By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator
Today’s young people will become tomorrow’s conservationists and nature photographers if, and maybe only if, they are able to get out and experience the wonders of nature. They’ll be the ones whose dollars keep camera companies innovating, whose votes protect the wild and beautiful, and whose vision and aesthetics take photography in exciting new directions if they learn to appreciate our precious natural world. But too many young people don’t have easy access to wild places and aren’t getting the transformative experiences that will inspire them to take up the challenges of documenting, advocating for, and protecting nature. That dilemma inspired Daniel Dietrich to create Conservation Kids.
The idea came a long time ago to Dietrich, a wildlife and conservation photographer and naturalist in Point Reyes, California. As he was moving towards becoming a full-time, professional nature and conservation photographer more than a decade ago, he was also trying to figure out a way to engage and inspire kids. “I grew up in a family that was outside all the time,” he says, “playing, exploring, investigating, learning.” Those experiences connected him to nature in a deep and lasting way. So, he thought about starting a project that would give cameras to kids, provide some basic instructions on taking photos, and have young people go out to document the wild world around them.
Initially, Dietrich thought about starting this project overseas, in rural villages, but quickly pivoted to northern California. Still, getting this program up and running took longer than he thought. The hurdles were varied, from raising the money to acquire cameras, lenses and other gear to getting groups of kids to apply.
Bringing it to life
A casual conversation with a friend who has his own kid-focused nonprofit and knew about the struggles of startups resulted in him pledging to be the first donor, once Dietrich got the project off the ground. That commitment was hugely appreciated and tremendously motivational, giving Dietrich the confidence to go out and start buying cameras and gear.
Dietrich thought it would be easy to get groups of kids to apply, but young people have busy lives. He was competing for their non-school time and attention against sports, social activities, spring breaks, and other extracurricular options. It took more time and effort than he had anticipated to drum up initial interest from youth organizations but he now has great connections with a network of schools, school groups and clubs, afterschool programs, and other places kids hang out.
Since his first few workshops, he has expanded his reach to include kids who don’t have as much opportunity to get out into nature. While he didn’t create Conservation Kids specifically for underprivileged kids, he is excited to grow further in this direction. In so doing, he’s reaching a different and more diverse group of young people than one typically sees in nature or photography programs.
A typical (if there is such a thing) Conservation Kids outing begins with the adult leaders of a youth program talking with Dietrich about the goals and logistics. They’ll decide on a day and place. It might be at Point Reyes or in the middle of San Francisco, at an Audubon sanctuary or the park across the street from a middle school. It all depends on the group and their interests.
The day begins with about 90 minutes of classwork, going over camera basics and conservation issues. The kids get their cameras and lenses for the day and off they go, walking in the dirt, experiencing nature and, if they’re lucky, seeing and photographing something extraordinary, like the day they encountered a coyote in a small natural area in the middle of San Francisco! Dietrich and some of his photography volunteers are there to help the young people with camera and composition advice or assistance when needed.
Dietrich always enjoys seeing just how much the kids bring to the table. His groups typically number 10 to 20 kids, most of whom have never handled a DSLR and, after a little instruction they’re off and running. One might be fascinated with water environments, another by animals, one loves the shapes and lines of a burned out tree, still another is excited by abstract patterns. It’s important, Dietrich feels, to treat them the same way as he does clients at his adult workshops so he respects their vision and creativity. He doesn’t tell them what they should be shooting but does provide tips on lighting, composition, and the like … when the moments are right.
At the end of the day, the kids share their experiences and hand in the cameras. Dietrich goes through every one of their photos, editstheir best, and posts them on a website where the images can be seen and purchased by the kids’ friends and family. Proceeds from print sales go to conservation causes. Dietrich hopes that the Conservation Kids realize that “their photos and voices can make a difference in protecting something they want to protect for their future.”
The online gallery wasn’t originally part of the plan, but has become integral to its success. The kids and their families love seeing the images, and the extra work involved is completely worth it, Dietrich feels. The end goal isn’t so much to raise money, but for the kids to get outside and experience nature in a new way, to know that their photos are up there for the world to see, to spark their interest in conservation, to expose them to photography as a hobby and a career.
Dietrich says “Don’t be afraid to start small. You can begin to make a difference in small ways and grow over time.” He recalls that the hardest thing was the initial launch, getting everything together and ready. “Recognize that it won’t be perfect. There will be challenges,” he said, “but don’t let that deter you.”
Having a few good, dedicated people with similar mindsets who can work with you is an enormous help, he found. “It’s easy to put things on the back burner because we live busy lives,” Dietrich noted. “Having a collaborator keeps you accountable, motivated, and supported.”
Conservation Kids connects Dietrich’s personal and professional lives. “I didn’t know ten years ago that I’d be this focused on conservation, professionally,” he said. Dietrich leads wildlife viewing and photography safaris in Point Reyes National Seashore. Some of his clients donate cameras they are replacing to Conservation Kids, bringing everything full circle and allowing him to grow the number of participants at each workshop.
Young people are often inscrutable. They can seem quite blasé about things. But when the parent of a 14-year-old participant emails you to say “I don’t know how to thank you or what you did but my son said that yesterday was the best day of his life!” well, you might be on to something.
Daniel Dietrich has also been an active NANPA member and was previously profiled for his volunteer activities. Learn more about him at his website, Daniel Dietrich Photography, and his photo tours, Point Reyes Safaris.