Art Wolfe is reputed to have said you can celebrate something to death. In a similar vein, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Senator Lamar Alexander penned a May 2018 editorial for CNN in which they bluntly stated that “our parks are being loved to death” through a combination of record-breaking crowds and severe maintenance backlogs. All over the world, precious, unique natural areas are under stress from human visitors. In some places, it’s simply a case of too many people coming to too small a space. In others, it’s not just the crowds, it’s also bad behavior.
In order to protect beautiful but fragile areas, many photographers have stopped sharing location information. No GPS data. No clues about where the spot is or how to get there. Why? Because, once a really cool photo location is out there on Instagram, Facebook or other platforms, the crowds inevitably follow.
Is withholding locations arrogance? Selfishness? Respect for nature? You be the judge.
In Iceland, one of the most beautiful waterfalls is Bruarfoss. It’s hard to get to, lying at the end of a roughly two-mile hike that starts in and passes through a subdivision of private homes. It used to be almost unknown. When I was there in 2015, we had a hard time even finding the trailhead. But Iceland is experiencing a tourist boom. Last year, six times as many people visited as live there! As Bruarfoss has become more well-known through photographers’ Instagram and Facebook posts, the crowds have come, parking on people’s lawns, trampling the landscape, and leaving trash and even feces in their wake. Earlier this year, photographer Colby Brown reported that the trailhead and possibly the entire trail was being closed because, as he put it “humans suck sometimes.”
For years, Bogle Farms had been inviting people to come view expansive fields of sunflowers. The farm, outside Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, charged a small admission fee and everything was going just fine. In August, 2018, Instagram shots from the sunflower fields went viral, drawing hundreds and then thousands of Instagramming, Snapchatting people to the farm. An estimated 7,000 cars created massive traffic jams. Hundreds of people with cameras and smart phones wandered over fields, trampling crops and lawns, and ignoring instructions from police, who had been called to help manage the crowds. The site was then closed to visitors for the season.
In Yellowstone, tourists are injured by wildlife every year because they ignore park rules and get way too close to the animals. In other well-known spots, throngs of photographers line up every sunrise and sunset, trampling the vegetation. Our experiences in nature are profoundly changed by the crowds and what they do to the land and the wildlife.
Fstoppers also has a nice piece by Tim Behuniak on why we shouldn’t geotag, which is where I first saw this video from Vox. It does a nice job of explaining the impact of increasing crowds at Horseshoe Bend, Arizona, and the dilemma faced by communities near newly popular destinations. Like many of you, I have been to Horseshoe Bend and I can’t imagine it with a giant parking lot, visitor center and viewing platforms. The experience of being there will be forever changed.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is considering an 8th principle to address social media, including sharing location information, and has provided some guidance: “[W]e encourage outdoor enthusiasts to stop and think about their actions and the potential consequences of posting pictures, GPS data, detailed maps, etc. to social media. Furthermore, we urge people to think about both the protection and sustainability of the resource and the visitors who come after them.” Their advice includes the admonition to avoid tagging specific locations and, instead, use general descriptions like a state or area. They also encourage us to “be mindful of what your images portray” and be careful not to encourage bad or risky behaviors.
So, there’s this movement to stop sharing location data. As photographers, we’re always questing after something new and fresh, an image no one’s seen before. Once we get it, should we keep it to ourselves? After all, we went through a lot of effort to find it. Or should we share it and live with the consequences?
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