Junior Wins National Geographic Photo Contest

Recently, Windward Junior Jessica Voss was announced as the Grand Prize Winner of the National Geographic 2019 Student Photo Contest. As part of her prize, Jessica will embark on a two-week-long trip to Tanzania this Summer, led by a National Geographic photographer. We sat down with Jessica to discuss her award winning shot and passion for photography.

Congratulations! Tell us about the contest, which had over 5,000 entries submitted. How did you choose the image you submitted? Where did it come from?

Thank you! I actually discovered the Nat Geo Photo Contest online. I wrote my statement and submitted the photo just a few hours shy of the midnight deadline. I found out I was a finalist on February 1, then the voting for the People’s Choice ended February 15. I found out I placed First about five days later. Getting that email from National Geographic was just awesome, though I couldn’t tell anyone for two weeks. It was weird to know and not be able to say anything. It was just my dad and me who knew!

I’m not big into celebrating my birthday, which is in the Summer. But my dad said “Let’s go somewhere, where do you want to go?” I said Cuba, which is on a list of places we want to travel to before they change. So we went to Cuba! We went all around—started in Havana for a few days, Cienfuegos, then Santa Clara.

We didn’t really go for the wildlife—we just wanted to see the culture and the place. The photo was captured just outside Santa Clara. We had just gone inside a monument, and as we stepped out on the way to our parking spot there was this random lizard in a palm tree and I said “I’m going to take a picture of that.” I had no clue what it was, but it was pretty colorful and cool looking, so I snapped a picture or two.

What did you win for getting First Place in the contest?

I didn’t know much about the contest going in, just that it was free, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. I submitted, thinking it would be cool if I won, but not knowing there was this prize, which was a two week trip in June. There were multiple places you could go, such as Lisbon, Prague, one in New York, Tokyo, but I chose Tanzania. There are students going from other high schools, as well as National Geographic photographers. I entered thinking I had no chance, and apparently I did!

What kind of camera equipment do you travel with?

I use a Nikon—I like how with Nikon you can bring the shadows out more than you can with say a Canon. The lens I was using was actually a long lens, which is what I was using at the time. I wasn’t really focused on getting what was apparently “the” shot, which I later learned after some research was of an Allison's Anole. They’re apparently really rare, which I obviously didn’t know at the time.

Have you always had an interest in photography?

Ever since I was probably four; my parents were both into photography. I had a little point and shoot and kind of got into it that way, taking pictures of things like colorful shampoo bottles, very different from what I do now. I live right outside the Ballona wetlands, so it’s not hard to walk down from my house to the wetlands and get egrets and all kinds of cool stuff down there. If I didn’t live near the wetlands, I likely never would have gone out and seen baby blue herons, which are really ugly and look like prehistoric dinosaurs. I got into wildlife photography from living near the wetlands.

How did you learn to shoot?

I’ve never really thought of photography as a career—I’ve never actually taken a photography class. My dad and mom never took a course, they were just interested as well. With photography, there’s the “eye” aspect, and the technical aspect—one is recognizing when something looks cool, the other involves how do I then do that. I’m stronger at knowing what I want to do, the vision of that, and if I don’t necessarily know how to do it, you know, YouTube!

Finally, what’s your favorite thing about photography?

For me, it’s about more than just getting the picture. It’s about being out and seeing what you’re taking the picture of. It’s just amazing—what you see through the camera is just something you don’t experience normally. It’s those experiences that I love. And now I get to go to Tanzania, for free! It sounds cliche, but I’d really like to get a photo of a lion.
Windward School is a 7-12, co-educational, independent day school in Los Angeles, California.