Vanessa Tignanelli vivaciously embodies the characteristics that The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award promotes. It’s a common theme with Duke of Ed participants: find
your limit – and then surpass it. Born and raised in North Bay, Ontario, she's embraced her northern roots hiking through the bush with camping and camera gear strapped to her back.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words could never do justice to the stories that Vanessa has captured from behind her lens. A photographer at heart, she is currently studying photojournalism at Loyalist College in Belleville.
Tignanelli enrolled for the Award when she signed up to do missionary work with Habitat for Humanity, and agreed to speak with The Duke of Ed about her Award experiences, what drives her, and why she believes everyone should embrace the opportunity to participate in The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award.
How did you hear about The Duke of Ed?
Through a teacher at my high school; Andy – Andrew Hazelwood. I was quite involved in high school, so any opportunity to help out and get involved, I was interested in. It was the first year that Andy ran the program and it seemed like a really good opportunity. I really liked Andy, he had a good attitude and he was so passionate and so enthusiastic about the Award.
How has your experience with the Duke of Ed shaped your identity and your career path?
Before the Duke of Ed, I hadn’t done much travelling. My Residential Project was the first glimpse that I got into travelling with a purpose. My Habitat for Humanity experience made me realize how much I enjoyed helping people and seeing how life was elsewhere. I realized that my personality was much more suited for that kind of work, but I still had this creative side and wanted to make something as well. In high school I was very into art (painting and studio art) and always had my camera with me. Documentary photography is visual storytelling - it's art, travelling to places in need of help and sharing stories of different cultures all rolled into one career.
It was in Costa Rica on my Residential Project when it clicked what I wanted to do as a career. I took a candid photo of a street scene, it was two men playing poker in a garden. To me it was a powerful image and I remember wishing that I had gotten closer, had a better camera, had gotten a better shot. That realization was because of the Duke of Ed.
"I’m a photographer. I’m totally a photographer at heart."
How has the Duke of Ed helped you hone your skills as a photojournalism?
The story is the most important part of the photo. I think up until I did my
Residential Project in Costa Rica, photography was about remembering, documenting my own experiences in life. To come back from such a powerful experience with photos and explain the context and stories behind the different images, made me realize what was really important. It's hard to go back to just selfies after you’ve taken photos like that.
Being able to travel with a purpose dictates that your photos will then have a purpose. After that trip I was able to explain to people the kind of work I was doing and the incredible stories I was collecting. G
oing home after that experience I could share visually with my parents what I had done. My photo's captured the conditions people were living in. Photojournalism
allows you to reach people in a more emotional, accessible way, it makes the subject more real for your audience.
Since receiving my Gold Award, I've recently returned from Germany and Poland where I worked on a documentary project photographing a Holocaust survivor as he went back to places that had affected him as a child during the war.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time during the Award?
That was the first moment where we all realized we were in it together.
Everyone did it. Not one person sat out. It set the tone for what we would be accomplishing together.
During our practice journey for our
Journey my group went to this camp. It was our first trip together and we decided to do a polar bear dip. Together we went into the sauna, and then as a team did the polar bear dip.
What was it like being presented your Award by a Princess?
Before she arrived we were told that we had to address her in a very proper way, a very specific way. When you first meet her you have to use her whole title, as we approached her you had to say "Your Royal Highness Princess Edward Countess of Wessex". It’s Princess Edward because she’s married to Edward who is the Queen’s youngest son. It was very traditional. After the ceremony, we had the chance to chat with her and take pictures. I'll never forget when she asked my about my band The Galaticats and I told her "I played bass Your Royal Highness.” I remember thinking “I can’t believe I’m doing this right now, this is insane!”.
"It’s incredible what little experiences you say yes to that dictate what you end up becoming."
What would you say to youth who don’t feel motivated to do the Award?
It’s important for youth to learn at a young age not to take themselves too seriously. It’s good to experiment, that meeting new people will open up doors to the things you like, or shed light on the things that you are definitely not interested in. The Award teaches you things that you don't even realize and eventually later in life you'll pull those lessons out. I look back and remember the first documentary style photo I took was in Costa Rica. I was there because of the Duke of Ed, because I said yes to join this program, because I wasn’t scared to do it, and in the end it all adds up. I’m a fan of encouraging others to try and do absolutely everything that they can. The Award lets you do that, so why wouldn't be a part of a program like that.
How has the Duke of Ed impacted your life?
It's made me continue to want to learn, to make a difference and to educate. The Duke of Ed attracts people who want to have interesting experiences and want to do more with their lives, people connect when they’re in that kind of environment. Everyone is in the mindset together as a group, you make such strong bonds. Some of the best friendships that I made in high school was with other participants, we were a family when we did those Duke of Ed trips together.
On why you should join The Duke of Ed
It shapes who you are.
I will never not be adventurous, or want to try new skills or go to new places and help people because that’s what the Award facilitated.
There’s a huge variety of people that do this program, no matter your personality you will find a sense of belonging. It will make you a better person, you'll inherit new
and discover what you can do.
Photos courtesy of Vanessa Tignanelli