her photographs were concurrently reappropriated. The postrevolutionary Sandinista government employed her images—most often Molotov Man—for posters, stamps, matchbooks, and straw rugs. The image of Bareta was also reclaimed by the public for popular art like murals, wall stencils, and a hometown statue.

Put to contradictory political uses, Molotov Man demonstrates the potential of context to rewrite photographic meaning: Meiselas’s photograph was used by Sandinistas to raise a popular militia in order to fight CIA–funded Contra rebels coming over the border from Honduras, with graffiti on walls claiming “No Pasaran,” which associated Bareta with the Spanish Civil War anti-fascist call; at the same time, the Contras used Bareta as a symbol of communist aggression to raise funds in the U.S. Meiselas’s engagements documenting the life of Molotov Man plumb the contestation of meaning between author, context of presentation, and portrayed subject in documentary photography. They fueled her 1991 film Pictures from a Revolution as well as her 2004 mural display of photographs placed back in the original landscape where they were first made to mark the revolution’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The most recent claim of Bareta was seen on a T-shirt worn as a symbol of the popular student movement against the Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. Meiselas continues to expand this mixed-media installation, which has been exhibited prominently since its first iteration and acquired in its current configuration by both the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.