Change for the better: in this news feature, Kingsley Singleton explains how Nikon, The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Sharp Shots Photo Club are working with young photographers to help them find their creative voice

In 1956, The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE) was first announced with its goal of helping young people build personal belief and resourcefulness; 1959 saw Nikon create the Nikon F, one of the most advanced models of its time and the basis of its famous F mount DSLRs to this day. Millions of young people have benefitted from their experience with DofE; millions of photographers still rely on the technological legacy of those early SLRs today.

In 2022, the two created a new partnership. Photographers Without Limits is a continuing project that helps DofE participants and Award holders amplify their personal stories through photography. Run by specialist educators, Sharp Shots Photo Club, the six-month course is aimed at those who might otherwise not have an opportunity for picture taking in their DofE Skills section. As part of the experience, Nikon provides DSLRs and lenses, as well as teaming participants up with one of the company’s Ambassadors or Creators, giving invaluable insight into photographic skill and approach.

Nikon DoE scheme

High-profile Nikon photographers are working closely with young photographers as part of the scheme

A life-changing experience
‘I’ve been lucky enough during my time at the DofE to interview, photograph and film with a lot of young people from all walks of life,’ explains Rachel Palmer, the DofE’s Content and Storytelling Lead and Director of Photography Without Limits, ‘and most tell me it’s been a life changing experience – one even said ‘lifesaving.’ People learn confidence, leadership, communication, teamwork and resilience as well as the value of volunteering and helping others.’

‘At DofE, we think photography is a really important way of building these values,’ she continues, ‘because it can give young people the tools to tell their own stories in their own way. Unfortunately, it’s out of reach to many because of the cost of courses and equipment, but given the opportunity to explore experiences in this medium, and really think about how to show what they are feeling, it brings happiness and confidence, as well as generating conversations about some of the issues they raise.’

Learning core skills
Lillian Spibey, Founder and Director of Sharp Shots Photo Club, which provides the core learning for Photographers Without Limits, echoes this. As a professional photographer herself for 15 years, she was excited to work with DofE to help “inspire the next generation of photographers. Photography is a great skill to have for so many different jobs,” she continues, “and using a digital platform to teach camera skills and composition makes it quick and easy to learn.

“I’ve been running workshops for kids and teens since 2015, and with DofE since 2018,” Lillian adds, “and I really enjoy working with people, whether I am taking their portrait or teaching them how to take a great photo themselves. We generally teach ages 7-18, and we use Zoom to run ‘live’ workshops that are interactive, fun, and teach core skills. The participants spend a good eight weeks learning how to control their camera technically before we get onto areas like composition and approach and how techniques like slow shutter speed and creative framing can add context to their storytelling.”

Nikon Northern Europe Marketing Director, Julian Harvie, involvement with Photographers Without Limits was a natural progression that the company was thrilled to assist with. “We’ve been supporting Sharp Shots – for many years by providing them with Nikon gear for tutorial sessions, and so expanding our involvement was the perfect way to broaden the scope of what they could provide.”

“The desire to empower photographers and filmmakers is central to Nikon’s DNA, but for us, that doesn’t just mean providing kit,” he continues. “In this case it was about involving Nikon School along with influential and experienced Nikon Ambassadors and Creators, who were universally keen to be mentors for the participants as well. These subsequent relationships have proven pivotal in inspiring and motivating the participants as they create their portfolios.”

Indeed, for organisers, Rachel, Julian, and Lillian the interactions between the young photographers and their mentors have been one of the programme’s highlights, “not only in how much the participants got from the relationship,” Rachel remembers, “but also seeing what the mentors got from it too. It’s definitely a two-way process.”

The mentoring process
Paired on the 2022 Photographers Without Limits course, were student Caitlin and Nikon Creator, Tianna Williams, a former midwife turned professional maternity and new-born photographer (Tianna is also a regular AP contributor). Both found the experience transformative. “Meeting Tianna for the first time was sensational,” Caitlin says, “and I couldn’t believe I was getting to learn with such a brilliant and talented photographer. As well as the great advice we had some amazing laughs and I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. I feel I made a friend and we’re still in contact.”

Caitlin and Tianna J Williams, Photographers Without Limits

Tianna J Williams (left) with Caitlin

Tianna, who had not mentored in person before, felt the same. “When Nikon reached out about taking part, I jumped at the chance,” she explains. “I’d done an online workshop which involved filming myself photographing a client and talking the audience through my process of lighting, styling, posing and so on, but this was different. I was really excited to work on a 1-to-1 basis, even though I was a bit nervous, too! Being self-employed can be lonesome, so sharing skills and watching Caitlin learn, grow, interpret information and reimagine it to make it her own was really special.”

Caitlin herself was no stranger to photography, having studied the subject in college for three or four years prior to the DofE programme, “but I never really had the money to do anything more with it,” she explains. “I found out about the course through a colleague, who was a team leader for the DofE.”

