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These joyful photographs of Scouts show a sense of belonging and freedom

<i>Stephan Lucka</i><br/>Participation in the Scouting movement can provide a “safe space” to be oneself
Stephan Lucka
Participation in the Scouting movement can provide a “safe space” to be oneself

By Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

(CNN) — In sun-dappled scenes shot across the German countryside, boys and girls in navy Scout uniforms hike through the woods, pitch tents and lay on the grass under open skies. They wear striped kerchiefs and frayed patches of their national flag. In quiet moments, girls clasp hands and recline against one another; one Scout erupts in laughter as she holds another’s foot to be mercilessly tickled.

Taken by the German photographer Stephan Lucka, the images, “Das Gefühl, das nur wir kennen,” or “The feeling, that only we know,” are saturated in coming-of-age nostalgia for anyone who relished in a sense of freedom in the outdoors.

For Lucka, who was first a Scout in the 1990s in Bad Salzuflen, a town in Western Germany, and later a troop leader there, the project served as both a homecoming and a way to better understand those formative years. Having photographed Scout groups around the country beginning in 2015, he published the series as a book late in 2022.

“Sometimes with life you can only understand it backwards,” Lucka said in a video interview. “In a simple way, I wanted to return to that time that was part of my youth… and try to understand what this time meant to me.”

“I realized that (Scouting) shaped me in an important way,” he added.

Nature and nurture

Though Lucka said some aspects of Scouting have adapted to new technology since he was young — today, troops shoot social media content and use Slack to organize themselves, for example — he found the reasons why young people join are largely the same: to foster “this feeling of connection” to others and to nature, as he described it.

“With the Scouts I am more on my own, I have to be more independent… but I also feel part of something big,” said 13-year-old Jette, whose Scout nickname is Tonks, in a translated interview from the book. “The fact that you are independent but also part of a community at the same time is somehow paradoxical to me… It is a feeling of freedom and belonging in equal measure.”

One of Lucka’s favorite images is one of the earliest he took, of two teenage girls laying entwined on a purple mat on the grass while out camping in the woods, eyes closed and hair fanning out beside them.

“It was just one exposure, and then I went away because I didn’t want to disturb them,” Lucka recalled. “But to me, there’s this intimacy that always resonated.”

Wandering the path

In Germany, the Scouting movement took off in 1909, a year after the publication of British Army officer Robert Baden-Powell’s book “Scouting for Boys,” which is the framework for the organization (now present in 216 countries). But at that time, the country’s youth were already experiencing a revolution that brought them into nature. The movement, called Wandervogel, or “wandering bird,” began in Berlin, and saw children and teens rebel against industrialization by hiking and adventuring in groups, rejecting city lifestyles and materialism. Under Nazi Germany, Wandervogel and Scouting groups were banned; Scouting returned to West Germany following the war, but not to East Germany until 1990 when the country was reunified.

In German, scouts are called “pfadfinder,” meaning “pathfinder,” which Lucka pointed out as he recalled an anxiety-inducing time when, as a troop leader, he nearly couldn’t find the way back to camp for his group.

“I got lost — I had a map and a compass, but I couldn’t actually identify where I was,” he said with a laugh. “It was kind of strange situation.”

How did he get back on track? Thanks to Scouts guidance that had been ingrained in him when he was young: Seek higher ground for a better perspective. So he climbed a tree, identified a point that was recognizable, and led his troop there using his compass.

“I found the Scout solution: When you get lost, try to get a better view,” he paused. “And this is a bit metaphoric for life.”

Today, Scouting in Germany emphasizes hiking, camping and practical skills, as well as the creative arts, Lucka said. He also credits the community with helping him to develop social skills and gain confidence in himself. At the end of his book, he rewinds time with a collection of personal snaps from his Scouting days: a portrait of a young Lucka with sunglasses and long, curly hair on a night he remembers falling in love; another of his troop on a bus trip from France, triumphantly holding a baguette. Ultimately, he thinks “Das Gefühl, das nur wir kennen” is “a story about freedom,” but also one of acceptance, showing a community where many have found a “safe space” to be themselves.

In its cultivation of this environment, and kinship, “The Scouts (could be) a model for how to treat each other in a decent way,” he added.

Das Gefühl, das nur wir kennen” is available now.

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