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Among Some 2012 MacArthur Fellows, a Focus on Looking at War and the Military

October 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The MacArthur Foundation announced 23 'genius grant' award-winners for 2012, including a mandolinist, an astronomer and an economist. Judy Woodruff profiles An-My Le, a photographer, Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker, and David Finkel, a journalist, all of whom have created work about war.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a look at the 2012 recipients of the MacArthur genius grant.

For more than three decades, the MacArthur Foundation has handed out the awards, along with millions of dollars, to an eclectic mix of thinkers, researchers, writers, and artists.

In all, 23 people were selected this year, ranging from a pediatric neurosurgeon to a novelist, an astronomer, and a Marine ecologist.

One striking theme that emerged among several of this year’s winners in arts and writing was a focus on war and the military.

Here’s some of what they had to say about their work in videos provided by the foundation.

An-My Le is a photographer and professor at Bard College in New York. Using a 19th century-style camera to capture her images, Le’s work has primarily focused on the military and how the landscape has been transformed by war.

AN-MY LE, Bard College: I grew up in Vietnam. And my life, my childhood has been shaped by war.

I have always found the military an incredible enterprise. It’s an overwhelming force. It’s sublime because it’s inherently horrific and beautiful.

People tend to look at the military, they tend to look at war, they tend to look at conflict as something very black and white. And it’s not like that at all. So, how do you approach the subject and explore it in a complicated way? And I think that’s what I’m trying to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Journalist David Finkel is the national enterprise editor for The Washington Post and author of the book “The Good Soldiers,” which chronicle the months Finkel spent embedded with a U.S. Army infantry battalion in Iraq.

He’s now working on a second book about what those soldiers are struggling with since they returned home.

DAVID FINKEL, The Washington Post: I finished the first book, and I felt I had more to write. And so I’m writing the next part of the story.

Their story wasn’t done yet. Their war was done, at least in Iraq. But the story continued. Not to be trite, but they’re still fighting the war. And obviously they will keep fighting it for the rest of their lives, to varying degrees, depending on the soldier.

But just because their deployment ended and they redeployed and they got off some planes and they were home, that’s — they were halfway there. So, finish the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Filmmaker Laura Poitras is working to complete the third in a trilogy of full-length documentaries focused on the war on terror. The first two were filmed in Iraq, Yemen and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

LAURA POITRAS, Praxis Films: My work is absolutely, completely dependent on the people who open their lives to me and take huge risks in doing so often.

I mean, I — in most of the films that I have been working on in this trilogy, pretty much everyone has their life on the line in one way or another, their life, their freedom.

And so it’s really — the films are based on, you know, their courage to allow me to sort of go along on these journeys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This year’s winners each receive a $500,000 grant delivered over a five-year period.

We have much more about the 2012 MacArthur fellows on our website.

On Art Beat, you can find Jeff’s previous interviews with two of today’s winners, author Junot Diaz and mandolin player Chris Thile. And you can see a slide show of the other artists.

On Making Sense, Paul Solman offers a look at the work of a winning economist, Raj Chetty. On our science page, you can watch videos of geologist Terry Plank and astronomer Olivier Guyon talking about their research.

And we have a link to the MacArthur Foundation’s website on our home page.