Seeking the Sun: My Experience as a NANPA College Program Student

by Kari Post | April 1, 2011

© Kari PostIt was still dark out, as far as I could tell, and I had no idea in which direction we were traveling or what roads we were on. I sat in silence, listening to the conversations around me. In the front passenger row of the van, University of California Santa Cruz graduate student Abe Borker was chatting with professional travel photographer Cindy Miller-Hopkins. As I listened to her explain how she gets to choose the places she travels for work, all expenses paid of course, I thought to myself, “how do I end up with a job like that?”

We stopped at the gate in front of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a small protected tract of native habitat along the Rio Grande River in southern Texas. Refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White hopped out from behind the driver seat of the van ahead of us to unlock the gate and let us through. It felt like it was still very early in the morning, and sunrise did not appear eminent, as I thought it should. But after a few more gates, when the vans finally parked and the doors slid open, I realized the windows of the van were tinted. I had been fooled. It was morning sure enough.

The pre-dawn glow seemed to awaken my senses and stir me to life. I piled out of the van, gathered my gear, and joined twelve other college students in a small circle, where Jennifer explained the layout of the refuge to us. Within minutes, we had split up, heading in small groups down separate paths, each in search of something different…

Student photographers outside © Kari Post

College Program students and mentors gather round and provide assistance as student Joris van Alphen photographs an endangered Texas Tortoise belonging to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Pictured from L-R: Mentor Cindy Miller-Hopkins, mentor Adam Wilson, student Joris van Alpen, student Nathan Dappen, mentor Neil Losin, and student Connor Stefanison.

This wasn’t any ordinary early morning nature photo shoot. The thirteen undergraduate and graduate students were all selected as part of the 2011 NANPA College Program. In 2004, the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) began providing scholarships to college students to attend the annual NANPA Summit. Since then, the program has grown and evolved, and this year, the program received more applicants than it ever had before.

Last year, the NANPA College Program decided to try something a bit different. Instead of just providing students with opportunities to network with professional photographers, learn from workshops and breakout sessions, and attend presentations and award ceremonies, as it had done historically, the program gave them a challenge. Students connected with the Nature Conservancy to document restoration efforts along the Truckee River near Reno and Sparks, Nevada. The project was so well received, that the College Program decided to implement something similar this year.

For the 2011 Summit, the College Program partnered with United States Fish and Wildlife and the local National Wildlife Refuges in the Rio Grande Valley. The Rio Grande Valley has incredible natural biodiversity and a rich cultural history. Historically, the land was home to many exotic marvels, including jaguar and ocelot. Unfortunately, development has led to much of the native habitat in the region being lost, and remaining areas of wild space have been fragmented into small, separate parcels. Our assignment was to tell this story, and to educate the public about efforts by Fish and Wildlife to develop a wildlife corridor along the river, reconnecting areas of wild habitat. The end result would be shown on Saturday evening, at the Summit’s closing ceremony.

We had a job to do, and with only an evening to prep, a single full day to shoot, and four days of production smashed between breakouts, keynotes, and portfolio reviews, we had no time to waste doing it.

There is something about bringing together young people overflowing with talent and bursting with passion that acts like magic. The first day, we covered a ton of ground, gathering photographs from Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, interviews and footage from a plant nursery growing native vegetation to restore wild habitats, images from farm fields and highways, and pictures from the border, of the border wall, border gates, and the diverted and weakened Rio Grande River, as it coursed over the border it carved between the United States and Mexico.

That night, we poured through our pictures and videos, quickly editing batches, selecting our best, and categorizing them in relation to the chapters of our story. We worked together in a small suite in our hotel, where we were provided with a server on which we could share images and documents. The Student Lounge would end up being open for work whenever we were at the hotel, from breakfast till we decided to go to sleep, which was often between 2am and 4am.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a night owl. I have, on occasion, fallen asleep mid-conversation in the wee hours of the morning. I do, however, have a brain that spins at an ungodly rate when I am excited about something. So when 3am rolled around on most nights, I was tired, but no where near ready to quit.

Photographing by bench © Kari Post

Mentor and College Program chair Keith Snell gives student Abby Gazica some pointers while shooting sunset at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

As a result, the following days became a near sleepless blur of production, yet somehow wonderful and exciting. We divided into teams that worked on image editing, script writing, sound recording, and video production almost round the clock. In between working on the project, we attended morning presentations and breakout sessions at the summit. We went to the evening events, participated in professional portfolio reviews, and visited the exhibitors’ hall as well. Yet we had a mission, and every spare moment we were given was devoted to the completion of our project. At the convention center, we had a conference room that we quickly turned into production studio number two. This allowed us to work anytime we were not eating, showering, sleeping, using the restroom, or involved in another activity at the summit.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of different groups of people, through various jobs I have had as an outdoor experiential educator, in college as a teaching major, and through numerous professional organizations and leadership positions I have held over the years. Usually, working in such close proximity with the same people under such a severe time crunch, particularly when those people are all sleep deprived, is a recipe for disaster. This group easily proved any such assumptions wrong. In between late night yawns, smiles beamed across faces and laughter, tired and slightly deranged laughter, but laughter nonetheless, could be heard creeping from the corners of the Student Lounge. While working together at the convention hall, we leapt up with arms wide open when one student came back from a portfolio review session and told us he was asked to submit a few photographs to an editor from National Geographic for publication consideration in an upcoming book. Despite the long hours, perhaps because of them, this group of students came together, as colleagues and as friends.

