Conservation photographer and environmental advocate Gab Mejia says he was stunned when he found out he made it to the Forbes “30 Under 30 Asia 2021” list. He didn’t even know he was nominated. So it was a total surprise when his father started messaging him about the Forbes recognition, which the older Mejia learned about in the news.
Alone in his room, Gab immediately checked his email, and there it was, Forbes did inform him about his inclusion in the esteemed roster. “I didn’t share [the news] right away because I was still processing it,” he shares, his eyes lighting up. “BTS, the biggest K-Pop band, was on this list [in 2018]. So it feels great that they are recognizing my work as a photographer—that it’s actually making change.”
Gab, a UP Civil Engineering student, might only be 24 but over the last five years, he’s been to the farthest corners of the world shooting pictures while trying to raise environmental awareness through his photographs. His images have been published on the National Geographic, the United Nations Development Programme, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
According to Forbes, it’s 30 under 30 honorees—in which eight are Filipinos—were picked from over 2,500 nominations, researched by Forbes journalists from across the region.
Here’s an idea of what the last half decade of Gab’s life has been. At 19, he was just starting to join photography contests. In 2017, he already won the grand prize in the Global Youth Wetlands Competition, organized by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. His win sent him on a trip to Patagonia, Argentina.
“That’s where it really took off. My work [in Patagonia] was published in the National Geographic. I was 20 at that time,” he tells ANCX.
He then applied for a National Geographic grant and won. Working as an official NatGeo Explorer, he got to work on local projects such as shooting the Agusan Marsh from 2018 to 2020, which aims to protect and preserve the wetlands as well as the indigenous communities there.
The past couple of years, he’s been working on the conservation of the critically endangered tamaraw (a mammal endemic to the Philippines) with the United Nations Development Program. He also worked with CNN on a story last year.
Gab’s passion for conserving wetlands led him to cofounding an international organization called the Youth Engaged in Wetlands (YEW). “Its mission is to protect and conserve the wetlands around the world. Wetlands are marshes, swamps, lakes, rivers, estuaries, mangroves,” he explains. “[With YEW], we’re really bringing these stories to the forefront of policy makers, of governmental leaders that can make big changes in laws, policies.”
He adds, “It’s kind of a mix [of different efforts], but it’s really headed to one direction and the goal is to protect and conserve nature. I use my personal advocacy as a conservation photographer to advocate for these.”
Gab is the youngest in a brood of four. He says it was from his father Saturnino that he inherited his love for nature. “My dad really loved climbing mountains. When I was about 13, he would take me to local hikes—in Davao and Bataan, and all these other mountains.” With copies of National Geographic, father and son would immerse in the world of nature photography.
“I think that early education and experience with my dad really stuck in my head [such that] I don’t want to just see these places in books or magazines. I want to be the one documenting these places, sharing awareness about these places, for people to see and understand,” Gab tells ANCX.
He says a lot has changed in the world over the past years, judging from his recent hikes. “The same mountains that I had visited when I was 13 aren’t the same anymore. They’ve been deforested, destroyed. And me personally seeing it [makes me think] why is nobody actually doing something about it? Why hasn’t people seen the great and severe changes that are happening in these mountains in the Philippines? I don’t want to rob the young generation now of that future that I as a 13-year-old kid was privileged to have seen.”
Gab counts himself blessed that he had mentors and friends that helped him along the way. “I was learning from different people and I think that made the experience great,” he shares. “For photography, one of the people that really pushed me was Hannah Reyes Morales—she’s also a National Geographic Explorer, and photographer. She’s super amazing and inspiring,” he shares. “I remember messaging her one time when I was 17 or 18—‘Hey I have this idea for a story… you think it could actually work for National Geographic?’ And she believed in me, helped me, and kept pushing me.”
He also made special mention of medical anthropologist and mountaineer Dr. Gideon Lasco, an ANCX contributor, who has been a great mentor to him since he was young. “He would take me on hikes even if I don’t have budget. As a college student, he would invite me to hikes every week,” he recalls.
Asked about his most unforgettable hike, Gab says the “craziest” would be his trip to Patagonia in December 2017 up to January 2018. He was 20 and he was alone.
“It was a six-week expedition,” he tells ANCX. “That was the prize for the Global Youth Wetlands Competition. It was really insane because I was hiking alone for six weeks in glaciers, high mountains, remote wilderness. I was doing a thousand-kilometer circuit all the way from the southernmost city in the planet called Ushuaia, all the way to Tierra del Fuego, all the way to El Chaltén, El Calafate, Torres del Paine.”
He’s gotten used to forests but in Patagonia he was hiking on snow covering “these tall mountains with avalanches, raging wild rivers,” he says. “That was super insane!”
It was only on his last plane ride going back to Manila when he really thought about what he had experienced. “I could have literally died,” he thought to himself. “One sprain, one accident alone there with my 25-kilo backpack… I could have died. I don’t know where I got that adrenaline and that risk factor.”
One time, he received an email from the park system rangers informing him that a guy— someone he had crossed paths with—had been missing for two weeks, and his cousins were looking for him. “That could have been me. There are mountain lions, wild foxes, a lot of wildlife—plus, the storms. There are four seasons there—one minute it’s sunny, one minute it’s snowing, one minute it’s hailing, raining, it’s really an intense place. But it was so, so beautiful. I really saw the rawness of nature.”
He didn’t come unprepared, of course. Before that hike, he learned basic mountaineering skills—stove preparation, building your own tent, using a GPS, maps, a compass.
The trip wasn’t exactly six weeks straight. On a Sunday, he would find his way to the nearest town to restock on food. “Water was no problem because it was coming from glacial water, I’d scoop my water bottle in the river—and that’s clean because it’s fresh from the snow or ice.”
That trip produced a five-minute video documentary and a photo story.
The past four years have been very hectic, says Gab. He was mostly traveling on assignment and giving talks. He didn’t even have time to spend Christmas and New Year with his family and friends. But the pandemic changed all that.
Since 2020, he’s been busy with school. He is graduating this year and is currently doing research for his thesis on environmental engineering. “I’ve just been mainly at home—reading, studying, listening to music, watching Netflix,” he shares. “Surviving is the greatest reward you can have right now. I’m slowing myself down. I’m reevaluating what I want in the future, what I want to become. As much as [the Covid pandemic] is super, super bad, it has helped me in a way, to slow down, rest, and live with more intent.”
But he’s definitely not resting on his laurels. “The immediate goal is to get vaccinated and survive,” he says, but in the long run, he wants to do more photography, pursue more conservation work, and do more with YEW.
“It’s actually sad how underrepresented we are,” the Forbes honoree notes. “Filipinos who are in conservation photography. There’s not a lot of Filipinos doing wildlife photography, creating all these Netflix and BBC series on wildlife that we see. My greatest goal is to have a bigger community so more Filipinos would be interested and work in this industry.”