Capturing discovery: a camp recorder’s journey


One of my roles at Over The Wall camp is ‘camp recorder’. Along with a few others (all more talented and inspiring in their photography than I!), we’re tasked with capturing camp on film. The past year has been a real challenge to try and capture images that would show those outside camp just what it is that kids and volunteers experience there. We soon realise that anyone with a half-decent camera could take photos of kids having fun, but that it took a deeper understanding of camp and the theories behind how it works for us to really start to capture the magic. The journey we went on as photographers was fascinating, and our appreciation of just how phenomenal camp is for kids affected by serious illness grew exponentially.

OTW Midlands Slideshow 2012 37For the campers at an Over The Wall camp, one of the UK’s SeriousFun camps, every day is packed full of never-ending fun and laughter. This is made possible by the truly phenomenal volunteers and inspiring staff team of directors. The volunteers are trained in something called Therapeutic Recreation (TR), where everything we do is centred on pushing the campers beyond their comfort zone to overcome the barriers created by serious illness. I’ll blog more about TR soon, but essentially it involves recognising an individual campers’ particular barriers and tailoring activities or challenges to help them grow and overcome these through positive labelling of achievement and fostering and encouraging real-time reflection. The children at camp often change before our eyes during the week they spend with us, and for returning campers, the change we see over time is profound. Parents frequently email the office saying they hardly recognise their child, and that camp has given them back the child they had before illness struck.

The volunteers at camp, as well as caring for the campers 24/7 and providing a constant level of high energy entertainment, are always on the look-out for ‘breakthrough moments’ for each camper. These happen when a camper realises they can do something they previously thought they couldn’t. It’s a moment of self discovery, and it’s a remarkable thing to see. For some, it could be reaching the top of a climbing wall or getting in a swimming pool when they thought they’d never be able to because of their PEG tube or illeostomy bag. But for some campers, their moment of discovery may be something as simple as realising they’re not alone in illness, and starting to talk about their feelings with other kids for the first time.

IMG_8308At the start of camp season last year, myself as two other volunteers, with dozens of camp-years between us, set out to capture these discoveries on film, in a way that might offer the outside world a glimpse of what camp was like. Someone once said, when asked to describe a week at Over The Wall, “for those looking in, it’s impossible to understand. For those looking out, it’s impossible to describe.”. To attempt an exposé of camp with just images and now words, then, seemed impossible. It tools hours and hours of meetings, Skype sessions and reflecting on thousands of past images from camp to work out what we had and where we needed to go. By putting ourselves in the shoes of campers affected by various conditions, we started to properly think about the barriers built by serious illness. This guided us when planning how we would go about capturing the moments these barriers came crashing down. When we each got to camp, sometimes together, sometimes going solo, we were able to hit the ground running. Well, jogging at least. We even experimented with making films to try and capture the atmosphere better, despite having no video experience between us! By the end of the season, the feedback we’d had was incredible, and humbling, although as true photographers we all denied our work was any good and that next year we’d be better.

IMG_7616We’re still learning, and even though between us we’ve been on dozens of camps and met hundreds of phenomenal kids and volunteers, there are still lessons to be learnt from camp and moments of magic left to be captured. Perhaps some of those discovery moments, the ones that a kid may not even notice happening but that stop a volunteer in their tracks with just how monumental they are, should be left uncaptured, ready for volunteers and campers to experience without any warning. From my time at camp over the years, the thing that stays with me the most is just how much a few days at camp can change these kids, and it never fails to take me by surprise. I think some of that should be left uncaptured by my camera, as trigger-happy as I am, for new volunteers to discover.

The following slide shows show some of our work from the past year. Our other task at camp is producing a slideshow for the end of camp that includes every child, so not every photo shows a ‘discovery moment’, but we think they offer a tiny glimpse of the true magic of camp. The slideshow software unfortunately isn’t great and may distort the photos. The film is my favourite, and also our first attempt from the first camp of the year. It needs turning up loud!

Scotland Siblings camp:

Hexam Family Camp:

Dorset Serious Illness Camp:

Film from Dorset Siblings Camp:


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