Dreams, Hopes & Sacrifices National Geographic Photo Camp

By Jacky Cortes, Dream Project Alum

While the whole country talks about immigration and family separation, it is not that often that immigrants like myself get access to professional photographers and a world-renowned platform to share your own stories through art and photography.

But last month, we did. And doing so fueled us to continue to proudly embrace and document our journeys. During the National Geographic Photo Camp, I shared my story as an undocumented immigrant through photography for the first time. National Geographic and VisionWorkshop carry out “Photo Camps” around the world for people to explore their own world in a new manner. After 13 years, National Geographic decided to host a Photo Camp in Washington, D.C. opening their doors to young immigrants as their guests, students and storytellers.

I was one of the fortunate participants of the Photo Camp, a DACA recipient, immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico. Photo campers came from nine different countries including Sudan, Colombia, Mongolia and Guatemala.

For four days, we were paired up with National Geographic photographers and editors who assisted us on assignments, critiqued our work, and guided us on how to portray our stories through pictures. We learned about the rule of thirds, about capturing movement and moments, and about being patient and creative to get the shot you want.

We learned that photography and art are not only product but also about the process. The process first made us uncomfortable, but it then empowered us, and most of all, made us proud. We met at 6 a.m. on the National Mall and then photographed a mass civil disobedience action to #EndFamilyDetention. All the while, we had to leave our comfort zones asking strangers for permission to photograph them. For me, it was the first time documenting an action, for many, it was the first time attending one. For all of us, it was inspiring… we were there and NatGeo was helping us tell our stories.

Our instructors pushed my boundaries, and, helped me turn my identity as an undocumented immigrant into art. When I thought about my story as an immigrant I had to think about all the sacrifices my parents made for my siblings and me. I traveled back to my memories in Mexico up to when I found out that I was undocumented. I thought about my morals and values and wondered whether they came from my Mexican or American culture. I thought about the obstacles that I had to overcome in order to obtain my bachelor’s degree this past December from UVA as well as the difficulties that lie ahead of me in fulfilling my professional journey.
Our instructors created a space where all of us reflected on being an immigrant. This part of the Camp was intense because I was able to get to know the other participants’  stories of how they or their parents came to the United States. Although their stories and hindrances were different from mine, their families and mine brought their dreams and ganas to fight for a better life.
The Photo Camp reminded me that the 11 million undocumented immigrants and I do belong in this society, and that there are WAY more people who want us here and want us to live in peace. It reminded me that in fact, I am American. So when I took pictures of the places and of the people that shaped me into who I am, it felt different because their portrait wasn’t just a portrait– that image was a part of my story. All of a sudden, my home, my neighborhood, my parents, my job, were still ordinary but they were beautiful and powerful. Photography was a quick reminder of how fierce my story and everyone in it are. 

At the end of the Photo Camp instructors and staff put together a presentation with our work. During the presentation they announced that our picture will be displayed at the National Geographic headquarters building and then given back to each of us this Fall.

After the Photo Camp I’m simply going to keep shooting.
I have a young cousins in Mexico that I keep in contact with, so now I will ask them to send me pictures of their world.


Learn more about the Dream Project at dreamproject-va.org. Click here to make a donation today.