Miami-area middle-school students compete for prizes in Zoolens Photography Project

The annual Zoolens Photography Project competition encourages Miami-Dade middle-school students to visit Zoo Miami and photograph an animal, then submit the images for rewards of up to $2,000.

The program is a partnership with Mercantil Commercebank, Zoo Miami and the Zoological Society of Florida. The mission began six years ago as a way to nurture wildlife awareness in students while fostering creative expression and education through photography. The first year, the initiative started as a pilot program with a couple of middle schools selected, but then it quickly expanded throughout the county by popular demand.

Earlier this month, Mercantil Commercebank kicked off the competition at Zoo Miami by hosting a gathering for about 40 kids. Ron Magill, Zoo Miami’s director of communications, took the participants on tour. With loaner Nikon cameras in hand, youngsters were able to interact with animals and take photos on their own. Students also took home Pitman Photo Supply gift memory cards to store their images.

To participate, each student must submit an original photo of a Zoo Miami animal. Submissions will be accepted until 5 p.m. Oct. 31 and can be made through the child’s school or at any Mercantil Commercebank banking center. This year’s judges include Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald photojournalist Patrick Farrell; internationally acclaimed photo-artist María Martínez-Cañas and New World School of the Arts Visual Arts professor and curator Rosario Martínez-Cañas.

Alberto Peraza, president and COO of Mercantil Commercebank, said he’s seen the program expand since its inception and has a hard time deciding on the winning image. Submissions have exceeded 300 images.

“The kids are extremely excited and nervous. The entries are amazing, and our great group of judges includes professional photographers,” Peraza said “It’s not only the quality but sometimes they get the animals in fun and interesting situations, and they come up with interesting names for their photos. They’re all so fantastic.”

During the month of November, a panel of judges will choose three grand prize winners to be announced at an awards ceremony on Dec. 8. Additionally, the bank will host a Zoolens Fans Choice social media contest via its Facebook page, with a photo album of the top 30 finalists. Submissions will be uploaded to Facebook in November and will be available to all page followers for voting.

The first-place winner will receive a $2,000 savings account; second place will receive a $1,500 savings account, and third place, a $1,000 savings account. The top three winners will also receive professional cameras and student memberships to the North American Nature Photography Association. Their schools will also receive donations by Mercantil Commercebank. Ten honorable-mention winners will each receive a $100 Visa gift card.Although the students are young, the program is aimed at giving them the opportunity to work in an artistic atmosphere with professionals.

“As a contest judge for the past six years, I continue to be amazed at the talent and creativity of the Miami-Dade County students who participate in the Zoolens Photography Project,” said Magill in a statement. “It is an honor to be a part of this vital program that promotes wildlife awareness and offers students educational and creative outlets.”

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▪ What: Zoo Miami

▪ Where: 12400 SW 152 Street, Miami, FL 33177.

▪ Cost: General Zoo Admission is $19.95 for adults and $15.95 child, plus tax. Children under two, Zoo members and parking are free.

▪ Hours: Zoo Miami’s hours are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays and 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekends and holidays; ticket booths close at 4 p.m.

▪ For more information please visit, or

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