Open Apertures, Open Minds: YSEALI Alum Photographs for Advocacy

Seeing Mount Kinabalu in Borneo as a thirteen-year-old-child was a turning point in Gab Mejia’s life. It was the first mountain he had seen up close and he felt a strange, yet powerful, desire to summit it. Though he was unsuccessful during that first attempt, the experience led to him discover his true calling in life.

Gab kept returning to the mountains and volcanoes in Philippines to learn hiking and experience nature. During these many trips, he discovered that, even more than summiting mountains, what he really loved to do was use his camera lens to tell stories and share experiences with others.

Now in his early twenties, Gab is an award-winning photographer, conservationist, mountaineer, and emerging storyteller.

Gab explores Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia.

In 2017, he won the Global Wetlands Youth Photo Contest organized by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands—”an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources around the world.” Winning the contest gave Gab an opportunity to travel to Argentina and Chile to work on a photo story. Today, he is continuing to work with the National Geographic Society to further his environmental advocacy.

Expanding networks and connections with YSEALI

Gab (second from the left) with fellow participants and mentor Emi Koch (first from the right) at the YSEALI Generation: Oceans Workshop in Jakarta in September 2016.

Gab’s career achievements and success in raising awareness about the environment is partially due to his ability to build meaningful connections wherever he goes. He is a member of the National Youth Council of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the Philippines and has been a Nikon Ambassador. He has also presented stories as a TEDx speaker and is currently pursuing civil engineering education at the University of Philippines. In only three years of being able to travel independently, Gab has traveled to over 30 countries.

But long before he had such an established network, Gab’s interest in environmentalism led him to the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).

YSEALI is the U.S. government’s signature program to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia. Through a variety of initiatives, the program seeks to strengthen ties between the United States and Southeast Asia by developing the leadership capabilities of youth in the region and establishing an ASEAN community of leaders working across borders to solve regional and global challenges.

Gab applied right away when he heard about the YSEALI Generation: Oceans workshop in Jakarta for Southeast Asian citizens in his second year of college and was ultimately selected.

The YSEALI Generation: Oceans regional workshop brought together 64 ASEAN youth and 16 professional mentors to develop realistic, scalable solutions to the region’s marine and coastal threats.

The workshop gave Gab his first insights into how Southeast Asia deals with issues like wildlife conservation and illegal ocean dumping. It also rekindled his childhood dream to use photography for nature advocacy—something which was made possible thanks to the connections he made during the workshop.

Thanks to YSEALI, Gab met one of his lifelong mentors, Emi Koch, the founder of a nonprofit called Beyond the Surface International, which works with coastal communities about mindful living in the region. To this day, Emi, who served as one of the U.S. mentors at the workshop, continues to provide Gab guidance about his career, inspires him to pursue his own path, and encourages him to continue learning.

Gab expanded his network and developed lifelong friendships through YSEALI.

Combining art and science to maximize impact

Given his photography background, people are often surprised to learn that Gab is also studying civil engineering.

“I have always tried to combine engineering and photography. Integrating the two helps me tell stories about wetland conservation and how engineering solutions could save our most pressing environmental challenges—like plastic pollution and how solid waste management can be made effective to overcome the challenge.”

For Gab, photography is a way to tell important stories and build narratives that the world needs to hear, but his goal is to ultimately move the world to take action about some of nature’s biggest challenges. Having a background in science as well as photography will make him more capable of doing that.

For a successful photographer and scientist-in-training like Gab, visiting the Nalayag Rock Formation in the Philippines is just another day in the global workplace.

The life of a travel photographer

When most people think of travel, they envision a beach, a metropolitan city, or the narrow cobbled streets of a European town. Gab’s idea of travel is very different. He prefers visiting the fading glaciers of Patagonia, documenting critically-endangered dwarf buffaloes on the Mindoro island of the Philippines, or hiking across snow and glaciers in Argentina and Chile to advocate for climate change.

In pictures, life on the road seems fascinating, but it comes with a heavy price. Leaving family and friends behind, being alone in far-flung places, and suffering through difficult weather conditions take a mental toll—which Gab realized when he traveled to Argentina and Chile for six weeks as the winner of the Global Wetlands Youth Photo Contest.

Gab overcame physical and mental challenges so that the world could see pictures like this one of Cerro de los Cristales in Argentina.

The trip was exhausting both physically and mentally as it was Gab’s first experience being alone surrounded by glaciers and snow. He admits that it was probably the hardest thing he has ever done. “I wouldn’t deny, there were times when I wanted it to end. I felt like I would die,” he recalls.

But the trip left a permanent mark on Gab not because of the way the difficult conditions impacted him—but because of the way he was able to impact others.

“Being able to complete the trip and tell the story felt so good because the world needs to know. It’s important for people to understand that climate change effects the whole world. Even if I don’t live in Argentina, the receding glaciers affect me. I’m building this narrative through photography.”

Overcoming the challenges of his six weeks in Argentina and Chile also opened doors for Gab that he never could have imagined.

Soon after the trip, Gab was approached to be an ambassador for Nikon and became a TEDx speaker. These milestones were huge accomplishments as they allowed him to further realize his goals of spreading awareness about Mother Nature’s biggest challenges.

Gab’s shots like this one of the Fitz Roy Mountain in Argentina don’t come along very often.

Opening Minds by Opening Apertures

Gab is currently finishing a year-long research trip in the wetlands of the Philippines, living with local inhabitants and indigenous tribes, studying the impact of the environment on their community, taking photographs, and working on a documentary that tells their story.

He is also working closely with the government and local NGOs to address problems like fires in the peatlands and the decrease in annual water levels due to climate change. Reflecting on what he has learned through the experience so far, Gab says that he has fully realized the extent to which human beings are all the same when it comes to their dependence on nature.

“I didn’t realize it until I lived with people from the tribe, but this experience taught me the real impact of our actions on so many people across the world,” he says.

This realization has led him to further refine the message of his work.

“Every photograph that I share with the world has a story behind it and all these stories come down to one message—that every human being has an impact on the planet that we live on.”

Despite all the work he puts into his art and activism, Gab expects very little from his audience in return.

“I want people to feel emotions when they look at my photographs. It doesn’t necessarily have to make them sad or happy, but I want them to feel and reflect how we can all contribute to nature conservation.”

With pictures like these, it’s hard to imagine someone not feeling emotional when viewing Gab’s photography.

Soon, all of us will have another chance to feel the influence of Gab’s work. Last November, the young travel photographer won a grant from National Geographic based on his research trip in the wetlands.

His newest project is focused on uncovering Asia’s forgotten wetland jewel in today’s changing climate and society. We can’t wait to see more from Gab and feel the emotions and impact of his newest work on ourselves.