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Students in Photo Camp Document the Chesapeake's Beauty, Fragility

by Tom Zolper
When they weren’t taking photographs, the students were outside canoeing, hiking, harvesting crabs, using a seine net to test water for biodiversity, interviewing residents on nearby Tangier Island and learning about the Bay from the deck of a workboat.

Alice had her looking glass. These Baltimore high school students had cameras. With a little help from some special instructors the students recently learned to step through those digital portals into an enchanted place—the beautiful and fragile world of the Chesapeake Bay.

The experience was part of Photo Camp, a National Geographic Society program co-organized locally with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Seventeen students selected from two public city high schools were asked to forgo iPods, text messages, even showers for four days, June 5–8. In return they were provided photo equipment, one-on-one instruction from National Geographic staff, and the chance to explore a remote island and culture in the middle of Tangier Sound.

The goal was to help city kids grow—to see the Bay environment and their place in it—by thinking inside the box of a viewfinder.

The immediate results were striking: some of the best student photographs the National Geographic staff said they had seen in some time. Several of the photos will be posted to the Society’s website. Written reflections by the students after the trip also revealed the seeds of momentous transformations.

“I learned and experienced what I thought was nearly impossible for me to experience in life. I overcame my fears—for instance, I’m terrified of fish and of sea critters, but here I had to get in the water with the critters," wrote Tiandra Johnson, 16, a student at the Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy.

Other students wrote that they had gained artistic vision, or that they had begun to see the Bay as something other than a tourist area in Baltimore Harbor.

Emily Water
Emily Water, 17, a student at The Baltimore School for the Arts, relishes a romp in the marshes of Port Isobel Island in the Tangier Sound. Students from the high school as well as Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy spent four days on the island learning about the Bay and taking photographs as part of a program organized jointly by the National Geographic Society and the Chespapeake Bay Foundation.

“I will never forget the people I found here and the beaches and the wetlands and the sky. It’s all in my mind and in the back of my eyelids,” wrote Emily Waters, 17, a senior at the Baltimore School of the Arts in a written reflection. “All people are connected to nature and the environment. It may take a camera, a book, or someone’s words to realize this connection.”

It all started with a huge adjustment—almost as soon as the students stepped onto the dock at Port Isobel Island, an educational center in Virginia run by CBF. The island is in the remote lower section of the bay. The area is so shallow even recreational boaters steer clear. The environs are otherworldly for city kids accustomed to a boxed-in world of brick and noise. In the humidity of a hot June day on the Bay, sea and sky seem to merge into one vast expanse. And time—island time—alters the pace and direction of life. Tides, weather, and the vagaries of the fisheries and wildlife dictate the daily schedule. Teen-agers barely separated from their electronic gadgets and multi-tasking were out of sync.

“Everybody take a deep breath. Slow down. Live in that little box,” instructed National Geographic editor Lelen Robert at the end of the first day of exploring. “Sometimes anticipating where you might find a good photograph is better than running around and taking a lot of pictures. Slow down.”

Robert and her staff from National Geographic were projecting samples of the students’ early photographs onto a makeshift screen—a white bed sheet tacked up at one of CBF’s educational buildings. Several of the photos showed signs of hurrying—poor lighting or composition. The challenge, Robert explained, was to develop an eye for detail—sometimes ordinary, overlooked detail. That meant patience. It meant taking multiple photographs from difference perspectives; it might even mean returning to the same subject latter in the day when the light changed.

The students, from Vivian T. Medical Arts Academy and Baltimore School of the Arts, also were scolded if they ‘chimped’—constantly checked the digital image of the picture they just took. Robert said worrying too much how a photo turned out distracts the photographer from his surroundings, from being in the moment.

When they weren’t taking photographs, the students were outside canoeing, hiking, harvesting crabs, using a seine net to test water for biodiversity, interviewing residents on nearby Tangier Island and learning about the Bay from the deck of the Loni Carrol II—a CBF workboat. In all aspects of their living on Port Isobel they were encouraged to think ecologically. For example, a designated student ‘slop cop’ at meals monitored waste. All of the educational experiences were led by Dave Cola and Christy Urban, two CBF educators.

Helping with photographic instruction were program director Kirsten Elstner, Robert, renowned Chesapeake Bay photographer Dave Hart, and staff from the National Geographic and its partner VisionWorkshops of Annapolis: Lindsay McCullough, Brian Talbot, Katel LeDu, Sarah Galbraith, and Cheryl Zook.

There were times when the going got tough—when the bugs swarmed, when the temperature climbed, and personalities clashed. But by the end of the four days, the students were full of praise and gratitude—not just for a formative experience, but for people who cared.

Courtney Henson and Christopher Stevens
Courtney Henson and Christopher Stevens, both students at Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy in Baltimore, were all smiles even after getting covered with mud in a scramble through the marsh as part of Photo Camp - a program jointly organized by the National Geographic Society and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Christopher Stevens, 19, from Vivian T. Thomas Academy, had started the trip proclaiming his fear of water. For Stevens the outdoors meant playing hoops on macadam. But on Port Isobel, he was crowned the “Marsh King” for winning a foot race through wetlands, emerging covered head to toe in dark, redolent mud. Several staffers also praised his artistic eye, and encouraged him to think about college—a future he’d never considered.

“National Geographic Photo Camp was very valuable to me. This program helped me become more connected to the environment. I’ve learned to express my ideas and feelings through photography,” Stevens said. “I have people in my life now who want me to keep going to school because they see something in me which others can’t see.“

National Geographic Mission Programs also is sponsoring Photo Camps this year in Costa Rica; Rajasthan, India; Santa Monica, Calif.; Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D.; Appalachian Trail; Taos, N.M.; Camden, Maine; and Miami. The program attempts “to inspire young people to explore their communities through the camera’s lens, and to share their vision through public presentations and exhibitions,” according to the Photo Camp website. This year, the Photo Camp program has focused on helping young people connect to their natural environment, Elstner said.

“This experience was unforgettable. I just want to thank you for the opportunity to work with National Geographic and the CBF. It was such an amazing opportunity, “ said Ashley Lane, 18, from the Baltimore Arts School. “I’ve learned different perspectives because of the camera, and I now have more respect for nature.“

Tom Zolper is Maryland Communications Coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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This story was published on June 13, 2008.