The Ocean Separates These Young Storytellers. It’s Also What Connects Them.

In October, the National Geographic Society brought together 31 youth from 14 countries around the world for a virtual Photo Camp focused on the theme of ocean connections. With guidance from National Geographic Explorers Malaika Vaz and Jahawi Bertolli, students honed their storytelling skills by completing photography and writing assignments exploring their relationship to the ocean—and to water in general. Explorer at Large Sylvia Earle also spoke to the group about ocean conservation.

We talked to three Photo Camp students to learn how the experience helped them develop their storytelling skills and empowered them to use their voices to make an impact. Morgan Dethlefsen is from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, Ciara Ratum is from the island of Oʻahu in Hawaiʻi, and Parwat Singh is from the Indian state of Uttarakhand.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

National Geographic Society (Society): Why is exploring your community’s relationship to the ocean important to you?

Morgan Dethlefsen (MD): I’ve been surrounded 360 degrees by the ocean since birth. In the Marshall Islands it provides food, recreation, and livelihoods. So in a place where water is so all-encompassing, examining the different ways my community interacts with the ocean—especially in times of change like we are seeing now with the climate crisis—is both a necessity from a historical standpoint but also important in looking at where we need to go from here.

Ciara Ratum (CR): In Hawaiʻi, the Indigenous culture is interconnected with the water and the land. They believe that humans and nature are able to coexist while being able to sustain each other. As a settler on Native land, I think it is important to understand these roots even though I am not Native Hawaiian.

Parwat Singh (PS): The ocean is very important to our environment, to the world, to this whole planet. And it’s very important because we get a lot of our resources from the ocean. Where I live in northern India we don’t have the ocean, but we have rivers and lakes that feed into it. I haven’t seen the ocean before. I’ve never been there, but I’d like to go sometime.

Society: What effect do you think sharing stories and ideas can have on the world?

CR: Sharing stories and ideas allows people from all over the world to connect and see different perspectives and narratives that they maybe wouldn’t have known so intimately without a plane ticket. I think that is also the beauty of social media—I now have friends on my socials who are all over the world who are sharing events in their own communities instantaneously.

MD: I think a lot of people don’t value how much humans are emotional beings, and I think a lot of people get wrapped up in facts and charts and graphs and data. And that’s not to say they aren’t important; they are invaluable. But especially in the era of climate crisis, where we focus a lot on the science of it all, it’s also important to focus on the human, emotional aspect.

For the second Photo Camp assignment, Morgan interviewed his neighbor Floyd Corder, who reflected on his experiences as a fisherman in the Marshall Islands. Photo by Morgan Dethlefsen

Society: What does building your photography skills mean to you? How will you use those skills going forward?

CR: It means pushing myself out of my comfort zone and trying new things. As a photographer who mainly captures nature and landscape images, I was not very comfortable making portraits of strangers. This Photo Camp pushed me to talk to people and capture who they are in a single photo, which is a skill I hope to improve and get more comfortable and creative with as I continue my journey.

PS: I know I have lots to learn. I am working on it every day. I love the ocean, I love the forest and the animals. I’d like to learn more and more about the animals out in the wild, and I want to protect them. I want to teach: I want to let people know how important these things are and what the consequences will be if we don’t protect them.

MD: I’ve been taking photos for a long, long time, but I haven’t really explored photography as a medium of telling stories. It was more like: this is an incredible shot that I’d love to share. The Photo Camp allowed me to intertwine storytelling and photography in a way that I hadn’t explored before. And the skills I learned in Photo Camp, both in storytelling and photography, I’ll definitely use much more in the future to effectively tell stories.

Society: What challenges did you face in the Photo Camp, and how did you approach them?

PS: When I joined this Photo Camp, I was very nervous, very scared. I’m not comfortable telling my stories to others, because I think, what if my story is not good? What if my story is not making sense? And what if I could do a better job? So from there, it was very challenging going out to talk to different people and to learn about their culture and to learn about how they live and what their lifestyle is. After doing the Photo Camp I felt much better talking to different people. Still sometimes I hesitate to show my work, but I think I’m doing better.

CR: A challenge I faced was the time crunch we were in for capturing photos. Being a full-time student with a part-time job, I had to really be on it for these photo assignments. For the first assignment I didn’t know what to shoot and I didn’t have time to get in the water. I eventually decided to check out a popular waterfall I went to when I was younger. I was blessed to find a local family that had the spot all to themselves, and I was able to capture some fun images of them. The family was overjoyed when I shared my images with them, which was so relieving!

Society: How did connecting with other young people from around the world affect the way you think about your own story?

CR: Being able to connect with so many young people from all over the world allowed me to see all of the struggles that different communities have to face. At first, it was overwhelming, but the passion from everyone gave me hope that I wasn’t the only person trying to help our ocean.

MD: It widened my view of what a connection to the ocean could look like, because growing up out here surrounded by water it’s easy for us to think, Oh, you’re from a city that’s hundreds of miles inland, or you’re from a place where the water’s frozen half the year—how could you understand what the ocean is really like? Being able to see these direct connections to the ocean, even from people hundreds of miles inland, was really important and really took off what might have been left of some blinders.

At National Geographic, we believe that young people have the power to address some of the world’s most pressing problems. Sign up to be a part of the growing #GenGeo community of young people who are committed to exploring connections, taking action for our planet, and inspiring a sustainable future.

Learn from world-class National Geographic Explorers, photographers, videographers, and visual designers in a series of Storytelling for Impact courses in partnership with Adobe on how to use compelling photography, video, graphics, and audio to tell stories in the most impactful ways to effect change. Learn more about and sign up for these free online courses here.

Interested in learning more about Photo Camp? Visit the program’s Instagram page to learn more and see other examples of student work. You can also follow Morgan, Ciara, and Parwat on Instagram.

Featured image by Ciara Ratum

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