Guns, Streets, and Fields

With the show Bear Witness, photographs and interviews by S. Beth Atkin tell the heartstirring stories of the children migrant laborers—and of gangs and guns.

It was hearing stories from her cousin about the Salinas Valley that, two decades ago, drew New York photographer S. Beth Atkin to California. In the region known as Salad Bowl of the World, children of migrant laborers grew up in families where most parents—many born outside the United States—had limited education, literacy, and English skills. How to tell their tales?

Atkin moved to California and, exercising patience to earn the trust of the people whose stories she wanted to tell, gathered interviews and shaped poems and took photographs that explore the personal experiences of youth. The project yielded a book, Voices from the Fields: Children of Migrant Farmworkers Tell Their Stories.

Some of that body of work is in the permanent collection of the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University. And a show running through June at the museum traces the threads of stories that Atkin followed from the field to the streets as she sought to understand the stories of youth and gangs—and youth and guns.

“Listening to voices of young people is vital to addressing social issues that affect all of us,” Atkin says.

The stories that Atkins heard and photographed from the children of migrant laborers for her first book sometimes wove in threads of gang life. It was the tellers, or family members, or friends who wound up associated with gangs—often for protection. Atkin found herself seeking out people and stories that would allow her to better understand the lives of people within the gangs and inside prison. A second project took shape: Voices from the Streets: Young Gang Members Tell Their Stories.

With gangs there were guns. And the relationship between people and their guns fascinated Atkin. Connected with crime, guns are a weapon and a symbol of violence, fear, and hate. But that’s only part of the story. There are those for whom guns are necessary tools. There are the young people who take up shooting at 4-H clubs; Atkin was surprised to discover the popularity of competitive shooting among white adolescent girls. Stories from all of those milieus led to a third project: Gunstories: Life-changing Experiences with Guns.

At the opening reception for the exhibit that brings together all three of the projects—fields, streets, and guns—Atkin joined SCU Art and Art History Lecturer Renee Billingslea in conversation. She said that doing this work meant she had to unlearn some of her training as a photographer. To tell these stories right, in image and in words, she could not try and take pictures immediately. Rather, it was important to gain trust from the communities in which she was working. That opened up new ways of seeing and new ways of hearing.

The exhibition Bear Witness: Photographs and Interviews presents pieces from three bodies of work by photographer and author S. Beth Atkin runs at the de Saisset Museum April 8 – June 12, 2016. Read more about the exhibit in The Santa Clara newspaper from writer Maura Turcotte ’17.

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