As a student at Laguna Beach High School in the early 2000s, Sarah Elliott spent many lunch hours in the classroom of her graphic design teacher, tinkering with cameras and photo editing software. She crafted cards and organized fashion shoots with her friends.
“When you think Laguna Beach, I just think arts,” said Elliott, 34. “I was always in an arts class in school in Laguna Beach, from elementary school to … middle school. Then I took photography [in high school]. … They nurtured my passion for arts and design and being creative and thinking outside the box.”
Kerry Pellow, who was Elliott’s teacher and has taught graphic design and photography classes in Laguna for 20 years, said “the camera just fell into place” with Elliott. Pellow said she remembers the “astounding” photos Elliott brought back from family vacations abroad.
“She had an eye for almost reading emotion with her photos,” Pellow said. “She could capture a kid who didn’t want to be photographed. And Sarah could, in that moment, somehow pull something off. … She was magical.”
Elliott’s knack for photography earned her a Festival of Arts scholarship for visual arts in 2003. She then headed to New York, where she devoted herself to photography at Parsons School of Design.
The $10,000 she received over four years from the Festival of Arts supported her as she honed her craft in unpaid internships with Vogue and James Nachtwey, a conflict photojournalist whose coverage spans South America, Asia, parts of Africa and the United States.
The Festival of Arts scholarship annually rewards students from Laguna Beach who excel in film, performing arts, visual arts and writing. Last year the scholarship committee awarded $87,400 to 48 students, including $29,800 to graduating high school seniors. The deadline to apply this year is March 8.
“We look for the talent, the passion, the follow-through,” said Festival of Arts board member Pat Kollenda, who leads the scholarship committee. “We love … if they actually make a living in the field they were awarded in. I mean, that’s fantastic.”
After Elliott’s 2007 graduation from Parsons, she apprenticed for a year with war photographer Stanley Greene, whose repertoire includes coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
In 2008, based on advice from her mentors, she decided to move to Kenya. She had vacationed there with her family in high school and the trip had made a “huge impact.”
“If you really wanted to work abroad, you needed to be there,” she said. “It was kind of a no-brainer that I definitely wanted to go to Kenya.”
She would be gone for just a year, she told her parents.
Armed with a list of contacts in the American news media, she flew to Kenya in January 2008. Her arrival coincided with the national elections at the end of December, which had thrown the country into political turmoil and violence. For a photojournalist, it was a perfect opportunity.
“I really hit the ground running,” she said. “Kenya was essentially exploding.”
For the next six years, Elliott threw herself into photojournalism, taking assignments for the New York Times, Newsweek, Time magazine, the Telegraph and other news publications around the world.
“[It] is so funny thinking back on that,” Elliott said. “I told my parents that I was just going to go for a year and kind of dip my feet into the business and make a name for myself and then I would come back to the U.S.
“But then I loved Kenya so much and I loved the work I was doing there and the stories I was working on. I couldn’t see myself moving back to the States to continue to pursue photojournalism.”
While covering Kenya’s post-election crisis and other major international news, Elliott felt a mission to photograph underreported stories involving women.
“Being a woman, it made sense to me,” she said. “Not that I have more empathy than men do, but I … focused on women’s stories that were fairly sensitive that I felt like only a woman could tell.”
Over the next few years, she delved into topics affecting women in Kenya and other parts of eastern and northern Africa, including the Langata Women’s Prison and illegal abortions in Kenya. Her photo story for the latter won third place in a 2011 World Press Photo competition.
Her last major news story took her to Libya on three month-long trips to photograph women who played a role in the country’s 2011 uprising against longtime leader Moammar Kadafi. She adopted “Women of the Revolution” as a personal project.
“I felt like the majority of the coverage we were seeing coming out of these places was purely male-focused. It was all frontline fighting and photos of the rebels, of men and AK-47s,” Elliott said. “I just kind of thought, well, women make up half or more than half of society and yet all we’re seeing is photos of men. What are women doing during this time?”
She worked on the project as the revolution unfolded. Her photos ran in a New York Times article.
Yet as her photojournalism career thrived, she felt herself longing to return to her family in the United States. Her trips to Libya were “really intense,” she said. Home in Nairobi, Kenya, was a compound lined with electric fences and a bedroom locked in with metal “rape gates.”
“I lived at this heightened state for six years while I was working there,” she said. “I never really had the decompression time. I was always on alert.”
Elliott moved back to New York. She struggled with the cultural transition but eventually found solace in work that hearkenedback to her Laguna Beach roots: style photography.
“To go from photojournalism to shooting home interiors is crazy,” she said. “But I am really enjoying, like, personal life stability and I have always loved architecture and … interior design and design in general, so it kind of makes sense that photographing homes has been a really great fit for me.”
Since returning to the U.S., Elliott has shot home tours for furnishings company West Elm, food photos for Bobbi Brown’s new book and interior design for several clients. She recently moved with her husband to upstate New York, but she still visits her coastal hometown regularly.
“I don’t know if I didn’t grow up in Laguna that I would have been so exposed to the arts and thinking about it in the way that this was a career option,” she said. “It was ingrained in me.”