Sarah Lewis

How do artists, visionaries, and iconic images re-shape our notions of justice?

Author of The Rise, Guest-Editor of Aperture’s “Vision & Justice” Issue

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Sarah Lewis | Author of The Rise, Guest-Editor of Aperture’s “Vision & Justice” Issue
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

Sarah Lewis is the bestselling author of The Rise, which is the biography of an idea—a big idea—that no current term yet captures. It’s about creative human endeavor, and how innovation, mastery, and new concepts are found in unlikely places. Lewis also guest-edited the “Vision & Justice” issue of award-winning photography magazine Aperture—a landmark collection that addresses race, photography, and social justice. 

Sarah Lewis is the guest-editor of Aperture’s  “Vision & Justice” issue, which has garnered enormous praise, including the prestigious 2017 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography. In its article “Reclaiming the Photographic Narrative of African-Americans,” The New York Times calls it “an insightful volume.” Time makes note of Lewis’s “masterly direction,” while writing that the issue “comes at a time astir with thoughtful considerations about black culture and a new quest for self and identity.”


Talking to Fast Company, Lewis says, “My aim for the issue was to create a constellation of artists, writers, scholars, poets, even musicians who could match the gravity—and enormity—of ‘Vision & Justice’. I hope that it becomes the beginning of a conversation about the transformative role of images and pictures and cinema and media of all kinds for social justice and for citizenship.” “Vision  & Justice” has gained so much momentum since publication that it is now one of Harvard’s core “general education” curriculum classes, and is required reading at New York University’s Tisch School. It has even spurred a three-part course at the Brooklyn Public Library, which the Times reflected on in the feature “Understanding Race and History Through Photography.” A through-line, from these articles, to Lewis’s remarkable keynotes, is that true aesthetic power can alter our perception of the world. In her new, stirring talks, Lewis addresses three related issues: How have images both limited and enlarged our sense of humanity, race, and citizenship? Has art been a form of data, capable of measuring human life? And, vitally: What is the role of art in justice? 


“Creativity, like genius, is inexplicable, but Lewis’ synthesis of history, biography and psychological research offers a thoughtful response to the question of how new ideas happen.”

Kirkus Reviews

Lewis’s first book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, a bestseller, has been hailed by a who’s who of creative thinkers. Lewis Hyde calls it a “welcome departure from standard accounts of artistry and innovation.” The New York Times calls it “strikingly original”: “Lewis’s voice is so lyrical and engaging that her book, The Rise, can be read in one sitting, which is so much the better since its argument is multilayered and needs to be taken whole.” The Times named Lewis’s contribution to the recent collection of essays on Michelle Obama, The Meaning of Michelle, “the finest essay here.”


Lewis has spoken on the TED main stage, at SXSW, appeared on Oprah’s “Power List,” served on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, been profiled in Vogue, and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Departments of History of Art and Architecture and African and African American Studies at Harvard. She has held positions at Yale’s School of Art, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Lewis’ essays have been published in Artforum and The Smithsonian, and her book on Frederick Douglass is forthcoming from Harvard University Press. She received her B.A. from Harvard, M. Phil from Oxford, and Ph.D. from Yale.  


“As I opened the Global PR Summit feedback survey today, I realized that you and Ketchum deserve kudos directly from everyone who attended for bringing in Sarah Lewis. I had heard that she speaks even more eloquently than her book reads, but didn’t believe it until seeing her in action. I’m re-reading The Rise this week, thanks to Ketchum’s sponsorship.”

Holmes PR Summit

“You were the perfect balance—great stories, so joyful, lots of insights that helped our audience. I hope you could sense that everyone is leaving thinking about things differently, and are, most importantly happy.”


“Sarah’s presence and her words were deeply inspiring and so relevant to the educators at our event. She made a tremendous impact. We were so pleased. And thank you for all of your assistance in the process. You were so integral to the evening’s success.”

North Carolina Museum of Art

“You have no idea how many people came up to me Saturday afternoon who were transformed by your presentation. Thank you so very much for joining us and for having the courage to participate! You were vital to making sense of that whole topic. Thank you!”

Kennedy Center

Speech Topics

Visual Artists
The Power of Imagery

Can art today bring about the catalytic social change that it has in the past? What is the role of the artist in shifting our perceptions, shattering biases, and creating the world we want? More than ever, we are inundated with images. Awash in them. Yet the artist alone has the power—through one iconic image, one profound gesture—to help focus our attention on what truly matters. In a bold new talk, Sarah Lewis makes a lucid and original case for art as a lever to social justice and cultural transformation. “The endeavor to affirm the dignity of human life cannot be waged without pictures,” she has written. “To be an engaged global citizen right now requires visual literacy.” Gathering in various threads—art history, technical innovation, race, photography, the story of America, and a deeply personal narrative—Lewis takes us to a place of deeper contemplation and understanding. She celebrates individual artists, invokes the collective imagination, and helps us see afresh both what is there, right in front of us, as well as what could be.

Visual Literacy for Marketers Everything You Need to Know About Working with Images in Our Politically Fraught Moment

Suddenly, and quite publicly, visual literacy has become a hotly-discussed topic in marketing. Carelessly borrowing imagery from the wider culture risks accusations of being tone-deaf, out of touch. The examples pile up daily. If you produce anything visual—photography, video, social media, corporate identities—there is a new challenge. How do you create iconic images while sidestepping controversy? How do you ensure your work is not called-out for a lapse in judgement, but rather for positive associations? To Harvard historian and art curator Sarah Lewis, our turbulent political moment requires “an advanced state of visual literacy.” Companies now require the ability to decode symbols and navigate the complexity of contemporary politics with savvy and empathy. Showing that you are engaged with the world, she writes, “requires grappling with pictures, and knowing their historical context with, at times, near art-historical precision.” In this sweeping talk, based on her award-winning work around “Vision and Justice,” Lewis discusses how even the casual consumer is now an expert critic: an engaged citizen who knows how to parse authenticity. Lewis answers the central questions brands must grapple with to pierce our media-saturated culture and reach audiences in a genuine way. How do we celebrate, rather than steal or appropriate, the work of artistic creators? How can we invoke the past with reverence and respect? And how might we imbue our calls to action with a sense of real gravity? With Lewis, audiences learn how to truly read, appreciate, and intelligently disseminate images—images that are arresting, convincing, persuasive, but also moral and just. This is an eye-opening, deeply moving, and wholly pragmatic look into the true force that images can play in our culture.

Innovation & Creativity
The Rise Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery
Where do new innovations—new ideas—spring from? It’s an enduring enigma, but, in this exquisite talk, Sarah Lewis offers a new understanding of what enables creative endeavors. What really drives iconic, transformational change on both a personal and an organizational level? From Nobel Prize–winning discoveries to new inventions to works of art, many of our creative triumphs are not achievements, but are conversions, corrections after failed attempts. Drawing on figures such as Frederick Douglass, Angela Duckworth, J. K. Rowling, and others, Lewis reveals the importance of play, grit, surrender, often ignored ideas, and the necessary experiments and follow-up attempts that lead to true breakthroughs. Smart, uplifting, and counterintuitive, this keynote will help change the way you think about creativity, innovation, and mastery: the path to success, Lewis notes, is often more surprising than we expect.