There's a growing problem that many photographers are beginning to bear witness to: nature, travel, and landscape photography destinations are getting trashed, over-run, and taken advantage of. More and more people are visiting these destinations for a variety of reasons. Many of us are visiting because we are truly in love with nature and want to share that love with the world through our photography. Of course, this comes at a cost because our beautiful images inspire others to do the same. Some visitors are just looking to have fun, but are not equipped with any knowledge regarding how their behavior could have an impact on both the location and other people nearby. Lastly, some visitors will do anything to get likes on social media, usually driven by needs of their egos or by greed. I don't believe the behavior we are seeing is always malicious in nature though. I believe that a great deal of this can be explained by examination of human behavior and psychology and how we are wired as social animals.
There are many factors at play here, which we will explore in depth:
- Photography is more popular than ever and images are being shared at exponential rates.
- Social media apps such as Instagram make it easier than ever to see beautiful locations right in the palm of your hand. It also makes it easier than ever to share these locations with the world. To make matters worse, users are encouraged to geotag their photos so they are easier to discover and gain popularity on these social networks.
- Human psychological mechanisms that shape, determine, and proliferate behavior exacerbate negative impacts of increased visitation.
The popularity of photography has exploded
Photography has become more and more accessible and the number of photos taken worldwide is sky rocketing. According to Business Insider, the number of photographs taken worldwide has doubled since 2013, from 660 billion to 1.2 trillion.
Social Media use has grown exponentially
The growth and popularity of social media applications such as Instagram has exploded. According to Statista, Instagram had 50 million users in early 2012. As of June, 2018, Instagram has grown exponentially and has over 1 billion active users. More and more people are uploading photographs of their adventures to social media.
Another unfortunate side effect of the increase in the use of social media is the increase in geo-tagging photographs. Geo-tagging an image is rewarded by the social media algorithms because it helps the image become more discoverable. It also tells everyone exactly where you took the photo so they too can go there to get the same photograph. A growing number of photographers are beginning to recognize the damage geo-tagging is causing, as outlined in this article over on Fstoppers.
Competing for attention
While in general, many people just want to share more of their lives with the world and are using social media to do so, there are some other factors at play. The increase in the number of active users on Instagram and how Instagram is used by photographers, influencers, bloggers, and companies to sell products, generate excitement in a brand, or to gain customers for workshops means that there is a lot of competition for attention. The competition for that attention has increased exponentially and users are seen behaving more and more extremely to gain that attention. The evidence of this is seen almost daily on social media.
Last week, one of my Facebook friends, Patrick Ong, posted a video from the Diamond Beach in Iceland, a very popular travel destination. Indeed, I visited this splendid location just a year ago and it was one of my favorite areas to explore as a nature photographer.
This video not only depicts the absolute insane popularity of the destination but also shows a visitor riding one of the large icebergs like a horse. This is not the first time someone has tried this stunt at the Diamond Beach. In fact, it has become a very popular thing for visitors to try, especially those looking for "that epic shot" for social media.
While this may seem innocuous to many, my hope is that this article will explain why this sort of behavior exists to begin with and why I believe it is dangerous, selfish, and irresponsible. Taking risks to get a photograph is nothing new and is something many of us have done over the years; however, doing so in a very public location and sharing your feat on social media with hordes of fans creates an additional problem which we will delve into much later in the article. I also hope to showcase how this type of behavior has many potential negative impacts on photography destinations, the experience of other visitors, and on the natural world in general.
Since 2010, stories of these impacts have grown significantly. Let's explore some of these stories.
Evidence that the problem exists
1. Hanging Lake - Colorado
Colorado is home to a destination east of the small town of Glenwood Springs known as Hanging Lake. Hanging Lake is a beautiful location - it showcases waterfalls, a splendid lake of green and blue, and stunning foliage. Unfortunately, increased visitation in the past decade has had some unintended consequences. Visitors just could not seem to follow the rules established by the Forest Service and the ecosystem was negatively impacted. As highlighted by OutThere Colorado, Both swimming and dogs are not permitted but many visitors ignored those rules and a lot of damage to the location has occurred. As such, the Forest Service was forced to take more extreme action - access to the destination is now limited to a shuttle bus and reservations are needed to visit during peak season.
2. Corona Arch - Utah
Corona Arch is a popular tourist and photography destination near Moab, Utah. For several years, it was a popular destination for thrill-seekers looking to make a buck on YouTube. Rope swings were used by visitors by which they would swing from the top of the arch through the hole of the arch below. In 2013, a man died trying to swing through the archway. Not only is this behavior dangerous, it also has a negative impact on other visitors wishing to experience the natural beauty of the location. In 2015, rope swinging was banned at Corona Arch.
