From Freelance to Phenomenon: How Kirsten Elstner’s Lens is Changing the World

Success story summary Kirsten Elstner, a former New York Times photographer, founded the National Geographic Photo Camp, a 20-year program that has trained over 3,000 students from 35 countries. The camp uses photography to unite diverse youth and addresses different themes and social issues, guided by National Geographic Explorers. Her work, featured in “Photo Camp Stories”, encourages young photographers to focus on storytelling and empathy. Elstner plans to continue nurturing young storytellers through the camp.

Can you share your success story of a project that had a notably positive impact on society or your life?

Back in 2001, I was working as a freelance photographer for The New York Times and other publications. In the difficult days following September 11, I saw how the world reacted to the tragedy with empathy and a desire for unity, and it made me want to create something with my work that would reject division and add to humanity’s sense of global connection.

So working with other photographers, I created the nonprofit VisionWorkshops to teach photography to young people as the future stewards of our complex world.

Two years later, I brought the idea to the National Geographic Society and that’s how National Geographic Photo Camp came to be. Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with other National Geographic Explorers and photographers to provide a meaningful introduction to photography for young people from communities around the world.

More than 3,000 students have participated in Photo Camps in 35 countries so far. It’s a program that has unquestionably changed my life and everyone involved. As mentors, we have gained just as much from Photo Camp as our students have, and I am so proud to see the students gain the confidence to share their stories and perspectives with the world.

How do you select the social issues or causes you want to address through your photography, and what criteria do you consider when deciding on a project?

I work with other National Geographic Explorers, educators and community partners to design each Photo Camp. Sometimes there’s a common theme across a few Photo Camps –– like in 2023, our theme was connection: the idea that there is more that unites us than divides us. But we also tailor each one to the group of students we are working with and the part of the world we are working in.

For example, we hosted Photo Camps in Colorado, Texas, Oregon and Florida that focused on water conservation in America and invited the students to explore their shared connections to water. Our goal is to create the most meaningful experience for the students and give them the opportunity and support to reflect on what’s important to them.

Could you recommend any books, resources, or mentors that have significantly influenced your business journey?

I am constantly inspired by the National Geographic Explorers I work with including:

I am inspired by their unique and sensitive approach to the craft of storytelling. Additionally, I have to share about “Photo Camp Stories: Our World Through The Lens of Young Photographers.” It’s a celebration of Photo Camp’s 20th anniversary with photos and stories of our incredible student community, organized around themes such as community, identity, growth, inspiration and hope.

What guidance would you give to budding photographers who want to use their art to make a difference in society?

At Photo Camp, we always ask the students to reflect on the same question, “What is your gift to the world?” It doesn’t have to be photography or storytelling, but if it is, my advice is to find the stories you care about and tell them. Everyone has a story to tell if you are willing to seek it out and listen. Listening and trying to understand each other’s stories is one way we can change the world for the better.

What are your plans for future projects or initiatives to continue making a positive societal impact through photography?

I’m excited to continue my work now as a National Geographic Explorer in Residence and the founder of Photo Camp. In the first 20 years, I learned as much as I taught. The energy, courage and passion that the students have demonstrated is inspiring and I look forward to bringing Photo Camp to more students and growing and supporting this community of young storytellers.

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Kirsten Elstner is a respected photographer and the founder of VisionWorkshops, as well as the Director of National Geographic Photo Camp. Her work focuses on mentoring youth worldwide through photography and writing, encouraging them to express their stories and envision a more peaceful world.

Her photographs have been featured in major publications, and she has taught at several prestigious institutions. Elstner is known for her commitment to using photography for social change and cultural understanding.

About Kirsten

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Our workshops inspire youths with positive role models, and with opportunities to display their photographs and writings at galleries from Annapolis to Europe to India and the Middle East.

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