S. Beth Atkin is one of those renaissance women you read about in novels – but this Santa Monica resident is not fictional.
A graduate of Barnard College, she’s been a ballet dancer, model, a photography assistant to several world-famous photographers before becoming a self-taught photojournalist; she ran her own photography business, later becoming an award-winning book author and lecturer. She’s traveled the nation and the globe, has lived on both coasts and these days, she’s a psychotherapist in private practice and a quality management clinical specialist at Step Up on Second, which serves mentally ill people.
Along the way she created a unique genre, young adult books that tell personal stories with original writing, poems, in-depth interviews, and, of course, her photographs.
All three of her books are currently the subject of an exhibition at Santa Clara University’s de Saisset Museum in the San Jose area. “Bear Witness: Photographs and Interviews by S. Beth Atkin” showcases “Voices From the Fields: Children of Migrant Farmworkers Tell Their Stories;” “Voices from the Street: Young Gang Members Tell Their Stories;” and “Gunstories: Life-Changing Experiences with Guns.”
“My books were created to help break down stereotypes and help empower people who are often ignored,” Atkin told me in an interview. The path to their creation was not a straight line.
Assisting Enrico Ferorelli in New York, whose photos ran in Time, Life, National Geographic and more, gave her access to celebrities, commercial clients and even the nation’s top office. She joined Ferorelli for a photo session with President Ronald Reagan, where a Secret Service officer bumped into a battery pack, accidentally setting off a series of strobe lights that could have ruined the session. Fortunately, they didn’t.
She also learned how to edit. “Enrico had a stock photo agency in his loft, so I would often have to edit 30 rolls of film with 36 images each, pull out the ones we would use and stamp every single one of those images.” She learned how to do this rapidly and developed an expert eye.
At the time color film dominated the field. Atkin refined her black and white skills working with Cole Westin, the son of one of America’s most influential photographers, Edward Westin, printing images from Westin’s negatives in his own darkroom.
She showed her portfolio to Life Magazine’s art director Tom Bentkowski who told her, “You need to photograph children,” an idea she first thought would stereotype her as a female photographer. “But when he put them together, I could see he was right.”
Recuperating from a broken wrist – a bike messenger ran into her while crossing a New York street – she starting thinking about social issues and creating a project of her own. Her cousin Amy Pofcher was teaching migrant farmworkers’ children in Salinas, helping them get into special programs that could lead to college.
A light bulb went off. Atkin began researching everything she could about the history of migrant workers, then moved across the country, setting up a photography business in Carmel to support herself while she worked on the project that became “Voices from the Fields.”
“I started going into the fields with my cousin, hanging out with workers and their families, taking photographs, and spending hours talking to them in their homes.”
She attended a program called “Yo Puedo” (I Can), “Where migrant kids would stay at UC Santa Cruz for the summer, and I started documenting them and soaking up as much as I could of their experience.
“Then I went back to Tom at Life Magazine with these images and said, ‘Can you tell me if this is worth anything, I’m trying to investigate the positive side of this story that no one else is covering.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do with it, but keep doing it.”
Her then-fiancée led her to a children’s editor at Little Brown, which had no experience with young adult photography books. “We had to find a lower price point because no one had done a book like this before.”
Atkin began pre-publicizing the book through her extensive network of contacts and to everyone’s surprise, the first run of 6,000 copies sold out in three months. Little Brown asked her how she did it, “And when I told them, they later said they created a brochure for first-time authors on how to publicize your book based on my experiences.”
Her connection to Santa Clara University came about when she asked SCU professor Francisco Jimenez, author of “The Circuit,” his well-known book about growing up as a migrant child, to write the forward to her book.
The university based a photo show around her book plus a two-week program of discussions surrounding issues facing migrant youth. “And when that ended,” Atkin said, “I donated the photos to the University, and asked them if it ever traveled, to donate any proceeds to scholarship funds for migrant children.”
With the current exhibition at the university’s museum, a wonderful story of things coming full circle has emerged.
Sixteen-year old Monica Escutia was pictured with her family on the cover of “Voices from the Fields,” published in hardcover in 1993 (reprinted in paperback in 2000).
Two weeks ago, Monica and her 16-year-old daughter attended the opening of the current exhibition.
Later, at a dinner arranged by Atkin’s cousin Amy for their family and others featured in the book, Escutia’s mother recited, in Spanish, the poem that closes it, “Promised Land” by Francisco Alarcon, about a son fulfilling his mother’s dream of her child going to college … as Mrs. Escutia’s have done. Everyone cried.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.
Photo by S. Beth Atkin