Loeffler, T (2004) ‘A Photo Elicitation Study of the Meanings of Outdoor Adventure Experiences’, in Journal of Leisure Research, vol. 36 (4): 536 -56.

There are a number of definitions of adventure which ‘must be freely chosen, intrinsically motivating and rewarding, and have an uncertain outcome’ (537). Others have included a necessary interaction with the natural world and the perception of risk. Claimed benefits include ‘increased relationship with the physical environment, increased self confidence and inner clarity, and increased reflection and contemplation’ (537). Participants report that nature is more powerful pervasive than they had imagined. These meanings need to be investigated.

Experiences have been variously described as ‘flow… peak experience… fascination… oneness… tophilia… numinous… Purposeful exploration… Intimate dialogue… sublimity’ (538). Various models have been used to explain these experiences. The ‘outdoor adventure recreation conceptual model’ by Ewart (1989) refers to social orientation and locus of control vs. Risk and motivational factors. The ‘adventure experience paradigm’ (Martin and Priest 1986) refers to a balance of expectations and resultants leading to peak experience ‘when an individual feels fulfilled, extremely satisfied and/or  deeply happy’ as in Maslow. Patterson Et Al (1998) use a hermeneutic approach to study actual experiences, which appear to have four dimensions ‘”challenge, closeness to nature, decisions not faced in every day environments, and stories of nature”’ (538). Others have identified the main characteristics of wilderness recreation as ‘escape, challenge and survival, new opportunities, natural awe and beauty, solitude’ (Pohl et Al 2000), and described ‘a deeper connection to self, to others and to the environment’ (538). There are apparently transferable outcomes as well: ‘self sufficiency, change in perspective, connection to others and mental clarity’ (539). These experiences have also been described as spiritual, and some studies have focused on spiritual development, although these matters are hard to define.

This study uses photo elicitation interviews. The photos are taken by the participants themselves during their outdoor adventure. Photo elicitation promises and deeper understanding of meaning. The technique has been used before. The idea is to focus on photographs rather than the participant, producing a collaborative process between researcher and participant. Images are claimed to produce ‘keeper elements of human experience than words alone’ (539), and to sharpen the memory. Photographs capture a particular moment in time, and some photographers deliberately use them to fix experience—or to document change. Generally however, photographs have been underused in research.

First of all, photo elicitation interviews were arranged with 14 participants in outdoor education. Some attempt was made to balance gender, age, experience and type of activity [details of the sample on page 541]. The participants discussed the photographs which they had taken. Some questions were asked about the outdoor Experiences’ and the meaning they held. Interviews were audio and video recorded. The software package nudist was used to analyze the results.

Interview transcripts were coded by reading them repeatedly until categories emerged. The basic unit was a quote or a photograph. Each new incident was subsumed under existing codes or given a new code. Nudist was used to code and store the items. The items could then be categorized in a number of ways, using standard search terms. The procedure permits constant comparison between new and established data. Two other researchers were used to analyze chosen interviews to check the reliability of the coding system and its use. Photographs were initially coded by contents into 32 categories, which were later reduced to 12 and then three: ‘outdoor activity, outdoor environment and people’ (543). [This looks rather like of the analysis of tourist brochures by Dann]. About half of the photographs were of the environment, and the remaining half was split between images of the activity and the people. Discussions seem to produce three major themes: ‘one) spiritual connection with the outdoors, two) connection with the others through outdoor experience, three) self discovery and gaining perspectives through outdoor experience’ (543). [There are several problems with this. The themes seem to be equally vague and thus a bit repetitive and circular. There is an assumption throughout that these themes emerge from the photographs and their discussion, whereas they might have emerged from reading brochures or even from taking outdoor adventure courses well beforehand].

Many participants reported ‘stillness, calm and peace’ (543). [Some quotes are taken from the transcripts]. Some reported connecting to ‘a sense of higher purpose or power’, and reported ‘a contemplative mindset where they are drawn to ask themselves deeper or more philosophical questions’ (544). People felt awe, and some ‘deeper connection to the divine and the natural world’ (545). This seemed important, but difficult to explain. [You either think there is something unusual and different about the images or not—if there is, there will be no easy translation into words].

Participants talked about the connections with other people, friendships and the pursuit of shared goals. People had to work and support each other, sometimes share risk and cooperate to survive. This is particularly so in rock climbing. [Examples and photographs PP 546—548]. They also stressed self discovery and being able to put things in perspective, learning about oneself. They acquired new metaphors to explain their lives: climbing or paddling (548). They felt unusually at home in the outdoors, connected to the earth. They felt peak experiences.

Participants were invited to choose three or five photographs that best represented their experiences and meanings. These special photographs were then grouped and categorized: ‘attachments and natural place, friends/group members, self, and significant personal moments’ (550). Roughly equal numbers fell into each category, slightly less in ‘self’.

This sort of work can help explain the benefits of outdoor adventure and overcome negative publicity. We should be designing programmes to emphasize spiritual connections, connections to self and others. [This whole piece reflects this special interest and argument?]. Despite the coding, experiences are complex and hard to describe. The results seem to confirm earlier findings [no surprise really].

Photographs can be useful to provoke reflection and describe how participants make meaning. Photographs anchor memories and can express the ineffable, such as ‘awe, mystery, beauty, tranquility, solitude and peace’ (551). Thus they can help penetrate to deeper meanings. [there is even a claim that photographs are ‘superior in their ability to convey experiences’, 551]. The categories did lineup best with the adventure experience paradigm. There were some gender differences: Males chose photographs of significant personal moments’, while females chose images of self more often, although these differences might not be statistically significant. Participants seem to take lots of photographs when the experience is new, and rely on them to prove they have succeeded at something: ‘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’ (552) [there is actually no observed evidence for this in the study, though].

The study did have some limits. The original intention was to ask participants deliberately to take photographs, but this was seen as unethical. Relying on participants’ photographs however, means that some participants were left out because they did not spontaneously take photographs, and so their experiences are unknown: in particular it is not known if taking a photograph changes the meaning of the experience. It is also the case that some elements will not be photographed, and may not fit ‘the master narrative of the glorious outdoor experience’ (553), and this could include ‘pictures of unhappy, tired or sick individuals’ (553). It is finally admitted that participants might simply be reproducing images they have seen already. Some participants also acknowledged that photographs cannot adequately depict what they experienced. More research is needed. A practical outcome is that adventure businesses sure to encourage participants to take more photographs so they can prolong the experience.

Nevertheless this methodology did make some progress, especially in deepening understanding, and in suggesting new directions of inquiry, especially in terms of how experiences might be captured.

References (more in the actual article)

Ewart, A (1989) Outdoor adventure pursuits: Foundations, models and theories, Worthington, Ohio: publishing horizons inc

Martin P and Priest S (1986) Understanding the adventure experience, Journal of Adventure Education, 3 (1), 18-21.

Patterson, M., Watson, A.,, Williams, D, and Roggenbuck, J (1998) An hermeneutic approach to studying the nature of wilderness experiences, Journal of Leisure Research, 30 (4), 423-452

Pohl, S., Bali, W., And 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), 415-34.

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