I steadied my camera to capture a still shot of a pair of goats grazing against a grassy mountain backdrop. Satisfied, I lowered my phone and continued along the trail with everyone else, trekking through a thin veil of mist. It was late July in northern England in the Peak District National Park, to be exact.
The AFC team and campers walk through the Peak District National Park
A couple of minutes later, my gaze, which had been lost above the steep cliff beside us, was caught by a young person who had stopped on the side of the trail and crouched down. It was Jasmine. She had her phone angled up against a bright pink flower with a bumblebee sitting in the middle of it. I walked up beside her, peeking at the shot she was capturing. “You know that one way you can get involved in conservation is through photography, so exactly what you’re doing right now.” 12 years old, Jasmine turned her head around. “Really?” She asked curiously, looking up at me. “Yeah, really. Like for National Geographic. They might photograph endangered species or habitats to spread awareness and inspire change.”
“That’s cool,” Jasmine replied, but she was much more focused on photographing the fleeting bee before it buzzed off to its next venture. After a few shots, she turned her phone to me and awaited my feedback.
“Woah, that picture is amazing! The focus is insane, and I love the angle you chose. You can even see the hairs on the bumblebee’s legs!” Jasmine skipped ahead excitedly to find her next shot. I carried on the trail with the other young people, not thinking much of our 30-second conversation.
Camper Jasmine (left)
I’d been brought to Action for Conservation’s residential Summer Camp in a volunteer Communications Assistant role, responsible for all things photography. During camp, I chatted with the young people here and there, but my main focus was on capturing content for our website and social media platforms. I tried to blend in the background when I could. That was my job. I don’t see myself as being the greatest with young people, anyway, being introverted at heart and not having the same confidence engaging with them as my colleagues. When they showed me their pictures, I cheered them on, and when they sat next to me at meals, I asked them about themselves – but I doubted my ability to have much of an influence on them.
Perhaps tainted with a mild amount of self-deprecation, I seriously thought my presence wasn’t making too much of a difference amongst the young people – I was fixated on creating a beautiful video for supporters, parents, and future campers. We went foraging, stargazing, and explored Peak District National Park. We walked through fields full of sheep and ate stinging nettles (you read that right – it’s a tricky art, and most of us failed and winced before it even touched our tongues but eating them safely is possible!). One night just after sunset we watched a roost of bats exit a tearoom roof one by one for their evening feast. We took mindful moments of silence to reflect on our days and journaled our favourite parts. Julie photographs the AFC Summer Camp
When the young people were doing things, I was recording. I felt like a polity but pesky paparazzi: “Hey, do you mind if I take a photo of you looking at the river? Sorry! Can you hold that up again?” Other than that, especially during the first few days, I mostly kept to myself during the activities. I don’t know how the young people managed it, but 18 hours of socialising a day was enough to push me to the brink of exhaustion. I was ready to take a weeklong vow of silence after it.
But on the fourth day, something unexpected happened. We were on a break in the cabin, and one of the young people came up with a game where you throw a ball around, and whoever catches the ball receives a compliment from everyone else in the group. I was keeping to myself in the kitchen, making my third cup of tea that day, when one of the campers shouted, “Julie, your turn!” Caught off guard that they wanted me to play, I turned around and clumsily caught the incoming multicoloured beachball, a dripping spoon still in hand.
Jasmine went first. “I like all the picture stuff Julie does. And how she made me want to do that, too, like maybe for National Geographic. I didn’t know I could do something like that.” I was not expecting her to say that. Something inside of me softened.
Julie photographs a camper
I thought back to times when older people encouraged me throughout my life, even when I didn’t have the experience or credentials to prove myself. I thought back to the teachers, coaches, and employers who saw something in me that I hadn’t yet seen in myself. I thought back to when I told my neuroscience professor and mentor, Dr. Gary Wenk, a crazy idea that I was having about my future: that maybe, after getting my PhD, I’d do some science writing on the side, or maybe I’d get my PhD and just write a science book when I was 50 once I had the time and credibility.
I’ll never forget the last few sentences of the email I received back:
“We both know you’re capable of getting a PhD. But where do you see yourself in 1-5 years? You have skills, intelligence, and passion - make certain that you don’t disappoint yourself. Recently, I have been working with a science writer who lives in Manhattan and works for the Times and Smithsonian. You are going to be like her one day.”
I remember snorting out loud and thinking, Me? Writing for Times?! Yeah right. Not a chance. Yet here was someone who had more than succeeded in this field saying so assuredly that I could.
That spring, I started writing my first-ever science article. And the rest is history. I never went for the PhD because I gained the conviction and clarity to follow my true passion head-on: science writing. Today, I’m graduating with a master’s degree in science communication at Imperial College London. The future is limitless.
I remember how those few sentences changed my life and gave me the confidence to do the unthinkable. I smiled to myself. Maybe one day Jasmine will take a picture that inspires policy change, and she’ll think back to our 30-second conversation on the side of that trail. Or she’ll have a similar conversation with someone else about another passion of hers. Who knows. Wherever she ends up, I just hope she carries the confidence with her that she showed at camp.
I saw this confidence grow in all of the campers at different times throughout the course of the week during different conversations with my colleagues, each instilling wisdom from their own special area of expertise. What inspired me most on this trip was not the rare winter fungi one of our camper’s discovered under a fallen tree trunk or the breathtaking views from the top of the hill we climbed but it was seeing how creative, intelligent, passionate, and unafraid the young people were, whether it was their bravery in tasting a strange yellow plant in the woods or the certainty with which they shared their ideas.
Campers foraging (left)
During our “Future Mapping” workshop, they developed plans for what a 100% environmentally friendly future might look like – and their solutions were imaginative ones that I couldn’t have thought up myself. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Their passion and confidence towards taking action for a better tomorrow was nothing short of hopeful.
I started to see for myself how much young people really do look up to us and consider thoughtfully our every word. So, I socialized as much as I could during the last couple of days knowing I could make a difference.
That week turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences for me, seeing each of them light up in different ways simply by being given an encouraging, non-judgmental space to lead, explore, and just be silly. On the last day of camp, I was having close-out interviews with each camper and asked if anything over the past week made them feel more hopeful about the state of our future considering the climate crisis and everything else going on in the world. Several of them had identical answers: something along the lines of, “Yes, I feel more hopeful just be seeing so many people working on it together here at camp.”
"Now for a silly one" AFC campers and staff, summer 2023
I couldn’t have said it better myself. There are so many amazing, passionate people working around the clock to save our planet and make it a better home for people, wildlife, and plants alike. And we’re sharing that passion with the next generation whilst giving them the tools to actually do something about it.
That is our hope.
Volunteer Communications Assistant 2023