Sadly, like many young people, she was no stranger to adversity either. Sofa surfing and wandering the streets, “the more I moved, the less stuff I carried,” Caitlin says, “and eventually I had more emotional baggage than clothes. In the end, I reported myself homeless and went to live at a B&B for a couple months. Then I interviewed at the YMCA and stayed for a year and a half in semi-independent supported accommodation, before I got my own place.”

Caitlin, Nikon DofE

Caitlin has found photography hugely therapeutic

Triumphing over adversity
Despite the burden of this, Caitlin never lost her love of photography, so when she joined up with the Photographers Without Limits course it was quickly rekindled. “I learned that no matter how many things go wrong there’s always something to look forward to,” she explains, “and photography is one of them. I used photography when I was anxious and when I was taking photos I felt an element of peace. It gives you a reason to get out of the house and visit new places, which can really change your mindset for the better.”

During the course, and working together with Lillian and Tianna, Caitlin says she was “particularly drawn to nature. It grows and only dies when it’s not watered and looked after. I took this as a lesson that was worth sharing. I shot close ups and made photos of nature where I could find a meaning and relate it to my life, as well as exploring portrait photography, where I wanted to capture emotion and talent.”

“We learned so much in Sharp Shots,” she continues, “and Lillian was great at explaining the cameras we were given and showing how to achieve different types of shots with them. With Tianna, I learned about lighting, materials and perspective. She taught me to always take a photo multiple times before finding the perfect one – but most importantly that you can always find a message in any photo you take.”

One of Caitlin's nature images, Nikon and DofE

Picture credit: Caitlin

Developing confidence
Echoing this, Tianna says one of the most important things she wanted Caitlin to learn was to work with confidence. “It was important to ensure that the images she made represented her truth and her personality,” she explains. “So what we did was collate her photos and spend time with them, letting us see that there was a story which matched her personal journey. At the beginning she was very shy and nervous, but by the end of our time, I saw a brave and confident Caitlin who could talk about her work with conviction. I loved Caitlin’s work!”

For Tianna there was learning, too. “The hard part about mentoring,” she explains, “is that you may not have the answers. Sometimes you need to give a person the tools and encouragement to find answers on their own. I found that is where the most powerful learning can be – in personal problem solving and identifying areas to improve. I also learnt from Caitlin that I should spend less time in the studio and try to capture my everyday life more. There are stories there to be told that I am missing out on!”

Caitlin, Nikon DoE, image 2

Picture credit: Caitlin

After the success of Photographers Without Limits in 2022, Lillian, Rachel and Julian are keen to encourage the next generation of students to get involved. “Once our photographers feel confident they understand their camera and know they can take a great photo, the photographic world is their oyster,” says Lillian. “And while Sharp Shots has worked with Nikon and the DofE separately for the past five years, it’s been wonderful to introduce everyone and work together to make something bigger. It’s such a wonderful experience to teach the participants how to use cameras creatively and see their stories and confidence develop.”

“All parties are keen to continue the success of Photographers Without Limits,” agrees Julian, “which is testament to the value felt not just by the participants, but also by Nikon and the Nikon Family. We have all learnt meaningful lessons about our approach to photography, mentorship and education. The students’ resilience and hope is compelling, and none more so than Caitlin! So many of these students never knew that a career in any creative industry, let alone photography, was even possible. To have played a small part in opening their eyes to their potential is magic.”

“I loved logging in to our weekly classes and seeing the photos,” echoes Rachel, “and the questions they’ve asked have seen them develop as photographers. It’s also important for people to know that while many young people do their DofE at school, it is run in many different places, including youth clubs, community groups, prisons, pupil referral units, cadets, scouts and more. I’d encourage any young person interested in doing their DofE to reach out to local organisations who offer it.”

“For Caitlin,” Rachel continues, “her story was about her personal experience of being homeless and the dark time this was for her, but she also wanted to reflect on where she is now and the hope she feels. Working through her ideas and reflecting on her experience through photography saw her confidence grow, both in picture taking and also in framing her own story. I can’t wait to see how Caitlin develops as a photographer.”

Caitlin photo 3, Nikon DoE project

Picture credit: Caitlin

On the right path
So it’s only right the final word goes to Photographers Without Limits graduate, Caitlin, whose own path shows that with the right support and determination, it’s possible to put difficult times behind us. “My story,” she says, “was one that I didn’t think I could describe in photographs, but I surprised myself. It’s made of things that are rarely shown or seen – and if seen, ignored.

My hope is that it can give hope to people who need it. I’m a regular woman who has had it difficult, but has come out the other side and made it. Tianna, Lillian, Nikon and the DofE showed me I have talent and not to be shy about it. It made my day to hear those words. The DofE helped me to work as a team and not try to do everything by myself. It built my confidence and it has shown me practical skills. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Caitlin, Nikon DofE

Picture credit: Caitlin

To find out more about the Photographers Without Limits Project, please visit Nikon Europe’s YouTube Channel where you can see a short video on the 2022 programme, including Caitlin and Tianna’s story.

Here is more information on the courses run by Sharp Shots Photo Club, and discover how the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is changing young people’s lives.

Further reading
The best Nikon DSLRs
The best Nikon lenses
How photography can help your mental health

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