Lauding her visual acuity, John Lithgow ’67 said documentary photographer Susan Meiselas, Ed.M. ’71, has the “soul of a poet.”
Amid a montage of Meiselas’ harrowing images, Lithgow conversed with Meiselas inside the New College Theatre on April 29, where she was later presented with the 2011 Harvard Arts Medal as part of the annual Arts First Festival.
“With her wide-ranging subject matter, Susan Meiselas is not merely a photographer. She’s a social scientist, an anthropologist, a historian, a correspondent, and one of our greatest storytellers,” said Lithgow.
Candid but soft-spoken, Meiselas was still jarred over the recent deaths of two photographers who were killed during fighting in Libya. No stranger to dangerous turf, Meiselas documented insurrection in Nicaragua in the ’70s and traveled to Kurdistan in the ’90s, but her career was formed in Cambridge.
“I didn’t have the vision of being a photographer,” recalled Meiselas. But while enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she took a course — her first and only formal course — with photographer Barbara Norfleet, an associate in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Meiselas lived in a boardinghouse on Irving Street, the setting for her early foray into documenting the lives of others.
“I still feel the art of photography as trespassing,” said Meiselas, who said she knocked on her neighbors’ doors, asking to take their pictures, “using the excuse of the camera to intrude.”
She submitted the boardinghouse series to Norfleet. “The next step in the project was to ask [the subjects] to look at those photographs and recognize themselves or critique themselves as they were portrayed,” said Meiselas.
“That was the greatest contradiction of photography,” she said. “Who are we to image them? Who are they? How do they speak through their images, or how do we adequately — do [we] ever adequately capture?”
After graduating, Meiselas set out on the “classic road trip,” following small circuses and state fairs throughout New England, photographing the female strippers who were part of the shows. Her pictures turned into Meiselas’ seminal 1976 book “Carnival Strippers.”
“I was just there, along with everybody else on the fairgrounds, looking and gawking and trying to figure out ‘Who are these women?’ ” said Meiselas. “Their ambivalence about attracting men, and being attracted to men, and being an object for men … It was a different time. So seeing a woman on what looked like an auction block was significant. It was hard for me to bridge, to understand, and that was the mission.”
When it came to traveling to Nicaragua, Meiselas said she’d read a 1978 New York Times article and decided to “find out more.”
“It took me five months to get on the plane and go,” she recalled. “But going and landing and not knowing anyone, or what you’re going to do, or what you’re going to find is a completely different process.”
The violence and devastation and the uprising that Meiselas found made her think of Vietnam, she said. In one image, a woman in a red dress carts her husband’s body on a wooden wheelbarrow. In another, a naked spinal column lies in a field.
Meiselas said she never felt heroic, but admitted, “You are taking risks.”
“As a photographer, writer, filmmaker, educator, there really is no doubt about the magnitude of what she would go on to do,” said Harvard President Drew Faust, who presented the Arts Medal to Meiselas. “Her images of war are searing because they’re so fully in the everyday, often taken during, and sometimes before or after, moments of unimaginable violence.”
“It is incredibly moving for me to be honored by Harvard,” said Meiselas after receiving the medal. “I want to inspire people to leave this world and be in another world, and come back to reflect on that world.”