The Man Behind the Camera

By Lauragrace Allen, Derek Denneny and Lee Ammer

Some journalists go an entire career without being recognized for their accomplishments.

But West Virginia University Visual Journalism Professor Joel Beeson was fortunate enough to receive recognition for his documentary work with African-American WWII veterans in southern West Virginia.  Beeson won the Martin Luther King Junior Achievement Award in January.

But for Beeson, it wasn’t about the recognition or awards.

It was telling stories that would otherwise go untold.

Professor Beeson has used his experience from working for the Los Angeles Times, Southern Living Magazine, and The Times London to inspire future visual journalists at West Virginia University.

“Joel doesn’t need an award to do that work,” said Beeson’s wife and long-time colleague, Dana Coester. “He will do that work if it is unpublished, if it is unseen.”

Coester said Beeson’s drive and determination to tell these stories has been with him for as long as she has known him.

Beeson and Coester met at the University of Missouri and have worked together on several projects.  At the peak of both their personal lives and careers was their time spent in a rural community on the Alabama-Mississippi border.

“He’s exactly the same man today as he was, you know, the day I met him, when he was sending photographs over the wire from Mexico. And he’s really never slowed down.”

Although Beeson won the MLK Achievement Award for his work with WWII veterans, his first career-defining project was his documentary of impoverished workers in Juarez, Mexico throughout the late 1980’s.

“I really learned a lot in Juarez,” he said. “It is a lot different. I was living with nuns and they would often warn me about walking around at night or by myself.  It was a dangerous area, even then.”

The next big step in Beeson’s life and career was the time he spent in a small, rural town, Old Memphis, near the Alabama-Mississippi state line.

It was there that he met Willie King, a soulful blues singer, who had one of the most influential hands in Beeson’s career.

Beeson’s enthusiastic manner when talking about his good friend shows a bond that still runs deep.  As he recounted stories from his years in Old Memphis, his mood shifted and his endless stories seemed to come to life.

“His whole outlook on life was really something, he was a very unusual person,” Beeson said of King. “He slept in a rundown trailer and said ‘I don’t have much money, but I can sleep at night without drinking or taking something cause I feel I can walk among the people at night and I know nobody is gonna stab me or whatever’ because he does the right thing, he’s honest, he’s not trying to take advantage of anybody.”

Beeson admits that it’s these unique experiences along the way that have shaped him into the journalist – and person – he is today.

The MLK Achievement Award is given out once year by the West Virginia University Center for Black Culture and Research.  It is given to someone who brings awareness to civil rights issues.

Beeson worked closely with WWII veteran Marcus Cranford during the creation of his documentary “Fighting on Two Fronts, the Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans.”

The Kimball WWII Memorial was restored with the help of Professor Beeson, WVU students, and many others. Beeson's documentary work was at the heart of the project.

“Very rarely does a person like Joel come along and work on stories and projects such as this one because he genuinely feels its right,” Cranford said. “For him to win this award brings so much joy to me, as a friend and as someone who has seen how much work and genuine feelings he put into this. He deserves it.”

Although both Beeson and Coester agree it was a great accomplishment in his career, they were both quick to admit their surprise at the news.

“We were shocked about the award because I’ve seen the other recipients and it’s really distinguished,” Coester explained. “I don’t think either of us would have thought that he was among that company but we were grateful that other people thought that.”

Beeson admitted he felt overwhelming emotion while receiving the award and said he was greatly humbled by the experience.

“It was just like, tears of joy,” he said.  “You do this for years and years and years and then somebody recognizes it and gives you support for it.  As Willie King said ‘you keep crawling,’ and don’t worry what other people say…so I felt very humbled.”

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