In 2018, a tourist from Idaho named Ryan Anderson vandalized the arch by carving his wife's initials into the sandstone rock. He later plead guilty after being found through social media efforts and was forced to pay about $1,800 for his actions.
Do you notice a trend here? Visitors can't seem to respect these places. People behave irresponsibly and as a result access becomes restricted.
3. High On Life SundayFundayz
Three friends from Canada created a "clothing and outdoor company" called High on Life SundayFundayz
which leveraged various social media channels to sell their gear. To generate interest in their brand, the group traveled the world and blogged about it, took photos and videos of their adventures, and performed various stunts for publicity. They purposely and repeatedly abused public lands and showed their exploits to the world through their popular social media channels. In order to obtain much of the footage they created to sell their products, they disrespected and exploited many natural places their gain. To make it worse, by sharing their success on social media, they encouraged others to do the same. They had over 2.5 million followers between their various social media accounts.
Indeed, they were caught and convicted in 2016 for committing all kinds of crimes and behaving irresponsibly in several U.S. National Parks.
They pleaded guilty to a number of violations, including walking off the boardwalk at Yellowstone National Park and creating a "hazardous or physically offensive condition" and using a bicycle off the roadway at Death Valley National Park in California. They also pleaded guilty to performing commercial photography without a permit in Death Valley and Zion National Park in Utah and for using a drone in a closed area of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
They have also been ordered to "remove from all social media and commercial use all photographs or video taken of illegal activities in Yellowstone National Park, Zion National Park, Death Valley National Park, Corona Arch and Bonneville Salt Flats Bureau Land Management lands." All three were banned from public lands in the U.S for five years.
Ironically and tragically, it seems this group did not learn their lesson. In 2018, all three died while falling off of a waterfall in Canada.
4. False Kiva - Canyonlands
False Kiva is remote location in Canyonlands National Park which is considered to be a very sacred place by many Native American tribes. Unfortunately, this location has grown in popularity over the years and some visitors have vandalized this ceremonial place with graffiti. Some visitors have slept overnight without a backcountry permit, started fires in the location, dug into the land and destroyed rock formations — all major park violations. Photographer JT Blenker reported very egregious vandalism to the location in a 2018 article on Fstoppers. An unknown party or individual started a fire within the kiva itself and then used the ashes to place hand prints at the site. Sometime afterwards, another visitor attempted to clean up the kiva and disrupted the area even more. As such, the National Park has closed access to this location indefinitely.
5. Kanarra Creek Canyon
Kanarra Creek Canyon is a very popular landscape photography destination near Utah's Zion National Park. A waterfall called Kanarraville Falls in the canyon is the subject of an iconic photograph that is sought after for desert southwest portfolios for landscape photographers all over the world. Each year, thousands of people venture through this canyon along a series of makeshift ladders to reach the beautiful waterfall featured in countless internet posts. The sheer number of hikers, however, could be wrecking the very natural features that make Kanarraville Falls worth visiting. Indeed, bottlenecks back up for an hour or more at the ladders. Rescue teams are dispatched regularly to retrieve injured hikers. Banks are eroding into a creek littered with trash. It seems human behavior is ruining this location.
In response to the spike in popularity and damage caused to the location, local leaders have launched a plan to charge $8 per person to visit the site. This is yet another example of how increased visitation and poor behavior has resulted in negative impact to everyone else wishing to go to a location.
6. Ontario Sunflower Farm
A sunflower farm in Ontario opened to the public in 2018, hoping to generate extra income for the farm by charging a small fee to visit the farm. The owners, the Bogle's, opened up their farm to photographers on July 20, 2018 charging $7.50 an adult. They had done the same thing three years ago, with a few hundred visitors providing a modest boost to their main business of farming. They hired eight staff and rented some porta-potties to accommodate crowds. Their parking lot holds 300 cars. Out of nowhere, hordes of photographers began to arrive on Saturday, July 28th. A few pictures had gone viral on Instagram. By noon, hordes of people were coming from all directions. The crowds started ignoring the overwhelmed farm staff, strolling into the fields without paying. In response, the family was forced to close down access to the farm to photographers permanently.
7. Moose Drowning
In September 2018, a moose drowned in Vermont after a crowd of people taking photographs scared the animal into the water. According to Vermont wildlife officials, the moose was believed to have already swum several miles to cross Lake Champlain from New York state, which borders the west side of the lake.
