School trips: Kids see the world and snap it up


THE SCHOOL TRIP season has started. And as many parents do, when one of our kids goes on a school trip, my wife and I sometimes stuff a camera into his backpack and encourage him to chronicle this stirring, educational experience.

We do so with the hope of ending up with snapshots of smiling faces, fresh looks at notable landmarks, and vivid photographic portraits of life in a new setting.

Instead, what we often end up with are lots of buildings, blurry landscapes and, just in the other day, a dramatic shot of fish mouths. The fish-mouth shot was taken during a school trip to Japan last June.

I knew our son took this trip with some of his buddies and his teacher from Japanese class. But I had a hard time finding any evidence of them, or any people, in the photographs. When his friends appeared in photos, their backs and backpacks were facing the camera. If I had to put a title on this series of photographs, it would be "distant backpacks."

The trip to Japan was a "long-gone trip," one of the three basic kinds of school trips. The other two are "the day-trip," and "the overnight trip." Each kind of school trip can produce a distinct style of photograph.

The day-trip lasts no more than 24 hours, even though it seems much longer to the parent who agrees to accompany the kids on the excursion. The destination of a day trip is usually "someplace that the kids really should see" -- a battlefield, a beach, a museum. But often the most memorable part of the day is the journey to and fro.

Recently, for example, I watched a caravan of about half a dozen buses packed with elementary-school kids return to North Baltimore from a day trip to Assateague Island. I spoke with one bleary-eyed adult who emerged from a bus and summarized the trip: "Two broken buses, and one broken arm."

It is no surprise that photographs from such trips tend to follow the theme of "we made it!" These photos tend to show groups of kids near identifiable features of the destination -- a tower, a beach, a cannon. While these group photos are rarely artistic, they do serve as proof that it is possible to survive a class trip.

The overnight trip occurs when kids share sleeping quarters at ++ an out-of-town hotel. Worrisome photographs can be generated

by this kind of trip, the kind of photos you don't want to receive in the mail. Namely, photos from the hotel management backing up its claims of damage done to the rooms by your kid and his friends.

The long-gone trip is ripe with photo opportunities. It tends to produce stacks of photographs, usually of buildings with not a soul in sight.

There are several reasons this kind of trip generates a heavy yield of photos. First of all, the kid is traveling with his classmates for a week or two, and has plenty of chances to snap photos of new sights. Moreover, the traveling teacher -- that brave soul who is willing to herd packs of students through distant lands -- often encourages the kids to expose a little film as they are exposed to new cultural experiences. And finally, parents, who usually are footing the bills for these adventures, arm their kids with enough film to fill a suitcase.

That is what we did last spring, when our youngest son, then 12, went on the trip to Japan. The fact that the trip was last year and that it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I got the film developed, tells you something about the level of efficiency that our household operates on.

Nonetheless I was excited this week when I picked up the five envelopes stuffed with snapshots of Japan. I was expecting a fresh view of a distant country. I ended up seeing a lot of snapshots of rock gardens, endless shots of trees, and several shots of a dark pond. If I looked closely at the dark pond, I could see fish with their open mouths protruding from the dark waters.

The photographer reported that every time he had walked near the edge of the pond, the fish would poke their heads out of the water, begging to be fed. The begging fish were, the photographer reported, "cool," and therefore worthy of many shots.

Other sites that caught the photographer's eye were the roofs of various temples, a Coke dispenser and a squirrel. Japan, I had read, is a densely populated nation. You couldn't tell by these photographs, though. There were plenty of shots of buildings. Few shots of people.

I had to take the kid's word that he had a photograph of the squirrel. When I looked at the snapshot, all I saw was a tree. I was clueless. But then again, this photograph, like most taken on school trips, was proof that kids often have a different way of looking at the world.

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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