Outdoor Education

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, But Not the Whole Story

By Tom Holland June 27, 2019

The Wonders of Online Camp Communications

More than a decade ago, I was working at another summer camp program when we heard chatter through the camp industry about a new technology that allowed parents access to pictures of their campers on a daily basis. Our team was mesmerized by the technology that would allow us to post pictures in real-time with updates (termed ‘Blogs’) from camp. We thought the idea was amazing as it would give parents a window into what we do at camp, and we believed that e-camp, as it was called, was going to ‘change camp forever.’ 

Fast forward to the present where last year, Catherine and I sent our daughter on her first ever Wilderness Adventures trip. For the past fifteen years, we have lived with the double-edged sword of the e-camp world, one where the supply of daily pictures of campers has become as ‘camp’ as campfires and s’mores.  Each summer, parents yearn for the posting of pictures of their kids at camp. We as camp directors know that when the posts are made, hundreds of parents will scroll through the pictures quickly ignoring the pictures of kids they do not know and looking quickly for their child. When they arrive at their child, they will sit in the analysis of their smile.

 Is it truly a happy smile? Or is it a forced smile? Or is that the weird smile he does when he does not like what he just ate?

We know that each shot will get analyzed, and while it does offer a window into what we do, so many pictures don’t speak to the moment that was being had.  Still, here we were, as parents, yearning for the next posting and critically analyzing the pictures of our daughter to glean any conclusion we might make about her overall well-being.  

It is with this dichotomy in mind, that I write this post. On the one hand, I write to you as a father who, maybe like you, loves a great pic of my kid. I love to take those pics. I love to post them, I love to catch them doing the darndest things.  I also write this as a camp director, one who believes in the power of the experience we offer, one where we train our staff to steward, challenge, inspire and lead our campers to be their best selves. We train them to mitigate risks, respond to emergencies and master the group dynamics of adolescents so that kids walk away a bit taller. And if after doing all these things, they happen to get a decent picture of the kid during their time with us, amazing! It’s like cherries on top! 

E-camp and Instagram have changed camps. Our trip programs operate on six continents with varying degrees of wifi connectivity.  Since the introduction of these technologies, there has become an expectation of posting pictures in real time to provide constant access to families. We recognize those pictures to be an important access point for parents, one where they get a look at the investment they made in their child’s summer and one where they can sit back and be assured by their safety. Finally, we know those pictures can provide us parents a chance to live vicariously through the adventures of our kids! 

Nevertheless, the most common comments we receive are in regards to the pictures that get posted during the summer months.

Being a parent myself, here are some tips on how best to approach the picture part of the WA experience:

  • We all look weird in pictures from time to time – know this can happen to your kids, too. Don’t read too much into an awkward face or a picture where your kid doesn’t have an ear to ear grin.
  • We don’t provide captions, so do not make up your own for photos, interpreting what you think is happening. The best remedy for this is to wait for your child to come home and ask them about the moment!
  • Remember our staff are hired to be great trip leaders and they all are varied in their photographic skill. They were not hired for their photo skills, but for their skills with youth.
  • Don’t count. This is a futile practice that does not produce great results. Sometimes, a wave of pictures happens and there happens to be 5 of one child and 1 of another. We work to recognize those moments, and make sure they don’t happen often, but they can and will happen.
  • Remember the best outcome of your child’s summer is that they walk away with new friends and wonderful memories. This is our ultimate goal. When the great pictures happen, it’s like cherries on top.