“You’re the Galapagos Photographer. I like your photos. I take photos too.”
These were the words from a 7-year-old that helped me understand that through photography, my message about caring for the Galapagos was succeeding in reaching people of all ages.
Two years have gone by since this conversation with little Fabio, a conversation I will always remember; and six years since photography became part of my working and public life. It was then that I joined the communications team at the Galapagos National Park Directorate, a public institution that forms part of Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment and that stands for the protection, conservation and regulation of the protected terrestrial and marine areas of the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site.
One of my tasks on the communications team is to document through photographs the work the GNPD park rangers do in the field, like the reintroduction of terrestrial tortoises to their islands of origin, or the safeguarding of tortoise nests in protected areas, where the presence of rats puts the newborns’ lives at risk before they have even hatched.
I have also been able to show through my photos the important work that the park rangers do to protect, conserve and restore the archipelago. We partner with the Charles Darwin Foundation whose scientists are currently trying to protect the mangrove finch from the presence of an invasive fly called Philornis downsi, which affects its eggs and chicks, putting the species highly at risk.
All this photographic coverage, and the fact that my coworkers’ day-to-day lives take place in such magical natural sites, has made me realize the importance of preserving nature and the necessity of bringing the message of conservation to more people. This is key for me as a member of a leading institution in conservation, and on a personal level as a member of the community in which my family and children live; and also because of the thousands of people that arrive here each year to see what it is about these islands that is so enchanting.
In the year 2014, my knowledge of photography was transformed into an educational project, the Young Photographers of Galapagos, in which I encouraged the students of Santa Cruz to take part. Before going out to take photos, they learned the importance of the rules of the Galapagos National Park, like not using a flash and keeping a distance of at least 2 meters from the species.
In three years, 50 young people have taken part in the project. On one occasion I heard one of the participants, Melissa Arevalo, say: “I got to know new places thanks to photography, to know my paradise more deeply, and to see its beauty that is so vulnerable, so majestic. I now understand that we have to look after it better and appreciate it more. One of the biggest pleasures that I experienced was without doubt to value Galapagos.”
These words drove me forward because they showed me that through photography, these young people have learnt to see the Galapagos in a different way. And they now also understand why thousands of people come every year with their cameras to photograph the place where they live.
They further understand that if we don’t look after this place, we put species like the tortoises and the mangrove finches at risk, especially as they are so affected by introduced species, most of which arrive by transport, on clothes, and in suitcases and cargo.
At the end of every school year, when my Young Photographers of Galapagos group participates in local and national exhibitions, I feel rewarded when I hear them talking about the impact photography has had on them, like in the heartfelt words of participant Abraham Bonilla, which he shared at the University of the Arts in Guayaquil:
“Diego not only reaches out to young people but also to institutions for their support, making this whole activity so much more valuable. And to be part of this group like I was last year was special; sharing photographs of our islands in the Casa de Cultura in our capital city, where approximately 200 students from different institutions visited us. Not only did they see our photos, but we in turn shared with them how much we had enjoyed caring for nature through photography.”
As a photographer, I dream only of being able to continue to educate young people. I understand that I am not going to change the archipelago with my photography, but I can educate the future leaders to do it with theirs.
Diego Bermeo is a photographer and environmental communicator in the Galapagos National Park Directorate. Founder of the project Young Photographers of Galapagos, he uses photography as a tool for conservation and to enrich cultural identity in protected areas. He lives on the island of Santa Cruz in Galapagos.