National Geographic Photo Camp: South Sudan

October 21, 2014

(Internews and National Geographic teamed up to conduct this photo camp described in this blog post from National Geographic.)

When I tell friends and family that I'm participating in another National Geographic Photo Camp, the most common reaction is enthusiasm for a program that brings photography education to young adults in economically challenged or volatile parts of the U.S. or the world. The quick follow-up reaction is usually a question about how they can get involved.

After participating in seven camps, though, I understand better that Photo Camp is about so much more than handling the camera and getting immersed in the storytelling experience.

Last month I joined National Geographic photographers Ed Kashi, Matt Moyer, and Amy Toensing, along with technical director Jon Brack, in producing a weeklong Photo Camp in Juba, South Sudan, organized by VisionWorkshops' Kirsten Elstner and funded in part by USAID through our partner, Internews, an NGO that aims to empower local media worldwide.

Our goal was to inspire 20 young journalists to embrace photojournalism and visual storytelling as a way of sharing their experiences living and developing in the world's newest nation—a nation that has been suffering from internal tribal and political conflict since December 2013. To meet that goal, we needed to be deliberate and creative to attract students from different backgrounds and to design assignments that would both stretch each student's skills and provide opportunities to work through the differences that may have distanced them before the camp began.

Five days of shooting at an orphanage, a women's rescue center, the custom market, Juba University, the cattle market, a kickboxing tournament, during sunrise at Jebel, and to create student portrait produced more than 30,000 frames that tell the moving story of this camp—a story that brings together Dinka and Nuer tribe members, equal numbers of women and men, strong hopes for the future of South Sudan, and a commitment to being part of its future. Wrote one student in his evaluation about the camp: "I am now able to use my camera as the voice of the voiceless. Although photojournalism is a long road of discovery, it is a good start that I have taken during this week … [It] helps me build a strong friendship with the rest of the students that came from different parts of the country." Security and logistical issues made this a challenging camp to organize, but neither prevented us from enjoying each other and laughing throughout the week.

Each camp closes with a multimedia presentation of the students' work, which is curated by the camp's photo editor, Matt Moyer. In Juba, the presentation was attended by more than 300 guests of the students, Internews, and USAID, and each student addressed the audience to share his or her thoughts about the week. Said one student: "We've seen the sun come up and go down forever, but now we see it all differently." Following the camp, students have continued to communicate and share with each other using the group's Facebook page. Staff encouraged the students to participate in Your Shot (and they received a community t-shirt), Olympus donated five cameras that are available on loan from the university, and three students will travel to Washington, D.C. in early January to attend the National Geographic Photography Seminar and participate in a panel discussion at Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic headquarters. An exhibit from all 67 Photo Camps will be presented at headquarters between December 2014 and May 2015, and it will feature images from the South Sudan camp.

Camps always begin with basic lessons about cameras, composition, and color, but they always end with the students—and the staff—feeling more compassion, admiration, and inspiration for each other and for their communities.

Whether I'm there as a volunteer or a coordinator, the camp allows me to experience firsthand how deeply and meaningfully the Society reaches into the world, and how it offers inspiration and creates opportunities for people who are very much in need of both. –Ross Goldberg, Vice President Strategic Development