Anyone who has been a nature photographer longer than ten minutes has probably noticed that a lot of the locations we cherish and love to photograph are under attack. Trash and litter adorn the trails. Hordes of photographers and tourists trample locations to death. Lifestyle photographers and "Instagrammers" use nature as their props to gain followers, attention, glory, money, and fame. Indeed, many Instagram accounts have popped up recently condemning this behavior, including two of my favorites, Joshua Tree Hates You, and Sick Tones Bro.
While these problems may seem separate from nature photography, many of these pressures on nature stem from people being drawn to such places because of our inspiring photographs. Most individual photographers have not intentionally contributed to these negative impacts. Still, we have the opportunity to acknowledge that nature photographers have become a significant contributor to these issues and thus hold responsibility in addressing these trends in a proactive and positive way.
If you're like me, you're fed up with it. Enough is enough. It is time to take action.
Many listeners of my podcast are probably aware that I have been working behind the scenes for about two years with a small but mighty group of nature photographers concerned about these accelerating trends. We have come together and contributed to the creation of seven principles that we have dubbed as "The Nature First Photography Alliance." We have each committed to following and promoting the practices outlined by these seven principles and encourage our fellow photographers to do the same. If nature photographers do not take this kind of collective, proactive action, not only will we continue to see extensive and irreparable damage to our most precious natural places but we will also see a growing number of regulations and restrictions put on photographers as a result.
Over the next seven days I'll be exploring each of the principles in depth. I believe that adhering to them is absolutely critical for the future of landscape and nature photography. Let's begin.
Principle #1: Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
This addresses a problem I have seen over and over again as a nature photographer. Photographers and tourists, driven by the siren call of social media fame (or money, or likes, or ego strokes) go to great lengths to get "the shot." Often this involves going over or through a physical barrier meant to protect an area from foot traffic, or it involves trespassing, or it involves physically damaging or altering something in nature to enhance or obtain a certain photograph. Plenty of examples come to mind, including Michael Fatali burning DuraFlame logs at Delicate Arch, and the photographer that was cutting down trees at the Garden of the Gods so his photos would be unique. Another example of this was a scene I found myself observing in dismay in 2018 at Kirkjufell Waterfall in Iceland. A rope surrounded the waterfall, probably to protect the foliage but also to prevent people from falling to their death. Myself and several other photographers were happily shooting the scene behind the rope when two women came to the scene, crossed the rope, and began taking photos from well beyond the roped off area.
We have all seen it and let's admit it, many of us have been tempted to do the same, or maybe have even done the same.
Let's explore a case study that really emphasizes this particular problem and the need for this principle.
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. I spent a good 30 minutes talking to several groups about why they were breaking the rules and why it was important to follow them. I know it was not much, but at the time it was all I could do to make the situation better.
Left unchecked, this type of behavior can escalate quickly into more extreme examples, as evidenced by our next example...
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 for 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.
Fortunately, there is more we can all do...
What can you do?
We are guests in wild places, which are the home to unique natural features, as well as diverse and delicate ecosystems. We, therefore, should tread lightly and never cause harm to the natural world in our pursuit of photography. Instead, we should minimize our impact to the greatest degree possible in order to preserve and protect these places we love. I know it is tempting to cross the rope or walk into that pristine field of wildflowers to get the perfect composition, but its not worth it. In fact, its ruining nature, one foot-print at a time. So, think before you take that step and put Nature First!