The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Susan Middleton on Photography, Conservation, and the Natural World

TASIS The American School in Switzerland was honored to host Susan Middleton—an esteemed artist, photographer, author, and educator specializing in the portraiture of rare and endangered animals, plants, sites, and cultures—as the fourth and final visitor for this year’s Senior Humanities Program. Ms. Middleton delivered an engaging address to the senior class in the Palmer Center on the evening of Monday, March 19, before spending time with all seven TASIS photography classes and two science classes over the course of March 20–21.

Ms. Middleton’s address in the Palmer Center

Ms. Middleton shared some of her current projects and examined student work in each photography class offered in the High School, from Photography 1 to IB Visual Arts—including speaking with AP Photography students about selecting and editing images within a larger body of work and providing guidance to Photography 1 students who are currently working on their own personal projects.

“It’s always a pleasure to have a working photographer visit and give students an idea not only about the actual profession and how you can make a living at it but also about how you can incorporate your own artistic vision into everything you do,” said Mr. Frank Long, who has known Ms. Middleton for 20 years and helped orchestrate her visit to campus.

In Ms. Emma Bassett’s Ecology and IB Environmental Systems classes, Ms. Middleton presented more of her photographs of endangered plants and animals, spoke with students about biodiversity and the preservation of environments and ecosystems, explained how her photographs and books underpin her life's work of advocating for preservation and conservation of the environment and world culture, and shared her experiences of working in collaboration with scientists, researchers, and noted photographers on a variety of projects and initiatives.

“I’m so pleased to have had the opportunity to welcome the inspirational Susan Middleton to my classes this week,” said Ms. Bassett, who started at TASIS this fall. “Her touching art helps raise awareness of the beauty and importance of protecting biodiversity on Earth, and it’s wonderful to see invertebrates getting the attention they deserve!”

“Rare is the campus visitor that both presents well to large groups and connects with students in a meaningful way,” added High School English Teacher and Associate Dean Mr. Peter Locke, who chairs the Senior Humanities Program Committee. “Susan Middleton was one such visitor. Perhaps because her trademark is surfacing the beauty and humanity of endangered species, Susan was able to nurture enthusiasm and curiosity in our seniors as well as the classes she visited. We are really fortunate to have had the opportunity to host Susan, and I'm hopeful that her message about conservation and our natural world will live within our students long after they leave Montagnola.”

Ms. Middleton has found time for a variety of teaching experiences throughout her career as a professional photographer, and she enjoys the change of pace that comes from being in the classroom. “I love working with students,” she said. “For me it’s really regenerative because I learn as much as I give—especially when I get to interact with individual students and hear what’s on their minds and see how they’re responding to what I’m showing them. It’s interesting for me.” (Ms. Middleton also made time in her busy schedule to sit down for an engaging interview with student writer Emma Dressler ’18, and we plan to share their full exchange in the coming weeks.)

“I love working with students. For me it’s really regenerative because I learn as much as I give.”
– Susan Middleton

A resident of San Francisco, Ms. Middleton served as Chair of the Department of Photography from 1982–1995 at the California Academy of Sciences, where she is now a research associate. Her most recent book is Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life (Abrams, 2014), which she discussed at length in her presentation to the senior class, and her previous books include Evidence of Evolution (Abrams 2009), Archipelago and Remains of a Rainbow (National Geographic), and Witness and Here Today (Chronicle Books). She has also produced numerous films and exhibitions in conjunction with her book projects, including serving as associate producer for the Emmy Award-winning National Geographic film America’s Endangered Species: Don’t Say Goodbye (NBC & PBS, 1998) and producing a short film for the web called "Hermit Crabs!".

Ms. Middleton was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009, and she is also the recipient of an Endangered Species Coalition Champion Award for Education and Outreach and a Bay & Paul Foundation Biodiversity Leadership Award. Her photographs have been exhibited and published throughout the world—both in fine art and natural history contexts—and her work is represented in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art and the National Academy of Sciences.

The Senior Humanities Program (SHP) draws from five defining elements of the TASIS identity—truth, beauty, goodness, international understanding, and humanitarian action—to provide seniors and postgraduates a signature educational experience, conveying a clear message about what the School hopes for and expects from them after they leave TASIS.

The SHP Committee selects four or five speakers each year who embody the pillars of the program, and Mr. Locke, who has chaired the committee since 2012, believes this year’s visitors have challenged TASIS students to think deeply about their futures and the world they’ll encounter after graduation.

“Reflecting back on the 2017–2018 program for SHP, it seems to me that this year was about vision,” he said. “We hosted Joe Trumpey, whose hope for a better world he realized in his family's own fully sustainable strawbale home. Futurist Natasha Tsakos presented a vision of the future of theater, revealing to us her dream of immersive and technologically advanced theatrical experiences. Brie Mathers sees a world in which people—women especially—are not defined by what media tells them they should be or look like. Finally, we were lucky enough to have Susan Middleton on campus, whose own vision not only creates beautiful images of our natural world but also meaningful statements about what we humans are doing to our planet. Each visitor, in their own right, has had the courage to create, promote, or imagine a world that doesn't yet exist. I'm hopeful that these visitors will encourage our students to do the same: to see beyond what is and to create a future out of possibility.”


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