Rising stars in photojournalism share their stories and successes

The Canon Student Development Programme provides aspiring professional photographers with the tools to develop their skills and take their career to the next level. Here we sat down with four former students to discuss life after the programme.
Groups of people sitting together overlooking a beach, parked cars lining the road and purple fairy lights reflecting above. Shot on Canon.

Taking a photograph puts you behind the lens. To some extent, this separates you, the photographer, from your surroundings.

But being a pro photographer means you often work solo in a larger sense. Whether you're backstage at a concert to chronicle a band's tour or deep in the jungle to capture images of an endangered species, your camera is your closest companion.

And yet, photojournalists rely on others to succeed. Whether it is growing a professional network, sharing tips with other photographers or building relationships with editors, making connections is vital.

This is part of the reason behind the Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP), which assembles up to 100 photography students per year for an opportunity to expand their networks and gain, as well as share, valuable feedback with fellow peers from all walks of life. These students are selected and mentored by industry experts from top media agencies, including AFP, EPA, Getty Images, and Reuters, alongside publishers such as The New York Times and The Guardian.

The chosen students receive three online sessions with a professional mentor, who offer tailored insights and guidance on refining their portfolio and proposal for a new project for the duration of the programme. After this initial review, an external panel select 25 students to attend a prestigious career-defining 4-day workshop in both Girona, Spain, and Perpignan, France. Students take part in hosted practical sessions, portfolio reviews, and lectures from top photographers and editors.

The students also attend Visa pour l’Image, the international festival of photojournalism, where they can attend hosted exhibition tours and make long-lasting connections. Then, at the programme's conclusion, the top 3 students are awarded a €2K grant and Canon gear to aid them in their next steps to becoming a pro photographer.

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Now in its eighth year, we caught up with participants from 2022 - Simon Wohlfahrt, Mohamed Mahdy, Vasilis Tsiolis, and Kasia Ślesińska - to dive deep into their CSDP experience and discuss their journey into photojournalism.

"We would spend the whole day and night just talking about photography and putting pictures on the table and doing editing, giving everyone feedback," says Simon Wohlfahrt, who since completing the programme is now a more regular contributor to AFP, shooting everything from rhinos in Rwanda to Formula 1 racers.

"It made me realise how important it is to build a community with photographers to keep growing altogether. I don't think we're always the best judges of our own work," he says.

A person, face concealed, being carried by two police officers. Shot on Canon.

Simon Wohlfahrt captures police officers detaining an environmental activist of the "code rouge" coalition during a demonstration against the aviation industry in Antwerp, Belgium. Shot on Canon EOS R5 with an RF 24-70 2.8L IS USM F/2.8 lens. © Simon Wohlfahrt

Meet Simon Wohlfahrt

Simon was studying law before he realised that his passion lay in photography.

"I wanted to be a lawyer to defend people, but I had a strong bond with photography, and I wanted to use storytelling rather than law to work on social justice issues."

Simon switched gears, began studying journalism, and entered the CSDP in 2022. Since then, he's been busy pursuing new projects.

Looking at his career since finishing CSDP, Simon says that one of his favourite things about it so far is the varied diet of work.

Following his passion, Simon decided a location change was necessary. "I left Rwanda, where I was shooting for medias like AFP, Der Spiegel or Le Monde, and since last year I've been based in Belgium.

"I've been doing more and more agency work over the last five years and as an agency photographer - especially for AFP, you cover many types of stories."

But Simon also says his favourite assignments are portraits.

"My heart goes to portraiture. With politicians and heads of state, there is always this little game that you play. They want to give you a very polished image of themselves. Smiling. But that's not what's most interesting for me. I want to capture those little moments that reveal something else."

A man in a suit stands in a studio with several chairs, lights, and TV cameras behind him. Shot on Canon.

Here, Simon captures NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as he poses for a picture before an interview with AFP at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. Shot on Canon EOS R5 with an RF 24-70 2.8L IS USM F/4.5 lens. © Simon Wohlfahrt

In addition to the connections that he made at CSDP, and the instruction he gained on his photography, Simon says one of the biggest boosts came in the form of new gear.

"The equipment I got from CSDP has really been lifesaving to work in Europe for agencies, honestly. The EOS R5 was an amazing partner to capture some decisive moments of the news recently that I was not allowed to miss. I wonder how I would have done with my old equipment."

A person with a shell covering their face. Shot on Canon.

Mohamed Mahdy captures a young boy with a seashell on his face; as a young fisherman, he says, “We are part of the sea, and the sea is part of us”. Shot on Canon EOS R5. © Mohamed Mahdy

Meet Mohamed Mahdy

Mohamed Mahdy is a visual storyteller from Alexandria, Egypt, named as an emerging talent by both the New York Times (2018) and The Guardian (2022). His work, which seeks to shed light on social issues, chronicles communities in Egypt that are often otherwise unseen.

It was while attending the prestigious Danish School of Media and Journalism (DMJX) in Denmark that he applied to the CSDP.

"I saw the programme, and I was excited because I love that kind of environment," he says.

