Using Photo-Elicitation to Explore the Meanings of Outdoor Education Experiences

Looking Deeply In: Using Photo-Elicitation to Explore the Meanings of Outdoor Education Experiences

Loeffler, T A

This exploratory qualitative study utilized photo-elicitation interviews to investigate the inner significance of structured outdoor experiences for participants. Photo-elicitation provided a model for collaborative research in that the researcher became a listener as the participant interpreted the images for the researcher (Collier & Collier, 1986). In the present study, photographs taken by the participants during their outdoor experiences formed the foundation of the photo-elicitation interview process.


Data collection and analysis for this study took place during 2002 and 2003. Data for this qualitative study was gathered using photo-elicitation interviews with 14 participants of a college-based outdoor program. Interview participants were selected using criterion-based sampling. The sample attempted to provide a cross-sectional representation of college students. They ranged in age from 18-21, from first through fourth year of college, and had participated in backpacking, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, or sea kayaking programs. The trips varied in length from a weekend to three weeks.

During the photo-elicitation interviews, the participants and the researcher examined and discussed the photographs that the participants took during their outdoor trips. During and after data collection, an inductive analysis was conducted using both the participant’s photographic images and the interview transcriptions.


Capturing the Moments

When the participants were asked why they took cameras on their outdoor trips, their answers invariably involved the word “capture.” Most had a strong desire to use photographs as a way to grab hold of a moment. There seemed to be a fear that if a photograph was not taken, the moment could be lost forever. By looking at the photographs, they could relive the feelings, thoughts, and sensations of the experience. Using their photographs as the basis for discussion, the participants ascribed many meanings to their outdoor experiences. These meanings were grouped into three explanatory themes: (a) spiritual connection with the outdoors, (b) connections with others through outdoor experience, and (c) self-discovery and gaining perspectives through outdoor experience.

Spiritual Connection with the Outdoors

For many of the participants, the outdoors was a place to find stillness, calm, and peace. The outdoors was also a place where the participants could connect to a sense of a higher purpose or power. The out-ofdoors inspires a contemplative mindset where they are drawn to ask themselves deeper questions. Participants frequently drew upon the words “awe,” “beauty,” and “spiritual” to describe the deeper connection they felt to the divine and the natural world as a result of being on outdoor trips. For some participants, this spiritual connection was the key component in why they go outdoors. At times, the participants were able to be very articulate about the spiritual meanings of their experiences, and at other times, they struggled dramatically to find words to describe such meanings.

Connections with Others Through Outdoor Experience

Many of the participants chose to spend time in the outdoors because of the connections they were able to make with others during the experience. They identified the outdoors as a unique container for developing friendships, and discussed how the outdoor environment invites and requires that people work together and support each other. The outdoors was also thought to help the participants develop skills for maintaining their friendships over time.

Self-Discovery and Gaining Perspective Through Outdoor Experience

Many of the participants identified outdoor experiences as providing opportunities for self-discovery and gaining perspective. The outdoor environment provided occasions to experiment with different ways of living and being, as well as chances to look at life from new vantage points and vistas. For many of the participants, participating in the outdoors gives them access to a new range of metaphors with which to describe and understand their lives. For some of the participants, there was meaning in the sense of renewal or clarity that came from participating in an outdoor program.


The data from the present study suggested that meanings of outdoor experiences were varied, interrelated, and hard to describe. The present study replicated results from previous studies (for example, Arnould & Price, 1993; Patterson, Watson, Williams, & Roggenbuck 1998; Pohl, Borrie, & Patterson, 2000) while utilizing a new methodology-photo elicitation. While this study contributes to a growing body of knowledge revolving around the meaning of outdoor experiences, in the end it provokes more questions that it answers. We know from this study and past ones, that connections to self, others, and the environment form the foundation of outdoor experience. However, there is still a great deal unknown about how or why these critical elements function in this way.

Using participants’ photographs during interviews aided in building rapport. It also provided image-based metaphoric reflexive opportunities for participants, and a secondary data source (i.e., the photographs) for data analysis and triangulation. Outdoor participants are involved in an act of meaning-making. Through their outdoor experiences, they are seeking new stories with which to organize and understand their lives (Patterson et al., 1998). Using photographs as a memory trigger sharpened the participants’ ability to tell narratives of their experience and to reflect on them.

Each photograph acted as a memory anchor for the participant as he or she recalled the moment of the photograph, its intention, and the affective context surrounding it. Having that anchor set against the passing of time freed the participants to describe the meaning of their experiences. Similar to Stringer and McAvoy (1992), most participants acknowledged the inadequacy of words, alone, to convey the essential nature of their experiences. Participants used photographs to capture and preserve the sense of awe. mystery, beauty, tranqnility, solitude and peace that their outdoor experience invoked within them. Using these photographs in the research enabled the conversation to proceed to a deeper level of understanding and meaning between the researcher and participants. Similarly, Carlsson (2001, p. 126) reported, “photographs are superior in their ability to convey experiences compared with spoken and written words only.”

Photography enabled participants to identify peak or significant moments during and after the experience. It aided in the visual and emotional memory of the experience and it captured a greater level of detail than the participants could retain by themselves alone. Paralleling Colson (1979), participants generally took a greater number of photographs when an experience was new. They exhibited a strong desire to capture every nuance of the excitement, intensity, and learning of the new activity or environment. Participants drew on these photographs as proof to themselves and others that they did indeed participate in, or succeed at, some activity (i.e., climbing a peak, running a rapid, cooking a meal over a fire). They rely on the photographs in times of stress or lowered self-esteem to remind themselves of the powerful and moving times they had while outdoors. Given the power of photographs to keep the outdoor experience alive long after it has been completed, it is recommended that outdoor educators embrace and facilitate student photography during the outdoor experience.


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Colson, D. B. (1979). Photography as an extension of the ego. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 6, 273-282.

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Pohl, S., Borrie, W., & Patterson, M. (2000). Women, wilderness, and everyday life: A documentation of the connection between wilderness recreation and women’s everyday lives. Journal of Leisure Research, 32(4), 415-434.

Stringer, L. A. & McAvoy, L. (1992). The need for something different: Spirituality and wilderness adventure. Journal of Experiential Education, 15(1), 13-20.

T.A. Loeffler is an Associate Professor in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Address correspondence to T.A. Loeffler, School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, A1C 3K8, Canada. E-mail:

Author Note

Support for this study was provided in part by a SSHRC/Vice-President’s Research Grant. The author would like to thank Liz Ohle, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Karen Warren, Hampshire College, for their invaluable assistance during this study.

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