Harvard Art Medalist Susan Meiselas '71: In the zone

by Minji Kim

Susan Meiselas is known for her work in covering social issues through photography. She received her M.A. in visual education from Harvard University in1971 and is currently represented in renowned American and international art collections. She is the 2011 recipient of the Harvard Arts Medal, the ceremony for which will take place at 4 p.m. Friday, April 29 at the New College Theatre. University President Drew Gilpin Faust will present the award, and John Lithgow '67 will moderate the conversation with Meseilas on her work. I recently exchanged emails with Meiselas.

Why do you use photography to tell your stories as opposed to other media?

I often integrate words with pictures, sometimes sound and video as well. It depends on what I am trying to focus on and the form the project will take, but photography is where it all begins.

What would you like students to know about working as a photographer?

Photography is changing with the digital age, in a multitude of ways, both in terms of image making and distribution. More people have access to the whole process that challenges those who want to become involved professionally to think hard about what they do that can distinguish their work and what they have to contribute.

Is war photography art or documentary? Or both?

I think the best war photography is documentary and can have a strong aesthetic. Not all would be appropriate to hang on walls as "art," but some is worthy of such reflection.

What do you see as the value of education vs. experience in the field?

Education can give you a perspective on the history of photography but nothing replaces work in the field to find a personal path.

Most of your work has been in "zones" like war, carnivals and other anthropological sites: Do people also ask you to do their portraits or other subjects?

I am not thought of as a portraitist, which is a different approach, but I have focused on many themes that are lesser known in my work, most with an observational style of reportage. The important difference is that I don't construct images, I capture life as I see it before me, moving myself rather than asking people to perform for my camera.

What does it mean for you to receive the Harvard Arts Medal?

Of course it is an honor to be chosen for the Harvard Arts Medal. My work as a photographer has been influenced by this community of friends and colleagues.