When it reached the shore it caught the attention of bystanders who reportedly crowded around the animal while it was resting.
Apparently getting a photograph of the moose was more important to the photographers than the moose itself.
8. Maroon Bells - Colorado
The Maroon Bells are perhaps some of the most majestic mountains in Colorado. Located near Aspen, they are a very popular destination for landscape photographers looking to capture their beauty, especially in autumn. Prior to the huge increase in the popularity of landscape photography in the 2000s, Maroon Lake was not visited by hordes of photographers. Grass used to grow on the shoreline and one could even find themselves mostly alone at the lake. Today is another story. More than 320,000 people visited Maroon Lake in the summer and fall of 2017, according to Forest Service estimates. That was up from 285,000 visitors the summer before. The increased visitation has caused social trails to develop around the lake, and the shores of the lake have eroded into a muddy mess. In response, the Forest Service spent $35,000 to build a rope around the shore to keep people from entering. Unfortunately, as seen in the below photograph, this still did not deter photographers from crossing the boundary to "get the shot."
Indeed, I saw this behavior myself over Labor Day of 2018 after climbing nearby Thunder Pyramid.
What I witnessed was fascinating but not surprising - seeing other people across the line encouraged people to cross it themselves. The simple fact that others were doing it seemed to be an invitation to do the same. This is something we will cover later in this article.
9. Horseshoe Bend - Arizona
Horseshoe Bend is another iconic photographic location. It is considered by many to be one of the most crucial locations to photograph if you are looking to build your portfolio as a landscape photographer looking to sell your artwork. I personally have never visited due to the huge amount of people that visit the location; however, it wasn't always a popular destination. 20 years ago, one could easily find themselves alone at the destination, but that changed with the advent of social media and the increase in the access to photography through cell phones.
Now, visitation numbers are in the thousands-per-day. The result of this increased visitation is traffic jams, parking nightmares, fragile vegetation getting squashed by illegal parking and trail blazing, pedestrian bottlenecks, restroom lines and overflowing trash bins. In response to this increase in visitation and poor behavior on the part of visitors, the National Park Service is building a railing to keep visitors in check. This will of course be a massive eyesore and this location will never be the same. Our children will never get to see it in its natural state.
10. Goblin Valley State Park - Utah
Goblin Valley State Park is a popular landscape photography destination in central Utah. It is filled with ancient rocks that are quite photogenic and are amazing to see. In 2013, three men, former Boy Scout Leaders, toppled and destroyed a large stone formation there. The stone formation they destroyed was nearly 200 million years old. The three men posted a video of their act on Facebook and were later sentenced to probation. The three men had stated they thought they were doing everyone a favor by making the park a safer place by toppling a rock that was loose; however, I have my doubts since they were so gleeful in their video and they posted it to Social Media for attention.
11. Cape Kiwanda - Duckbill rock formation - Oregon
A fenced off area near Cape Kiwanda, Oregon used to be the home of a really cool rock formation known as "the Duckbill." That was until 2016 when it was destroyed by visitors. After it was destroyed, Instagram users mourned the loss of the frequently photographed rock. Ironically, many of those images showed people standing or posing on top of the rock — meaning they hopped over the fence meant to keep visitors away.
According to the Statesman Journal, a picture atop the now-collapsed pedestal was "one of the most sought-after images" of the Oregon coast. Getting a photograph of the rock required jumping the fence and crossing to a perilous bluff. According to a 2016 Statesman Journal article, seven people have died in the area since 2009 and rescue efforts by the local fire district and U.S. Coast Guard cost upward of $21,000 per hour, often topping out near $106,000; "yet people continue to flood past the fence and signs. Adults, teenagers, grandparents, photographers and even parents with small children disregard the warnings.
12. Roy's Peak - Wanaka, New Zealand
Roy's Peak is a popular destination among Instagram users and travel photographers looking for attention on the web. According to an article from the BBC, a spokesperson for New Zealand's Department of Conservation said visitor numbers to the Peak had increased by 12% to 73,000 between 2016 and 2018, because the spot had become a "quintessential icon for the Wanaka region through social media". Naturally, the increase in visitation from people that may not have an idea on how to properly tread lightly has negatively impacted the landscape. My friend Jack Brauer photographed this location in 2008 and noted, "I hiked up there in 2008; I didn't see anybody else that day..."
