“Our mission as photographers is to be the visual storytellers of nature. But, now more than ever we need to share stories about becoming better stewards to the places we visit, love and photograph. We need to unite and give a voice to the voiceless and stand up for the natural world. Together, we can make sure these wild places stay wild and beautiful so the next generation of photographers can share their future stories with the world.” -Jennifer Renwick
Today is Earth Day, and I'm very excited to bring to light a project that I have been working on with other passionate nature photographers with for over a year. As a group, we recognized the need to bring awareness to the impact that is happening to the natural world around us through photography. It is excellent photography has taken off and become a popular hobby, unfortunately in its wake, there have been unintentional (and sometimes intentional) repercussions happening to these wild and delicate areas. We've all seen the photographer population increase at some of our favorite locations and with the rise of social media, locations are being brought to attention, that ten years ago, no one wouldn't have thought twice to visit. Areas are getting damaged, new trails are being made in sensitive areas, signs and barricades are being ignored, trash and other waste products are being left behind, and location sharing is overrunning and damaging some of our unique and wild places. We've all seen the frustrations online and photo proof of each of these. But, as unfavorable as these things are, it's still a great time to be a photographer! Why? It's simple. Now, we all have the opportunity to put our good steward caps on and become ambassadors to these places we love. It's time to start educating ourselves and others about the places we photograph, and how we can limit our impact and keep these places wild while still enjoying photography. It's time to start taking the energy toward venting and frustrations and put it toward a more useful cause and positive energy. The more we can encourage better wilderness ethics, mindfulness, and practices, the more it will spread and catch on. From the everyday hobby photographer to the workshop leaders, to the professionals making a living from their work, we all have something to take away and pass on to others.
As a group, we designed seven principles that help communicate responsible photography. These are made with the idea in mind of simple concepts that give photographers a moment's pause to reflect on their actions and how it will potentially affect the environment around them. Here they are, with a short description of each.
1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
Every time we step out into nature with our camera gear, we are the guests in this uncivilized and beautiful world. We are the visitors in these beautiful lands, from the mossy covered tundras, down to the desert playas. We must take care of these areas, and just as we wouldn't leave a mess behind after being a house guest at someone's home, the same should apply to the environment. Footsteps, camera bags, trash, human waste, and tents can cause unintentional damage to these delicate and sensitive areas. Some of the organisms making up those environments can take hundreds of years to grow, and even one footstep, albeit not very dangerous in our eyes, can leave damage that won't repair in our lifetimes. Always put nature before the photo. Even if the sky is blowing up and unicorns are prancing around, take a minute to think before plopping the tripod down. Some mental questions to ask: Am I harming nature to get my shot? Is this a delicate area I'm in? Am I too close to this moose and causing stress? Many photo locations occur in these ecosystems and taking a moment to make sure damage or stress isn't happening to flora and fauna from the photography effort is a significant first step to putting nature before the photo.
2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
Learn about the different environments you'll be photographing. This may sound simple, but it's often overlooked. We get so excited about photographing, and we forget to slow down and learn. Each environment is dynamic and requires a different set of behaviors. For example, footprints in sand dunes don't leave a lasting impact, but walking on cryptobiotic soil, hydrothermal areas and tundra does. One right way to educate yourself about the flora and fauna and feature of a place is to visit a local bookstore around the location and read literature about it. A little knowledge goes a long way, and you might learn something new. For instance, you might learn and identify dangers previously unknown. Maybe there are rattlesnakes in the area. Perhaps its the season for poison ivy, you don't want to put your camera bag down (or your behind) in a patch of that. Getting to know an area by researching its flora and fauna and planning out how to lessen your impact is a great place to start before putting the tripod down.
3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
While planning on the photo set up, taking the time to reflect on the actions of how that photo came about while out in nature is a good thought process to go practice. We've all been there. It's a beautiful morning. The first light is hitting the mountains, and there is a lovely meadow of wildflowers. You spot a composition, and run out and set up the tripod. Before you know it, you're in the middle of the flowers, and maybe (gasp!) you've caused a flower casualty. It's easy to think that one person walking through the wildflowers to grab that perfect sunrise may not do too much damage. But, what about other photographers that see your trail through the grass? The same applies to trail closures and barricades. When one person is spotted climbing over the closure sign to get the shot, others will follow. One photographer's actions can turn into three photographers doing it, then ten, and then a group of twenty. The evidence presents itself in trampled flowers, footprints, and tripod holes. All of these can be seen by others, and most of the time they follow suit. Taking a few minutes before lining up the photo to think about your current impact, but a future impact is a great way to think through certain situations to protect these scenes.
