Academic research can dovetail with current events in unexpected ways. This academic year two graduate students are honing their research skills abroad, using historical knowledge to help shape the present and future. Both are also addressing global issues beyond the academy—through scholarship as well as direct aid and activism.







Learning from the past

Leslie Wilson spent time last fall and winter at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa. In addition to researching art history, she watched police officers at the station next door training in crowd management and protest confrontations. The past year has seen nationwide movements to remove statues of colonialist Cecil Rhodes from university campuses, protests over student fee increases, and a growing push for the ouster of South African President Jacob Zuma.

“It was disturbing,” she says, “to see uncanny resemblances to photographs of protests from decades earlier.”

In Johannesburg for the first year of a two-year fellowship, Wilson is working on her dissertation, tentatively titled “Past Black and White: The Color of Photography in South Africa, 1994–2004.” Her work, she says, contributes to an understanding of activism through a variety of media—in South Africa and beyond.

An international relations major as an undergraduate at Wellesley, Wilson found that the history of photography was another way to grapple with questions she’d been asking since high school: “What does it mean to make change? What does it look like? How do people make the case for a cause?” As a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History, Wilson is asking, “Can certain images really change minds? Can they change policies?”

Documentary photographs of South Africa during apartheid helped to spark Wilson’s interest. She wondered how much the images of antiapartheid protests were illuminating for those outside the country or “reinforced stereotypes of black Africans as perpetually in distress,” and also wondered what South African photographers chose to depict when apartheid ended.

Her current research examines the work of four photographers—David Goldblatt, Gideon Mendel, Santu Mofokeng, and Guy Tillim. All were deeply critical of apartheid, and all except Goldblatt had worked in a collective called Afrapix that was closely tied to the antiapartheid political movement. As apartheid ended in the early 1990s and the world’s attention turned to Rwanda and other parts of Africa, many South African photojournalists—who had spent most of their careers covering protests and similar events—moved toward artistic photography. They began capturing different images, and in some cases chose color rather than the black and white more prevalent in art and documentary photography, signaling a further break from their previous work.

Exhibiting their work in galleries rather than in mass-market publications “wasn’t always a comfortable or easy fit, especially for the hard-core documentarians anxious about showing photographs of township life to wealthy city-center audiences,” Wilson said. But artistic venues and contexts for their work gave the photographers freedom to make both artistic and political statements, through images documenting the HIV/AIDS crisis as well as daily life in Johannesburg.

Although some photographers were reluctant to use color, since at the time it was “the stuff of advertising, not hard news,” Wilson says, it also gave the images greater immediacy. More than that, with the end of apartheid, experimentation seemed politically more possible at the same time that color photography technology became cheaper.

In and of themselves, Wilson concludes, photographs don’t produce change—or even knowledge, necessarily. Yet, she says, “I do think that photo essays can connect viewers in local and far-flung places with a valuable sense of what people are experiencing.”


Preserving culture, fighting oppression

Matthew Barber chose the PhD program in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations because of its emphasis on early Islamic history. “People who are not grounded in the medieval history of Islam are at a disadvantage,” says Barber, a third-year PhD student, “even when trying to engage with important religious issues today.”

Barber has used his scholarly grounding in the history of the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking ethno-religious minority in northern Iraq and Turkey, to advocate on their behalf in the wake of a vicious attack from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Barber was doing research in Dohuk, near the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq, in August 2014 when Islamic State forces attacked the area, killing hundreds of Yazidi men and forcing thousands of Yazidi women and girls into sexual slavery. Given his understanding of the Yazidis and how they fit into predominantly Islamic Iraq, Barber was the first person to talk to the Western media about the conflict and spread the word about the kidnapped women.

He then spent the 2014–15 academic year struggling to balance his full-time studies with full-time advocacy work for the Yazidi community. At his request, the department granted him the 2015–16 year off to serve as executive director of Yazda, a Yazidi advocacy organization that provides humanitarian aid, documents genocide, and works to preserve Yazidi religion and culture.

Barber has prioritized finding professional therapists for the kidnapped Yazidi women and girls who have managed to escape or otherwise return home. Other projects, such as documenting the mass graves of Yazidis in the Sinjar region, draw more directly on his academic background. He’s also launched a project called Qalama Zerin, or Golden Pen, to provide academic, intellectual, and emotional support for Yazidi university students, many of whom were displaced from Sinjar.

Barber became interested in the Yazidis—whose religion is based on oral tradition rather than written scripture—after taking a course on ethnic and religious minorities in the Islamic world as an undergraduate at Portland State University. While living in Syria in 2010, he backpacked into northern Iraq and subsequently did research on local legal systems and their effect on women and minorities, particularly Yazidis.

“This is a way for me to bring that knowledge and background into a practical, meaningful form of public advocacy,” he says, “that can have real, life-changing results for people in the community.”

Barber, coeditor of the online newsletter Syria Comment, plans to come back to campus this fall, returning his focus to the study of Syrian and Iraqi history and Islamic thought. Regardless of his studies, he says, “I will be involved with the Yazidi community for the rest of my life.”


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