Photography and Parks in Focus Series (Part 1): Photography as a Tool for Focus

By Elena Gustafson, Photo/Video Intern 2011

I become involved with Parks in Focus as an intern three years ago.  At that point, I’d been involved with outdoor leadership and environmental education for a quite a while. Though I was excited by the photography addition of this program, to be perfectly honest I was more excited on my first trip about getting paid to lead kids on a visit to the Grand Canyon!  Until my first Parks in Focus experience, I did not realize just how powerful the tool of photography is for introducing youth to nature.

Not that I hadn’t realized the potential for technology to be a bridge to the outdoors before—at the Udall Scholar conference the year before I joined Parks in Focus, two fellow Scholars and I joked about, then seriously considered, creating an “outdoor” video game called “Global Heroes.”  Kids would learn lessons about ecosystems and flora and fauna—programmed to be local for their state, of course—while working to defeat bad guys such as Doctor Pollution (insert evil laugh here). At the end of each level, the game would prompt kids to go out to specified parks in their area to practice their new-found nature-saving skills!

Lilly using her camera to focus at Grand Canyon National Park

Anyway, I digress a bit—the point was, we realized that for youth these days, technology is what they know. It’s what they are versed in.  It’s what is in their back pockets, rather than pogs or jacks or baseball cards.  Technology is what kids “trade” in these days.

Our participants are comfortable with technology—even if they have never owned a camera, when you put one in their hand it feels familiar. They immediately start playing with buttons and somehow, inevitably, turn the sound back on.  On the other hand, for the youth we work with, nature is often unknown and somewhat scary. That familiarity and comfort with technology allows them access to the new world of the outdoors.  It provides an easy way into new situations with new people.

Photography especially provides a great bridge to nature, something I saw on my first Parks in Focus trip and have been advocating ever since.  It creates a safe “barrier” to get kids close to things they would normally scream at—such as bugs or high-up viewpoints.  Having a photo assignment actually makes kids stop (because we make them stop).  It makes them look.  It makes them look with intention.  They have to focus not just on the big picture but also on minutia they had never noticed or even known were there to notice before!  As one of our California participants, Kelly, said, “This is so cool.  So many people just walk around here without seeing so much of it, but we stopped and saw all sorts of things.”

I have had some people ask me—isn’t it a bit of an oxymoron to take kids outside in order to get them away from computers and televisions and phones, and then put a different kind of screen in their hand?

If not done right, then yes. But as Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, wrote in a recent Orion article, “Taking technology into nature isn’t new. A fishing rod is technology; so is a compass. But electronic gadgetry can definitely be more intrusive…can we come up with new uses for technology that get kids outside in a way that stimulates rather than simulates the senses?”

Exactly!  Admit it—there are some cool gadgets out there.  Even the simplest piece of technology these days can do some pretty amazing things.  Why don’t we use that to our advantage, use technology as a tool to facilitate and enhance learning in the outdoors?

Photography is fun.  Kids like playing with cameras.  It gives them something to do (perhaps in some ways we take advantage of this fact—we need to make dinner, so you need to go take 20 photos of leaves!)

But the basic utility of photography is underselling its importance. The proof of the camera as a focus tool and connector to nature is when our youth start developing a curious eye and point out things we leaders didn’t even notice.  It’s when we have to tell participants to put their cameras away on a hike because we have to start moving to get back before dark. It’s when a kid proudly shows you the focused macro shot of a beetle they just spent 10 shots taking to get just right.

That’s a longer attention span than many adults have.


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