13. Mount St. Helens - Washington
Every year, thousands of photographers journey to the hillsides north of the impressive lava fields of Mount St. Helens to photograph the wildflowers found there. They are indeed impressive. I visited once myself when I lived in Portland, Oregon and really enjoyed exploring the trails near the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Unfortunately, it has become another example of a location that is being abused by photographers looking to "get the shot." In February 2019, an article from the Spokesman emerged claiming that a photographer that won the Washington Trails Association photo contest "may have jumped a wall, ignored a sign and trekked into a field of protected wildflowers." Having been there myself and seen countless people walking off trail, I can attest that this does happen regularly. According to the Spokesman article, "the issue was first noticed, and flagged by Spokane photographer Craig Goodwin. Goodwin is confident the photo was taken from a closed area of Mount St. Helens, one that’s visibly marked by signs and a small wall. He first explained his reasoning in a blog post." Craig Goodwin goes on to explain that "social media and photography are driving people into the outdoors in record numbers, amateur and professional photographers often tromp through sensitive ecological areas looking for “The Shot.”
Why does this keep happening? Why care?
I'm sure many reading up to this point have been shaking their heads and saying "who cares!?" I suppose that's fair if you have not been traveling to photography destinations for very long or have not seen them before they became popular. I am sure some folks are reading thinking that someone having a bit of fun on an iceberg on diamond beach in Iceland is no big deal either. Many people have responded saying that "we all take risks as photographers to get the shot," or, "who cares, they are just having fun."
For me this is not about policing behavior or encouraging people to stop visiting popular destinations - it is about understanding how this behavior has impact beyond ourselves and how the huge spikes in visitation to certain destinations impacts those places and our experiences at them.
To be clear, I see this as a synergistic problem by which the increase in popularity of a location attracts more and more people that are less and less respectful or knowledgeable; and, the sharp increase in the number of visitors dramatically increases the amount of imagery shared of that location on social media and the number of eyeballs that see bad behavior and ultimately emulate it for a variety of factors which are discussed later.
To begin, let's talk about the impact of over-visitation. When a destination becomes popular, it attracts all kinds of people with a variety of background, education, ethics, and knowledge. Unfortunately, many people visiting are not aware of the fragility of that location nor are they taught Leave No Trace ethics as a lay person. It is not realistic to expect every visitor to every location to be equipped with this knowledge (unless you implement very strict visitation standards similar to those imposed by the National Park Service for rafters of the Grand Canyon).
It is also not very reasonable to expect a lay person to full understand the risks that may be present at a location (such as the forces behind a one-ton iceberg). Many destinations are ill-equipped to handle hordes of people. To combat this, government authorities are forced to take drastic measures which often alters the experience of that location (by installing railings or ropes or limiting visitation, etc.). Many popular locations are now being forced to be limited by a permit system because of the sheer mass of people going to them and the inability of visitors to respect those locations properly.
Social Learning Theory
As many readers have come to learn about me, I am not only a landscape photographer, but I also happen to have a Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology and enjoy exploring the intersections of those two things.
To help further explain why we are seeing a spike in both visitation and a spike in bad behavior and to explain why I personally believe that risky behavior like riding an iceberg or crossing a roped off area "for the shot" is a bad thing, let's explore some human psychology. In 1977, psychologist Albert Bandura (known as the father of cognitive theory) released a study outlining his theory about how we learn behavior from observing other human behavior, known as Social learning theory. This theory is based on the idea that we learn from our interactions with others in a social context. Separately, by observing the behaviors of others, people develop similar behaviors. After observing the behavior of others, people assimilate and imitate that behavior, especially if their observational experiences are positive ones or include rewards related to the observed behavior.
So, let's use the riding of the iceberg as an example. If an individual sees an influential photographer get thousands of likes on social media and business for their workshops (the reward) by sharing a photograph of them riding an iceberg in Iceland (the behavior), social learning theory tells us that that individual is likely to imitate that behavior, regardless of any inherent risks.
The mechanisms of social learning are exacerbated by the pairing of popular destinations with undesired behavior because there are many more people watching the behavior. One could also argue that the mechanisms of social learning theory also help explain why destinations become popular to begin with. The behavior (visiting or photographing a certain destination) is naturally rewarded in the social media era (likes, comments, shares, etc.).
In essence, we photographers are partially to blame for the problems of over-visitation and the unintended consequences of that over-visitation (vandalism, trash, etc.). As landscape photographers, we take stunning photographs of wonderful and amazing places. As humans, we want to share that artwork with the world. Social media makes that easier than ever. Unfortunately, by sharing our photographs and geo-tagging them, we invite others to do the same. But wait, am I suggesting we stop sharing our photographs on social media. Of course not. A more thoughtful balance must be pursued by all of us.