OFA Medalist Meiselas Focuses in on Conflict

Photographer Susan Meiselas has had a career defined by social engagement

Photographer Susan Meiselas has directed her lens toward everything from carnival strippers to a revolution in Nicaragua. In a lifelong body of work known both for its variation and its excellence, Meiselas consistently showcases what photographer Jim Harrison describes as an “ability to combine an artistic skill with the inquisitiveness of a good social scientist.”

It is precisely for her combination of artistry and sociological inquiry that Meiselas has been awarded the Harvard Arts Medal, which, according to the Office or the Arts (OFA), is presented annually to a Harvard graduate or faculty member who has “achieved excellence in the arts and has made a contribution through the arts to education or the public good.” Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust will present Meiselas with the Harvard Arts Medal in a ceremony that will take place this Friday at 4 p.m. in the New College Theater.

Meiselas will be adding the Harvard Arts Medal to a long list of honors she has garnered over the course of her career, among them the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1979 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.

“Susan was selected for a variety of reasons,” wrote OFA director Jack Megan in an email. “The overriding consideration, of course, is the quality of her work, which has been recognized around the globe. But the committee also was impressed with the fact that she has used her talent to document extraordinary and historic moments—the images from Nicaragua, as well as the Kurdish struggles.”

John A. Lithgow ’67, who will be hosting Friday’s ceremony, wrote in an email to The Crimson that he was delighted about this year’s selection. “Susan and I share a lot of history and some very good friends, so I’m delighted that we’ll meet at Harvard under these circumstances. I’m proud to help celebrate her,” he said.

After attending Sarah Lawrence as an undergraduate, Susan Meiselas graduated from Harvard in 1971 with an M.A. in visual education. She made her debut in the world of photography with a series entitled “Carnival Strippers,” which illustrated the lives of strippers in New England who worked in carnivals. This project, which she completed over the course of three summers, was an early sign of the innovative sensibility and intellectual rigor that marks Meiselas’ art.

“‘Carnival Strippers’ probably influenced me more than anything because the way she approached it was so uncompromised,” said photographer Jim Harrison, a contributing editor at Harvard Magazine. “If you look at the book, it is extraordinarily raw and uncompromising.”

The body of work that catapulted Meiselas to fame, however, was her coverage of the Sandista Revolution in Nicaragua during the 1970s. In one iconic photograph, a woman in a striking red dress pushes a cart upon which the shrouded body of her dead husband is resting. “Her images from the Nicaraguan civil war are among the most courageous photos I’ve ever seen, on both sides of the lens,” Lithgow said.

Although Meiselas’ photos quickly found their way into newspapers and news outlets around the world, Meiselas did not set out for Nicaragua with the intention of reporting news. Rather, Harrison said, “That [project] grew out of finding herself in a situation that was happening in a very dynamic way.”

Rather, Harrison believes Meiselas’s work aspires to permanence. “News has a temporal basis,” he said. “She’s more of a social scientist; she’s more interested in the historical record.”

Meiselas demonstrated her approach to photography as a form of recording history with her decision to return to Nicaragua 10 years after her original photos were taken. There she made enlargements of her photographs from 10 years earlier and installed them on the sites where they were originally taken. She also interviewed the subjects of her photos for a video documentary, “Pictures from a Revolution.”

Nicaragua is not the only country in which Meiselas has documented political upheaval and social injustice, and she is a frequent collaborator with Human Rights Watch (HRW). In 2006, Meiselas traveled with HRW researcher Nisha Varia to document the migration of women in search of domestic work in Southeast Asia; in 2007, her photos were used in a report entitled “Bottom of the Ladder,” which focused on the exploitation of domestic workers in Guinea, where thousands of girls begin working when they are only nine years old. Last year, Meiselas collaborated with HRW on “In Silence,” a photo exhibit documenting the dangers of childbirth in India.

In one of her most historically conscious projects, Meiselas spent six years creating a visual history of the Kurdish people. To accompany her own pictures, she also collected hundreds of photographs and accounts from soldiers, journalists, and Kurdish families. These records are hosted on a website; people continue to contribute images and stories to her perpetually growing project.

Whether documenting human rights abuses alongside HRW or exploring the lives of workers in a Manhattan sex club—as she did in her piece “Pandora’s Box”—Meiselas unfailingly brings a balance of artistic vision and historical consciousness to her photographs. “One might argue that the documentary photographer snaps the image and there is no interpretive component. But that hardly seems reasonable,” wrote Megan. “The photographer, after all, chooses where to point the camera. In so doing, she is saying, ‘This is the action or the moment that I want you to pay attention to.’” Throughout her career, Meiselas has continuously made bold choices in her work; she has been a diligent recorder of human experience and called attention to struggles across the globe with a meticulous, compassionate eye.

—Staff writer Rachel A. Burns can be reached at rburns@fas.harvard.edu

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