"You have a chance to talk with other fellows and the team, which is something I feel is so important. It's not only about the mentorships that you get, but it's also about the different perspectives you will hear."

The year, after he finished CSDP, Mohamed won the 2023 World Press Photo Open Format Award with his project called Here, The Doors Don't Know Me. This work captured the lives of people in Al Max, Egypt, to preserve the memory of their fast-disappearing fishing village.

A group of people working on a boat at sea. Shot on Canon.

The boat of Mousa with his crew, fishing in the sea of Al Max, Alexandria, from Mohamed’s ‘Here, The Doors Do Not Know Me’ collection. Shot on Canon EOS R5. © Mohamed Mahdy

"In Al Max village, they are getting displaced and demolished by the government," Mohamed says, who went to great lengths to be close to and involved in this community for his collection Here The Door Don’t Know Me. "I could blend in and spend time with the subjects of that project, though not everyone wanted me to tell their story."

"But when you read it, you find someone describing their childhood that is fading away or someone describing their house that's been demolished.

Mohamed has since begun making more multimedia pieces that blend still photography, film, and other elements.

"I've got two Canon cameras, the Canon EOS 6D Mark II and the EOS 5D," says Mohamed. "It's been so important to my work because it's seamless to switch between stills and motion."

A man holding a baby while a woman reads in an armchair in the background. Shot on Canon.

Vasilis Tsiolis captures a father, Kostas, bonding with his newborn son in their family home in Glikomilia village, Greece. Taken on Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/1.4 and ISO 160. © Vasilis Tsiolis

Meet Vasilis Tsiolis

Born and based in Greece, Vasilis Tsiolis' photos and stories have been published in publications such as The Guardian, and in 2018 a selection of his work, The Historic Move, was exhibited at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, organised by THE FENCE after being selected from 2,300 submissions.

Much of his work focuses on the tension between modernity and tradition in Greece.

"I used to be dismissive of traditional ways of life. I was denying of all this kind of stuff because of modernisation. But I've begun to explore its beauty and value through photography."

With a focus on Greek culture, Vasilis has explored this subject from many sides, including life in refugee camps and the abandoned complex from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. He's been exploring these sorts of subjects since 2012, and says the CSDP was a breakthrough in his professional life.

“The programme offered me invaluable learning opportunities with some of the greatest in the world, within the photography industry.”

“You learn from the mentors, who give you tips about small details you may ignore, or you don’t know how to reach people and the media. But now you can reach those people and see how to make your project work. I think these are the most valuable moments for me,” says Vasilis.

“It provided me with a unique opportunity to launch my career. You know, The Guardian came through the programme."

 A person stands on the peak of a rocky outcrop against a cloudy sky, with a valley stretching into the distance. Shot on Canon.

Here, Vasilis captures Kostas standing on top of Koziakas mountain in Greece whilst sheep graze around him. Taken on Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens at 1/8000 sec, f/2.5 and ISO 250. © Vasilis Tsiolis

Close shot of light green leaves in the foreground with trees and rolling hills in the background. Shot on Canon.

Kasai Ślesińska captures green foliage from a hill near Brezno in Slovakia, creating a layered landscape with the surrounding mountains and trees. Taken on a Canon R6 Mark II with an RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens. © Kasai Ślesińska

Meet Kasia Ślesińska

Kasia is a documentary photographer from Poland. In 2020, Kasia received an award at the Grand Press Photo in the Photo Young Picture Story, and her work is published in journals and magazines such as Gazeta Wyborcza, Polityka, Press and Pismo.

"I got into reportage photography because I always liked to observe the world and people. It's the kind of photography that allows me to delve deeper into the subjects," says Kaisa.

Kasia looks back fondly on her time attending CSDP, which she says was hugely rewarding.

"For me, it was a fantastic opportunity to show my photos to people from various countries and backgrounds. Meeting individuals, exploring new places, experiencing exceptional photography, and connecting with passionate people made this adventure truly enriching. This experience has not only instilled confidence but has also deepened my understanding of how the photography world operates."

Since then, Kasia has continued her photography journey. One of her most notable collections focuses on animal rescue centres, asylums, and sanctuaries with the hope to raise awareness about the significance of animal welfare. Through this work, she was selected for mentorship through the Vital Impacts 2023 Environmental Photography Grants program.

A man sat next to a girl holding a miniature spitz dog in his lap amongst a puffer coat and folded orange deckchair. Shot on Canon.

Here, Kasia captures a miniature Spitz waiting with its owner for a presentation at the International Dog Show in Gliwice, Poland. Shot on a Canon R6 Mark II with an RF 50 mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Kasai Ślesińska

Learn more about the Canon Student Development Program

To elevate your career as a professional photographer, the Canon Student Development Programme is the programme you need to apply for.

And here are just a few reasons why:

  • One-to-one mentoring from industry experts.
  • Exclusive in-person workshops with industry professionals to help advance your career.
  • Access to Canon kit and a chance to win a grant to produce a new project.
Find out more about CSDP and apply here.

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