Changing the World One Photo at a Time: Reflections of a Youth Leader

#GenGeo member and #GenGeo Storytelling For Impact: Photography course participant Issa Barte wrote this post.

If you’d told me five years ago that today I’d be using my own photography to propel the typhoon relief efforts of For the Future, a youth-led nongovernmental organization I co-founded here in the Philippines, I would not have believed it.

Why? Because when I started learning about the climate crisis, I thought there wasn’t much a little brown Filipino kid like me could do to address a problem that seemed so big. I was consumed by the thought that whatever solution I came up with would be too small.

After hearing this disempowering refrain for a few years I told myself just to try. So I planned a tree-planting trip with friends when I turned 23, and to say it turned my whole world around would be an understatement. We realized on our trip that we could advance reforestation efforts by involving more youth, and we spent the following months developing an execution plan.

In October 2019 we launched Fund the Forest, a three-month initiative focused on reforesting the ancestral lands of the Yangil tribe. We wanted to make the project fun and include kids who weren’t yet thinking about reforestation. So we decided to throw a party at which, in between the DJ sets and live bands, we talked about the importance of the project, showed pictures of the area we were trying to rehabilitate, and explained why simply attending was making a difference. That night, we raised more than we expected. Overall, we took a three-step approach: go to the community and learn its story; share the story; and inspire other youth to join us in taking action by providing them accessible avenues to do so.

Leading Fund the Forest instilled in me a deep appreciation for the power of storytelling. Photography proved the best medium to humanize a people and place located far away from most of our audience. We wouldn’t have been able to garner as much support as we did without using photography or storytelling.

From that first tree-planting trip to my role leading For the Future, which evolved from Fund the Forest, the thread tying together my various projects has been the climate crisis—and doing what I can to address it and to support those affected by it. Storytelling is core to that work, but I am a beginner photographer, so when I found out a few months ago about National Geographic’s #GenGeo Storytelling For Impact: Photography course, it felt heaven-sent. I was especially inspired to learn from fellow Filipina and National Geographic Explorer Hannah Reyes Morales. When I was first hearing about the climate crisis, I saw mostly foreign men at the forefront of the issue. Seeing people like Hannah leading the way makes me believe I can be part of the solution too.

(Clockwise from top left) 1. After a solar light distribution on Atulayan Island in the Bicol Region, we caught a glimpse of residents swapping out their old lamps for their new lights. 2. A solar light illuminates a relief recipient. 3. A community member in a relocation site stands in line to receive a solar light.

In the course, Hannah relates the importance of building relationships in the communities we photograph and centering the communities’ stories. The course also taught me about photo editing and photography ethics. As part of For the Future’s typhoon relief efforts, I used my newly improved photography skills to record life in the Bicol Region from December 2020 to April 2021 in the aftermath of several destructive typhoons that displaced many residents, making them local climate refugees. Even after the storms passed, people were in need of help, and I wanted to tell that story—the story between the headlines—to catalyze continuous action.

For the Future’s relief efforts included giving water filters, food, housing materials, and other essentials to communities recovering from the typhoons. One of the biggest difference makers for people were solar-powered lights; a single light costs about 20 U.S. dollars, can illuminate a home for up to five years, and can save a family money that might otherwise go to buying fume-emitting kerosene lamps. In this campaign we partnered with two other youth-led NGOs, One Million Lights Philippines and Kids for Kids. In addition to being youth-led, this effort is youth-funded. After seeing our photos, kids from across the Philippines and beyond have donated as little as one peso and as much as a month’s salary to support our efforts.

The communities we visit have so many worthy stories but often no platform to share them. That’s where people like me come in. Sharing stories is a great privilege and responsibility, and it can make a difference. We’ve already seen it happen. Storytellers can change our world.

The National Geographic Society’s growing #GenGeo community of young people is helping to shape the conversation, drive progress, and seek solutions to help protect our planet. Learning to be a better storyteller is one key way to make that happen.

Created in partnership with Adobe, Storytelling for Impact is a series of courses taught by world-class National Geographic photographers, videographers, and visual designers that teaches youth how to use compelling photography, video, audio, and graphics to tell stories in the most impactful ways to effect change.

Register for free today and find your storytelling voice.

All photos courtesy of Issa Barte

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