A Front Row Seat to Life: Tanya Ackerman

By Leslie Moore

For those of us on Facebook, the name Tanya Ackerman conjures up breathtaking images of the natural world surrounding her beloved Pawleys Island. This award-winning photojournalist’s followers eagerly await her daily jaw dropping photo, posted with an always-positive message. Most mornings find her on the beach, always in her trademark hat, skillfully capturing the beauty of Pawleys Island.

Tanya is just as well known for her work as staff photojournalist for the Coastal Observer. The stories and emotions she shares through her photography have earned her the South Carolina Press Association’s Photojournalist of the Year award three times since 2006. Tanya has also published a popular pictorial landscape book and calendar, Chasing the Light, documenting the beauty of our coastal environment. Her beautiful coffee table book is so popular that Tanya is currently working on a second volume, to be released in November of 2020.

Both of Tanya’s parents are artists. Her late mother was a photographer and a radio program director, and Tanya’s dad is a professional musician – Bob Ackerman and his wife, Pam Purvis, are well known in the jazz world and the duo plays locally to packed houses. It’s no surprise that Tanya is one of the area’s most sought after photographers.

However, these accomplishments did not come easily, and Tanya’s success came through perseverance and hard work, in spite of challenging circumstances. “I graduated from Arts Magnet High School in Dallas, and got pregnant at the end of that summer,” Tanya began. “My daughter, Lauren, now 33, is my most favorite person in the world!”

For nearly ten years, Tanya worked a variety of jobs. “I thought I wanted to be in fashion so I moved to New York, and worked for Saks, Neiman Marcus, and Marshall Fields & Co. But it’s a tough business – one day I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore.” During these years, Tanya had always rented a room wherever she was living to help make ends meet. “I rented to a photographer who told me I had the eye. People kept telling me I had an eye for photography.”

When Lauren was seven years old, Tanya packed up and moved to Hinckley, Ohio, where her mother was living, to start college, but she wasn’t yet sure what she wanted to do. “I asked my dad, who was living in Newark, New Jersey, at the time, to send me to take an aptitude test. It told me I should be a photographer, an interior designer or a psychologist.”

Tanya decided she wanted to attend Kent State, but was concerned her high school grades weren’t good enough. “At 28, I was terrified I wouldn’t remember anything and I wasn’t sure I could actually make it,” she remembered with a small smile on her face. “I talked to the head of the photography department and it turned out they were looking for non-traditional students – they welcomed with open arms.” Kent State has one of the best photojournalism departments in the country, and Tanya had always loved documentary work, so she chose her major without a second thought.Within the first year, this budding photojournalist was chosen to be photo editor of the campus magazine, a paid position perfect for the struggling student. “We were named number one college magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists for three years,” Tanya told me proudly.

When an artist finds their medium, nothing can stop them, and this was true of Tanya. She started entering contests to build a portfolio – and winning many of them. “I’ve always been inspired by artists like Norman Rockwell, and Life Magazine photographers. I love those moments of Americana, the historical moments.”

During her junior year, Tanya was recruited by USA Today, to work for a newspaper in Greenville, South Carolina. She had a job, doing what she loved. “All of a sudden I knew who I was,” Tanya said with awe, still overwhelmed by the path that brought her to where she is today.

Greenville was home to Tanya and Lauren until Lauren graduated from high school. “Lauren was my everything. She still is. And I still miss her.” Continuing, Tanya said, “You’re only as good as the last picture you took. It can drive you a little mad,” Tanya laughed a little, but I could see the truth behind her humor. With Lauren off to school, Tanya was ready for a change. She interviewed with several newspapers around the country, but chose Pawleys Island’s Coastal Observer. “I had photographed a wedding at the Pelican Inn, in August, while I was living in Greenville. Even though I was dripping sweat, I looked around and thought it would be incredible to live here.”

A boyfriend of Tanya’s helped her move and while she was unpacking he went to look around. “He found the Pawleys Island Tavern, the PIT, which was a real local’s hangout back then. Some of the friends I made that first day are still a big part of my life.”

The success of her work and an almost continuous succession of awards hid much of the pain that Tanya kept from most who knew her. “I started having serious anxiety in college. People think you stand behind the camera and shoot pretty pictures, but it’s so much more than that.”

“It’s hard to live in a place where everyone is on vacation and not party all the time. I was always a hard worker, but I was the first one at happy hour and maybe the last to leave at night,” Tanya told me frankly. “I finally faced the fact that my drinking was out of control. And I had been prescribed anxiety medication in college and continued to take it daily. I would drink until I felt better, wake up panic stricken and take a pill. My anxiety was terrible; sometimes all I could do was rock and rock in a fetal position. I now know the alcohol was causing it.”

At 46, Tanya finally reached her bottom. Her drinking had spiraled; she had basically stopped eating because she couldn’t hold down food. Her alcoholism was killing her. “I collapsed and a friend called an ambulance. The ER doctor said he didn’t understand why I still had kidney and liver function. He told me he was going to admit me and get me straightened out, but if I didn’t change, I would die.”

Tanya was hospitalized for a week and luckily listened to her doctor’s advice. When she was released, she found she had lost her home. “Friends put some of my things in storage.” She was also in intense pain. “I walked like a 90 year old woman and if someone even touched me lightly, I would cry out.”

The only thing that never suffered was Tanya’s work ethic. “I was still producing. I went right back to work when I was released from the hospital.” During the worst years of her alcoholism, Tanya continued to win awards, never letting anything stop her from excelling.

Now almost six years sober, Tanya is healthy and happy. “At first, I didn’t know what to do with all of my extra time. Partying takes a lot of time and energy!” Fortunately for us, Tanya decided to start photographing sunrises, getting up every day before the sun to find the perfect light. “I felt like I was channeling my mom who died 11 years ago.” Tanya began “chasing the light” daily – sunrises, sunsets and the light between storms.

A local benefactor approached Tanya and wanted to help her produce a book showcasing her work. Like everything she does, Tanya made this book a work of art – and judging by her phenomenal sales, her fans agree. The popularity of her work soon led to an annual pictorial calendar that also flies off the shelves every year.

“I was able to pay back my benefactor in one month,” Tanya told me proudly. “I had the first book signing at the PIT, and when people lined up to get a book signed or take a photo with me, I was humbled and overwhelmed. We ran out of books in an hour that day.”

“Being a photojournalist allows me to capture the moments and history of our time. I have a front row seat to life. In chasing the light, I look for moments, using my photojournalist training to capture pictorial landscapes. Mother nature is where I find my spirituality.”

Tanya’s book and calendar, Chasing the Light, is available in Pawleys Island at Art Works, Litchfield Books, Palmetto Ace Hardware, The Original Hammock Shop, My Sister’s Books, and Bienvenue in Georgetown, as well as other retailers.

To see more of her work, find her on Facebook, @tanya.ackerman58or at www.tanyaackerman.com.

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore

    Leslie Moore

    Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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