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Interview with Kirsten Elstner | GBPW Episode 177

4 min read

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Uganda - 2018/02/21: Student works on a photography assignment during National Geographic Photo Camp in Uganda. Photo by Lynn Johnson/National Geographic.
Quick summary

In this episode of Great Big Photography World Podcast, National Geographic Explorer Kirsten Elstner talks about her background as a journalist, what it was like to transition from film to digital, and the origin of National Geographic Photo Camp.

portrait of Kirsten Elstner
Kirsten Elstner, Founder and Director of National Geographic Photo Camp, and a student work on an assignment during National Geographic Photo Camp in Arizona. Photo by Stacy Gold/National Geographic.

I see it as 20 years of learning, adapting, and bringing in new ideas.

Kirsten Elstner

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National Geographic Photo Camp student
Smith Island, MD – May 2011: Student with camera during National Geographic Photo Camp in Smith Island, MD. Photo by Karine Aigner/National Geographic.

In this episode, I speak with Kirsten Elstner, who is a National Geographic Explorer and founder of Photo Camp. National Geographic Photo Camp is project that aims to mentor and inspire young people around the world.

We talk about:

  • Kirsten’s transition from journalism to the creation of Vision Workshops, an organization that eventually led to a collaboration with National Geographic
  • The story behind National Geographic Photo Camp
  • Advice for photographers who want to get better at telling stories through their photos

& much more!

Kirsten has a very inspiring story that involves a lot of courage and passion. I’m sure that you’ll be inspired by her passion and her moving experiences with students.

Here is a preview of our conversation with Kirsten Elstner.

Portrait of Kirsten Elstner
Washington, DC – 2023/06/12: Kirsten Elstner, Founder and Director of National Geographic Photo Camp. Photo by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

Q: You have been hosting Photo Camps over the past 20 years. What was your first Photo Camp like?

Kirsten Elstner: That was in 2003. We were still shooting film. We would scurry over to the photo lab in the evenings and get all the film printed up and developed. Then we would stay up all night and write names on the backs of the prints that we could review the next day.

It was a weekly program the first year in 2003. We worked with high school students in the DC area who were actually interning at National Geographic’s Society. They’d come in every week and we’d send them home with an assignment for the week. They’d come back and we’d review the next day. It was much different than the format now.

Kirsten Elstner teaching students for National Geographic Photo Camp
San Francisco, CA – 2004/06/20: Students from Bay Area high schools and Kirsten Elstner, Founder and Director of National Geographic Photo Camp, participate in a National Geographic Photo Camp held in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Ed Kashi/National Geographic.

Q: What was it like to transition from film to digital photography during that time?

Kirsten Elstner: Just like everyone else, we were kind of scrambling to figure out what that was going to be like. Now, it’s much easier, of course. The students are able to shoot more.

There was a learning curve, but there’s still one today. There’s new technology, new equipment, and new ways of looking at things.

Kirsten Elstner mentoring student
Christchurch, New Zealand – 2023/04/23: Kirsten Elstner, Founder and Director of National Geographic Photo Camp, with student, Kaelarn Whakarau-Shudder, during National Geographic Photo Camp in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Photo Camps initially?

Kirsten Elstner: When I was a young photographer trying to find my way in the world of journalism, I found myself traveling around the world. I was shooting mainly for the New York Times, but I was a freelancer.

I remember very specifically being in Bangladesh after a cyclone and photographing young people there. Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge admiration and respect for photographers that still do that. But for me, I found that it didn’t motivate me.

I was younger myself, but I was very interested in the power of young people. That was 20 years ago. Now, a lot of organizations are doing similar things, which I think is wonderful. Back then, it was kind of a unique concept to put the camera, journal, and pen in the hands of the people whose stories were being told. That’s how the idea was born.

National Geographic Photo Camp
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Taya Iv is a portrait photographer, 500px ambassador, and host of Great Big Photography World podcast.
Taya Iv is a portrait photographer, 500px ambassador, and host of Great Big Photography World podcast.
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