Partners in Conservation

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Southern Exposures Photo Competition Inspires Youth to Connect With Nature

The Valley Land Fund, an organization dedicated to the conservation of Valley wildlife and its surrounding habitat, promotes nature through the pictures captured by aspiring young photographers. The Southern Exposures youth nature photo program “inspires kids to take a stronger interest in Mother Nature,” according to the Valley Land Fund website, and has been used as an educational tool for the organization since 1994. The awe-inspiring nature images taken by each child have been helping to protect Valley wildlife in profound ways. This year’s Southern Exposures grand prize winner was Matthew Cano, 13, from Harlingen. Matthew explains how competing in the contest has opened the doors to “letting people see all the different types of birds, plants, and mammals in our area that a lot of people don’t know about.

“When they see these things it makes them want to protect them, and it is important to help with conservation,” he said.

Children in the Valley are encouraged to participate in the photo program because it compels them to leave the comfort of the indoors and explore the world around them. According to the Texas Children in Nature organization, studies have shown that children who spend time in nature are healthier physically and mentally, do better in school, feel connected with nature, and are tomorrow’s conservation leaders.  

Offering a photography program of this caliber is excellent since Texas’s current generation of children is devoting less time than ever to the great outdoors due to overuse of tablets and gaming devices.

“Southern Exposures allows us to expand our mission by reaching broader audiences in South Texas, while enabling us to continue preserving the native wildlife habitat and educating youth,” said Debralee Rodriguez, executive director for the Valley Land Fund. “Therefore, we believe that viewing the natural world through a camera lens provides a unique perspective, particularly for children.”

Part of the program includes hands-on nature photography workshops at Quinta Mazatlan, a 20-acre nature and birding center promoting conservation and restoration of native habitat. The workshops are directed by Ruth Hoyt, a nationally recognized nature photographer. “I’ve learned so much from Ruth,” Matthew said.

This free contest is open to any child ages 8 to 18 from the Rio Grande Valley. Over the last eight years, the organization has judged submissions from over 1,000 kids from across the area and this year alone received a 44 percent increase in kids wanting to participate.

Matthew, already a seasoned nature photographer, has entered the contest for the last two years. Each year, his photos have been selected as winning images, though this was his first time as a grand prize winner.

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 8.23.22 AM“It’s cool to let people see pictures of South Texas wildlife that they don’t get to see every day,” he added.

Matthew was on vacation with his family at Disney World when he received the news that he won the grand prize. “I was very excited,” he said. “It gives me more confidence to continue doing wildlife photography. I felt like my images were good but there are a lot of really good photographers that enter this contest.”

When asked the secrets of a successful nature photographer, Matthew explains, “everyone has their own settings and style but I think patience and being ready are the most important. You’ve got to time things right…you can be sitting around with nothing happening and then everything can change in a split second. It’s that split second that you have to be ready for.”

Matthew does intend to enter the contest again since he enjoys photographing wildlife so much. “My dream is to visit Costa Rica soon to hopefully get some cool wildlife shots.”

Matthew offers a bit of advice for future competitors and those looking to help preserve the wildlife around us.

“They can help by getting involved, by joining the contest every year, volunteering, donating, allowing access to their ranches for youth nature photographers…anything,” he said.

The leaders of tomorrow are our children. It is them who will work to ensure our natural heritage will be there for future generations. Nature photography is one attempt to accomplish that goal.