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Jackson receives one of France’s highest honors

Bruce Jackson presents books to Consul-general of France in New York at National Order of Merit Medal reception

"You are in a room in which more than half the occupants are professors. You will not be allowed to leave without receiving some books," Bruce Jackson told Bertrand Lortholary. "I have four for you." They are “Le Quartier de la mort,” the Terre Humaine edition of “Death Row," and “In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America,” both co-authored with Diane Christian; “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” by James Agee and Walker Evans; and the catalog for "Being There," Jackson's photo exhibition at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Photo: DOUGLAS LEVERE

By SUE WUETCHER

Published May 24, 2013

UB faculty member Bruce Jackson’s scholarly work on the death penalty in the United States played a significant role in France's abolition of capital punishment 30 years ago. In recognition of that and his other ethnographic work, the French government awarded Jackson the Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters), one of the country’s highest honors, in 2002.

Now, a decade later, Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture in the Department of English, again is being recognized by the French government, this time with L’Ordre national du Mérite (National Order of Merit), the country’s second-highest honor after the Légion d’honneur.

While Jackson received the actual appointment letter several months ago, the consul general of France in New York, Bertrand Lortholary, traveled to Buffalo on March 13 to personally present Jackson with the medal. The ceremony was held in the Buffalo residence of Provost Charles Zukoski.

The order has five classes; Jackson is being named a chevalier (knight).

“I like being in the company of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Gérard Depardieu, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Isabelle Huppert, Marcel Marceau, René Clair, Alain Delon, Léopold Senghor and King Juan Carlos of Spain,” Jackson told the UB Reporter, citing previous recipients of the honor.

He noted that his previous award, Chevalier dans L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, is France's highest honor specifically in arts and humanities, and is a national order, administered by the minister of culture.

“Both Légion d'honneur and L’Ordre national du Mérite are given by the president and acknowledge broader accomplishment,” he said. “There are several ranks in each of these orders; they could have promoted me to a higher rank in arts and letters. They chose instead to award me this second order, a much bigger deal because there are far fewer of them and they are given by the president, rather than by one of the president's ministers.”

An acclaimed folklorist, ethnographer, documentary filmmaker and photographer, Jackson is being honored for continuing the kind of work that led to his being named Chevalier dans L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Lortholary spoke several times of Jackson’s artistic achievement when presenting him with the Ordre national du Mérite.

Over the past decade, Jackson has continued to publish on capital punishment and on American prison conditions—much of this work in collaboration with his wife and colleague Diane Christian, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of English.

His most recent publications include “In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America,” co-authored with Christian (University of North Carolina Press, 2012) and “Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prisons” (University of Texas Press, 2013).

Jackson also has published on human and civil rights in American and European journals, served on editorial boards in France and exhibited work at Bibliothèque nationale de France (the National Library of France).

He’s lectured, at the invitation of the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, at Collège de France, a higher education and research institution in Paris, and taken part in and served on the organizing committees of major conferences on human rights and the environment held at Bibliothèque nationale de France and at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle.

“Being There,” an exhibition of 350 of Jackson’s documentary photographs taken over the past 50 years, is on display at the Burchfield Penny Art Center through June 16. 

What does it mean to Jackson to receive another honor from the French government?

“It is always nice to have one's work recognized by the president of a country,” Jackson said. “But far more important is that awards like this open doors. Certain people are more willing to talk to me, or let me in places, or give me access to documents because of this two-fold ratification by the French government,” he said.

“Which means it helps me do my work, and that's the part that really matters.”

In remarks after receiving the award, Jackson said he often is asked what he does for a living, “what my field is.”

“I paraphrase the great Mississippi writer and photographer, Eudora Welty, who said her goal, her job, was to tell people things they did not wish to hear, show them things they did not wish to see, and help them think things they might not otherwise think,” Jackson said. “That is a profession without a name, but it has a long lineage: Zola did it, Camus did it, Jean Paul Sartre did it, Dorothea Lange did it, James Agee and Walker Evans did it.

“So,” he said, “I gratefully accept this award honoring my work, but I do it as simply one of that great company whose task it is to help people see, hear and think.”

READER COMMENTS

Bruce Jackson tends to humanity as he does to his artform, with great clarity and dignity. He and Diane are among the best examples of human evolution I have encountered and gifts to me in our brief lifetime. Congratulations!

Mary-Jane Russel

Thank you, Bruce, for continuing to help us see, hear and think. It is always good to be acknowledged by the head of another country for this. Congratulations!

Anne Rose

More photos by Douglas Levere