On Friday night, it was crunch time. We now had the script down and the dialogue recorded, and it was time to put the images and videos in place. Little did we know it would be an all night affair. Two of the scholarship students, Aaron Schmidt from Brooks Institute in California, and Nathan Dappen of the University of Miami, were skilled at using Final Cut Pro, a Mac based video editing program, so they alternated compiling the project as the rest of us offered input and suggestions. As the night wore on, the crowd thinned. By the time we had finished the layout, the sun had already risen and only Aaron, myself, Abe, and Leon Bartolome Hernandez Herrerias of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, remained.

Nate and others worked throughout the day on Saturday, adding music, smoothing the transitions between images, and editing and tweaking the video to make it stronger. Several students, myself included, dozed in corners of the room, sneaking in what precious little sleep we could manage. From time to time, the group would watch the developing video, monitoring its progress and seeing it grow into completion. With every viewing, the excitement in the room was tangible. By evening, the film was ready, and so were we.

At the final ceremony, Abe presented our short film “Reconnecting the Rio Grande Valley” to the NANPA audience. Present were amateur and professional photographers from all over North America; Jennifer, the refuge manager from Santa Ana; and Allen and Kellie Williams, local landowners we interviewed for the project who were prominently featured in our final video.

As the light on Abe dimmed and focus shifted to the video itself, I felt the slightest pang of regret. The ending had come too soon. At the same time tomorrow, nine of the twelve students I had just met and all of our mentors would be gone. I would no longer spend 6am to 3am thinking about and doing photography with a dozen amazing and wonderful friends. The fairy tale would be over…

Classroom session © Kari Post

Students work on their multimedia project in a conference room at the McAllen Convention Center where the 2011 NANPA Summit was held. Pictured L-R, starting in the background: Mentor Molly Mehling, mentor Cindy Miller-Hopkins, student Steph Walden, student Abby Gazica, mentor Michele Westmorland, and student Nate Dappen.

Yet, as I watched the images unfolding on the screen before me and heard the voice of Mariana Baez-Ponce, a graduate student from Colegio de la Frontera Sur in Mexico and my roommate during the Summit, speaking her native tongue, the brief sadness I felt was replaced by the most beautiful elated feeling of being alive. I was happy to be immersed in what I loved, surrounded by people I respected and doing the work I believed in. Regardless of the fact that the fairy tale was indeed ending, the journey had been spectacular, and the result on the screen was incredible.

My week at NANPA as part of the College Program was an absolutely amazing experience. Words are failing to describe all that I gained from it, and it feels almost silly to even try to convey the experience to others in way I only hope they can even half understand. Through the NANPA College Program, I was able to meet and collaborate with the most wonderful group of college student photographers, learn from a fantastic and incredibly dedicated team of mentors, and connect with others doing work I have always wanted to do but never really had the resources to explore. I was inspired. It was as if the blinders I had been wearing were taken off and I could suddenly see the world of possibility around me.

Actually, when I think about it, it’s not all that different from opening a van door to discover that dawn is breaking and that the sun – the bold, beautiful, brilliant sun – is waiting just under the horizon. The ending, as I had first seen it, was in fact the beginning of something wonderful. Just as on our first morning of shooting at Santa Ana, we were all about to head our separate ways, down our separate paths, each to chase after our own dreams. But thanks to the NANPA College Program, our journeys now had common ground, and the thirteen of us would remain always connected and forever changed.

View our short film “Reconnecting the Rio Grande Valley” in English or Spanish.

About the Author

Kari is a self-described adventurer, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, conservationist, and nature lover. She loves being outside in nature, exploring the world around her, and doing just about anything that keeps her on the move. Kari picked up photography as a young girl and developed a serious passion for the still picture in high school. In college, she combined her photography hobby and love of nature and began photographing wildlife and outdoor subjects, which now make up the bulk of her work. Kari views photography as a way to share the beauty she sees in the natural world with others. She hopes her images can be used help educate and inspire others to appreciate, preserve, and protect wild places and creatures, and aspires to one day work as a photojournalist for National Geographic documenting conservation issues. Visit Kari's website at: www.karipost.com and her blog at: www.karipost.com/blog.

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