4. Use discretion if sharing locations.
Back in the day, we were able to share locations with others. There was no google earth, and word of mouth was all that was needed. In this age of social media, sharing with one person might lead to the location appearing on a website or other social media channel. I've seen locations that I've stumbled upon myself pop up on social media, and I've seen firsthand the resulting damage. Sharing locations, while innocuous, can sometimes have harmful and unintended consequences. Be aware that sharing can lead to an increase in visitation and damage to sensitive areas. Public places with established boardwalks and trails are better to share, versus more sensitive and biologically at-risk locations. I've been called an "elitist" because I no longer share my locations. This isn't about being a sharing snob. Some of these areas cannot handle the extra traffic, and severe damage is being done. I'm not an elitist or think I'm better than anyone. I care more about the well-being of a location than someone's task to grab the shot. It's a different day in age. We can no longer keep our cars or houses unlocked because of increasing crime. The same concept applies to these wild areas. I'm not saying to never share, as I still share some things with other close, like-minded friends and photographers. Be aware of who you share with, and think of the potential consequences. Always be respectful if others are unwilling to share a location. Remember, photography is an adventure, and sometimes the best part is stumbling upon something you have discovered yourself!
5. Know and follow the rules and regulations.
Know the rules and regulations for areas you'll be photographing. Following along with the rules and regulations in an area is always an excellent way to make sure nature's well-being is put first. The laws are not only there to protect fauna and flora, but they also protect us and keep us safe as photographers. Boardwalks and trails are there for a reason. Stay on them. For example, I've seen photographers in Yellowstone National Park go off the boardwalk to take photos. The park didn't design the boardwalks to restrict your photography or fun. They built them to keep you from scalding yourself and damaging the delicate thermophiles that make that treacherous ground beautiful. Respect closed areas and barricades at all times. Sometimes these closures are for the benefit of the wildlife and to help regions repair themselves from erosion or other environmental stresses. The more these rules and regulations are not followed, the more regulations and restrictions against photographers that will be put into place. Knowing and respecting the regulations in areas while photographing is a great way to be a good steward to these wild places.
6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
Leave No Trace principles are insurance that the areas that we visit and enjoy can be explored and photographed for the future generations of photographers to come. Simple acts such as packing out your trash, following proper wilderness bathroom etiquette when nature calls, reporting vandalism when you find it, and minimizing footprints can ensure that others will have the same impact-free experience. I always bring a garbage bag out with myself, and my workshop groups. When we find trash, we pick it up. We have a duty to keep these lands pristine. When visiting areas that have trash already, take the time to pick it up and carry it out. A little step like that goes a long way to protect these areas. While you're not responsible for the messes that others leave behind, you should take responsibility and help clean up the mess.
7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.
This movement isn't about shaming others, policing certain areas or calling each other out. It's about educating and leading by example. We as photographers can influence others with our photos and art. Setting the example of how to be a good steward of the land will speak volumes to the future generations. Educating goes a long way. If you see someone not following the rules, point it out to them in a positive and polite manner. Sometimes, they have no idea and appreciate the head's up. Taking the time to think and educate others about these principles while photographing in places from Antarctica to the National Parks will ensure that these places are around for future nature photographers.
Change doesn't happen overnight, but little by little, we as photographers can make a difference. The solution starts with us. The more we follow these principles, not only will we be better photographers, but the environments we photograph will continue to flourish. As photography and the outdoors lifestyle rise in popularity, we find that everyone, including ourselves, is having an impact on the natural world that we photograph and find inspiration in. These new challenges have given us the chance to become not only visual storytellers to the rest of the world but also to become stewards and ambassadors to the wild places we love. So, on this Earth Day, let us come together as photographers in following and educating others on these principles. In the end, remember that we are the visitors to these lands and by putting the welfare of nature before the photo, will help ensure that these places continue to grow and flourish and remain the wild places that once called us to be photographers.
Please visit https://www.naturefirstphotography.org/ to learn more and to see how you can become part of the alliance to help protect the natural world and help to inspire other photographers to do the same.