Since 2003, National Geographic Photo Camp has provided a meaningful introduction to photography for young people around the world.
With support from Finish, the National Geographic Society hosted four Photo Camps over the past year where students explored the waterways and areas surrounding the Gunnison River in Colorado, the Florida Everglades, the Wallowa River Valley of Oregon, and the Rio Grande River Valley in Texas.
Under the instruction and guidance of National Geographic Explorer and Photo Camp founder Kirsten Elstner and her fellow Explorers and world-class photographers, students gained confidence in their storytelling and photography skills, explored the world around them, and developed deep connections with each other while reflecting on one common theme: How does water connect us all?
Photo Camp Colorado
In April 2022, 18 students participated in Photo Camp Colorado and had the opportunity to explore the waters of the Dominguez Escalante Canyon system on the Gunnison River with Explorers Ronan Donovan and Tailyr Irvine.
In the classroom, students participated in discussions, wrote reflections, heard from Donovan and Irvine about their experiences as photographers, and learned some basics of photography like composition, lighting, and shutter speed. Then, they practiced with storytelling assignments in the field: exploring and photographing during a river trip, capturing sunset portraits of one another at the Black Canyon Anglers Lodge, talking to community members about the water issues in the area, and more.
National Geographic Photo Camp student Damien “Tyrrell” Garcia took the photo above as the students explored the Gunnison River together in Colorado. In his reflection, he wrote, “Seeing that so many people don’t have any access to water made me realize how important it is. Not just to people but for the environment. It keeps our environment alive, beautiful, and it keeps the animals around.
He continued, “For all we know water could disappear, and we would never see it again. And people in the future could never see what I’ve gotten to see. So not only am I going to do everything I can to keep the water around, I’m going to do everything I can to show the beauty that water brings and I’m going to try to teach others all about it.”
At the end of their Photo Camp experience, students reflected on the lessons they learned. Sienna Reese shared, “Most of all I got to grow as a person. I met new people, friends that I may not see again but will hold close to my heart. This experience has led me to ask questions. I started to ponder things like what is this, why is it like that, how did this come about, how can I make a picture out of this, how can I convey this person’s story?”
Photo Camp Florida Everglades
Just a few days after the Photo Camp team left Colorado, 18 students from Florida gathered together to explore the Florida Everglades with three Explorers: Erika Larsen, a photographer and multidisciplinary storyteller who explores the landscape of the Americas in relation to the animals and natural resources; Gena Steffens, a photographer and writer whose work tends to focus on conflict between humans and the environment; and Carlton Ward Jr., an eighth-generation Floridian and founder of the Florida Wildlife Corridor project with strong connections to conservation organizations, researchers, and landowners in the region.
Students practiced their photography and storytelling from sunrise to sunset –– literally! They took sunrise photos one day around Archbold Biological Station and sunset photos the next.
Students also enjoyed field assignments including a fan boat ride, a trip to Buck Island Ranch, kayaking on Fisheating Creek, and more.
“What did I gain from this experience?” Photo Camp student Isabel Guerra asked. “The importance of sharing your own story and communicating through your own photographs with campers, staff, and instructors at this camp, who can relate to me as having a passion for taking photographs and being my Photo Camp family.”
Photo Camp Oregon
In August 2022, Photo Camp traveled to Oregon for a week-long experience focused on geography and culture and the unique perspectives of students from the Wallowa Valley including Nez Perce youth and others from surrounding towns. The students explored the many facets of water usage in Northeast Oregon and specifically in these communities.
Students from across Oregon and Idaho –– including several from Indigenous communities who have called this area home for centuries –– spent the week at the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland and with surrounding communities to develop their photography skills with Explorers Sara Hylton and Tailyr Irvine, who have each dedicated storytelling projects to amplifying the voices of Indigenous communities and people.
Students explored how members of the community –– neighbors, ranchers, land management workers, friends and family –– spend their time recreating, working on, and being nourished by the water and land.
Photo Camp Oregon student Pox Pox Himin Joseph Young took the photo below and, in part of his reflection, wrote, “These lands, rivers, lakes, and streams are all a part of us. They helped bring life to my people, through the salmon, the water that we drank, and the ability to travel from one area to another. Water is life. Water is sacred. Without water we would be nothing.”
Days before the Photo Camp Oregon students and Explorers arrived, the Wallowa community was impacted by a harsh storm. Still, they shared their space and resources with the Photo Camp team and students, spoke openly to the students about their recovery efforts, and allowed the students to document the effects of the storm. The Photo Camp team appreciated the Wallowa community’s generosity.
Photo Camp Rio Grande Valley
For the last Photo Camp in the series with Finish, the team traveled to Brownsville, Texas and brought together 19 students from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in February 2023. With guidance from Explorers Dominic Bracco and Meghan Dhaliwal, the students completed assignments around Brownsville, along the Rio Grande and the US-Mexico border.
The Rio Grande is just one of countless water sources confronting a devastating water scarcity crisis. Just over a century ago, the Rio Grande was a roaring source of freshwater along the US-Mexico border and now much of the river has given way to dry and desolate landscapes as a result of climate change, according to Inside Climate News.
In her reflection on the week’s theme, Photo Camp Rio Grande Valley student Fatima Lopez wrote, “Same water, different place and different people. A dream inside a backpack. A dream about to come true.”
From the businesses and community hubs of downtown Brownsville to the beaches of South Padre Island, the students set out to capture stories of their communities, and reflect on their own stories.
Accompanied by UTRGV alumnus and Explorer Sandesh Kadur as a guest instructor, they also visited the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, which is a 30-acre protected area that represents one of the rarest ecosystems in the US. It represents a piece of history –– a sliver of the 60,000 acres that once lined the Rio Grande Delta before more than 95 percent was cleared for agriculture and development. With this glimpse back in time, the students were able to see a more complete picture of the central role of the Rio Grande in the community both past and present.
“It was an incredible experience to witness the effort and authenticity the students put into their work, as well as the fast, tight bonds they formed with each other over the course of the week at Photo Camp Rio Grande Valley,” Dhaliwal said. “As an instructor, it was also special to see so much of the area through their eyes –– so many magical places and moments that I, as an outsider, would’ve never been privy to without them.”
Although these Photo Camps took place hundreds of miles apart, they each provided students with an incredible opportunity to embrace photography as a means of telling stories from their unique perspectives.
“These students are the next generation of storytellers and if there’s one thing I hope they take away, it’s a reminder that their stories matter, and they make a difference,” said Kaitlin Yarnall, the National Geographic Society’s Chief Storytelling Officer.
ABOUT NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO CAMP
National Geographic Photo Camp provides a meaningful introduction to photography for young people from communities around the world. Each Photo Camp is an immersive experience where students receive instruction and guidance from world-class National Geographic Explorers and photographers, build skills and confidence, explore the world around them, and develop deep connections with each other. The goal of the program is to inspire the next generation of storytellers, and support them in sharing their experiences and perspectives.