Visual artist, filmmaker, and author Ann Fessler has spent nearly four decades creating work that deals with the stories of women and the impact that myths, stereotypes, and mass media images have on their lives and intimate relationships. Her interest in the gap between official histories and lived histories has led her not only to collect and contextualize the stories and voices of individuals who have been negatively affected by misrepresentations, but also to critique the institutions and systems that have perpetuated the practice.
She has spent the last twenty-five years bringing the first-person narratives and hidden history of adoption into the public sphere through her writing and visual works. She turned to the subject after being approached by a woman who thought Fessler might be the daughter she had surrendered forty years earlier. Though the woman was not her mother, Fessler, an adoptee, was profoundly moved by the experience. The conversation that ensued shifted the focus of her work to adoption and she has since produced three films, several audio and video installations, and written a non-fiction book on the subject.
Between 2002 and 2005, Fessler interviewed 100 women who lost children to adoption during the 28 years that followed WWII, when a perfect storm of circumstances led to an unprecedented 1.5 million surrenders. With the support of a 2003–2004 Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard, Fessler continued interviewing as she researched the history of adoption and the social climate of the time. The result was her non-fiction book, The Girls Who Went Away (Penguin Press, 2006), which places the women’s stories within the social history of the era and her own story as an adoptee. Her book was called “wrenching, riveting” by The Chicago Tribune, “a remarkably well researched and accomplished book” by The New York Times, and “a blend of deeply moving personal tales, bolstered by solid sociological analysis—journalism of the first order” by The San Francisco Chronicle.
The Girls Who Went Away was chosen as one of the top five non-fiction books of 2006 by the National Book Critics Circle, and was awarded the Ballard Book Prize, given annually to a female author who advances the dialogue about women’s rights. In 2011, The Girls Who Went Away was chosen by Ms. magazine readers as one of the top 100 Feminist Books of all time.
Her latest film, A Girl Like Her (2011) combines the voices of the women she interviewed with footage from the era—including educational films about dating, sex and “illegitimate” pregnancy, and newsreels about adoption—that both reflected and shaped the public’s understanding of unwed pregnancy and surrender. Fessler’s film has been subtitled in five languages and shown at colleges, adoption conferences, and film festivals in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Poland, Israel, Korea, Holland, Spain, Canada, and the United States. In 2012, Geneva Anderson writing for Art Hound said, “Fessler’s documentary offers a sociologically rich and important deconstruction of a devastating double standard in effect in those days. By revealing the painful legacy that permanently impacted so many mothers, Fessler has finally and respectfully given them a voice”.
Fessler is a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design, where she has taught since 1993. She has served as both the Head of the Photography Department and as the Director of the Graduate Program in Photography. Her artist’s books and works on paper are in collections that include the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum for Contemporary Art, Chicago; Center for Creative Photography, Tucson; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. She has been the recipient of numerous residencies including the Banff Centre for the Arts, Alberta, Canada; the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; Nexus Press, Atlanta; and Visual Studies Workshop Press, Rochester. Fessler has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships including a prestigious Radcliffe Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard; film production grants from the LEF Foundation and the Rhode Island Foundation; visual arts grants from Art Matters, New York; The National Endowment for the Arts; multiple grants from both the Maryland and Rhode Island State Arts Councils and a humanities grant from the Rhode Island State Council for the Humanities. She has been honored for her original research on mothers who lost children for adoption from both the Museum of Motherhood in New York and St. John’s University where she was awarded the 2014 Adoptee Trailblazer Award given annually to an adoptee whose work inspires and is foundational for professionals in adoption and foster care work. Fessler has also been honored as a distinguished alumna of both her high school and her graduate school, the University of Arizona, where she received the Harold Jones Distinguished Alumni Award.