Reflections on Nat Geo Photo Camp Shenandoah: Baltimore Refugee Youth Project students tell their stories through photography


The following was written by National Geographic Partners Associate Producer Amber Seyler, who recently attended National Geographic’s Photo Camp in Shenandoah National Park.

I first learned about National Geographic’s Photo Camp when I was compiling footage for a year-end impact video for the Society. I began asking around and discovered that a Photo Camp was going to take place with youth from Baltimore in Shenandoah National Park and would involve Nat Geo photographers John Stanmeyer and Amy Toensing. Little did I know that this simple footage search would turn into one of the most profound experiences of my life.

National Geographic partners with VisionWorkshops’ Kirsten Elstner to help run the Photo Camp program. Kirsten alone was an inspiration. Since the program’s inception, the goal has been to bring the power of photography to young people in populations whose stories were dramatically underrepresented in the media and arts, and to give them the skills to have ownership of their own stories.

Baltimore’s Refugee Youth Project helped identify 18 young refugees to participate in Photo Camp Shenandoah. The students came from 10 different countries and ranged in age from 14 to 19 years old. Some were very new to the United States, some had been here for years, but they all had a story.

Their assignment for Photo Camp was to work with a partner to find out their story and tell that story through photography. This assignment involved a lot of questions, a lot of photos and, most of all, a lot of trust. Oftentimes these kids were opening up to someone from a country that they either had no experience with, or possibly even had a previous cultural bias against. But my goodness, did these kids create the most amazing bonds! The act of discussing their lives, almost always with harrowing and/or tragic details, was just one aspect of how they created unbreakable bonds, but the portraits they took of each other required another level of trust.

Personally, I witnessed two students who were struggling to understand each other have their walls completely dissolve as Amy guided them through a portrait session. Having to become vulnerable to one another as the portrait subject, and then to capture the essence of the other’s personality as the photographer, suddenly turned antagonists into allies. It was a very emotional thing to witness.

As a videographer, I usually find myself being a “fly on the wall,” trying to have as low a profile as possible in order to get good, candid footage of people. And oftentimes, seeing everything through a lens creates a certain detachment from what is going on in front of you. It took no time at all for these kids to break that barrier and make detachment impossible. These kids were tough, smart, funny, and curious, and they surprised me over and over again with their ability to absorb and process information and turn it into stunningly beautiful photos.

Yes, these kids learned photography, and yes, they learned it from amazingly talented (and famous) National Geographic photographers John and Amy (with an assist from Ronan Donovan), but National Geographic’s Photo Camp extends far beyond learning how to use a camera. These kids now have ownership of their own stories and no longer have to rely on others to capture it and tell it for them. They can represent themselves, their families, their communities and their native countries. Each and every one of them has an amazing story to tell, with big hopes and big dreams.

What did I learn? The young people in each Photo Camp community have something important to share with the world. We just need to have the courage to look and to listen.