We’ve all been there… a beautiful place, a path — but what if I just jumped over this rope, just for a few seconds, to snap a quick shot from there, from a slightly different angle? Can’t be that bad, right? The fine folks at #NatureFirst disagree. But as more people get outside, they have been seeing that exact behavior happen a lot more in recent years - and from a variety of people, especially including photographers.
So they started to do something about it. Most of us have heard of Leave No Trace principles. The Nature First Alliance came up with something similar, yet something more: A set of guidelines about how to act responsibly when we are out in nature, taking photos — whether that is on a $5000 professional camera or on a smartphone.
But they went one step further, and asked themselves the tough question: What is the impact on nature when we put our photos on social media — and tell the whole world where we took that image, potentially sending a stampede of new visitors to that exact spot?
How did you guys decide, “We have to do something”?
I am good friends with Erik Stensland, who is a full-time professional photographer and focuses on the Rocky Mountain National Park area. He and I usually do backpack trips in the summer in the high country.
He hikes just about every day to get to the various locations. He started seeing lots and lots of changes. He talks about a personal experience in an introductory blog post, where he discovered a field of wildflowers, went back — and it had been overvisited and trampled down.
We started talking to some of our other photographer friends in Colorado and decided to start pushing it a little bit more. Early on we realized it was going to be very similar to Leave No Trace and their principles, but we thought we needed something more for photographers, and also something more updated because of the internet and social media.
We were worried that photographers were getting a bad name, a bad rap, that other people saw photographers visiting these places and not following the rules, or trampling upon sensitive areas just to get the photograph.
Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
Use discretion if sharing locations.
Know and follow rules and regulations.
Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
Actively promote and educate others about these principles
So is it more about the fear of photographers getting a bad name, or is it about a sense of too many people going to these places? As photographers, we like to think of ourselves as inspiring people to go out and enjoy nature. How can we live up to our mission when we post an image of a beautiful place but then say, “Guess what, I am not going to tell you where this spot is”?
That is the line we are going to walk. It is awesome that more and more people are out in nature. But more and more people are out in nature who don’t necessarily have the knowledge or the reflection of the impact they are making. We want to spread the word about how to go to those places and minimize your impact and act responsibly.
That is why we really went toward principles instead of rules, and we want to be a movement, not a policing agency. Really all we want is to have some of these principles in people’s minds while they are there. Most people don’t want to destroy these places. The impact you are making is unintentional, for the most part.
So… no more location markers?
That is up to each person to decide. I can tell you what I personally have been doing. I am a map geek. I love maps, and I love GPS. I record everywhere I go. I used to have those GPS locations on my website so you could see where exactly the image was taken.
I have changed my habits, and I have removed all of that from my website. Personally, I give general locations, like National Park level info, maybe the National Forest that it is in. I just watched a YouTube video by a guy named Ben Horne, he started tagging all his photos with “Planet Earth.”
I have seen others use those tags as well. Isn’t that where the negative backlash for photographers could come, though? You are teasing people by withholding that information…
I’ve had a statement on my website for quite a while now that I don’t tell them exact locations, unless I know them, unless I have confidence in their Leave No Trace principles. That’s not because I want to keep that place a secret — you can’t keep these places a secret. If somebody really want to know bad enough where a location is, they can go find it. I would hope that if you are willing to invest that amount of time to go research the location and find it, that they feel that that location is something special — and when they get there, maybe they will treat it as something special.
Finding the right way to preserve these places we love is something we have all been struggling with, not just as photographers. Can you talk a little bit more about the concerns people raised as you developed your set of principles?
Primarily, it is people not wanting to be told what to do, or having another set of rules that they have to follow. There is also quite a concern, and we took this really seriously, about people making a living photographing these places, or taking workshops to these places. Whether or not they are going to be looked at poorly because they are taking a group of people there, which is obviously having a bigger impact. A number of our founders run workshops. I actually see it as an opportunity for those workshop leaders to teach the people who attend their workshops.
What was some of the initial response once you guys actually launched this initiative last week?
It was a little bit overwhelming. We had over 450 photographers sign up on the first day. Now we are at almost 800 photographers, and that is just in the first week. And there are a lot of big name famous photographers who have signed onto this. When you sign up, there is a spot for comments, and some of the comments have just been wonderful. I honestly expected some negative comments coming in. I haven’t seen it. I am sure there is people who will disagree with us, and that is to be expected.
You are targeting photographers. What can folks take away from this who are not so serious about photography but like to go out, hike and put a snap of the view on their social media?
That inherently makes them a photographer. Even if you are just stepping out in the rest area in the parking lot at the overlook, everybody can take something away from this. We are working on partnerships with Leave No Trace, and we have some other partnerships in the works, that will hopefully get our principles to that broader audience.
The part that I continue to think about with this is how as photographers, many of us have the mission to inspire people to spend time outside. Now you guys are going the next steps, saying, ‘We want to inspire people to go outside — but in a responsible manner.’ Do you see a shift in how photographers need to approach their role in the bigger piece of trying to preserve wild places?
No, I don’t. Historically, photographers are largely responsible for a lot of the conversations in the conservation movement. I would like photographers to get that role back. There are certainly photographers out there today who will be very famous someday for their role in conservation in the 80s and 90s and 2000s.
But some of that has slipped away just due to the sheer masses. And I think there are a lot of photographers out there not for those reasons but for other reasons. I am not expecting or asking them to change the reason they are doing their photography for, I am asking them to be more responsible while they are out there.
The conservation piece is obviously part of a much larger conversation, and one that delves into the political context of keeping public lands in public hands…
We discussed a lot how quote unquote activist we want to be. There are certainly members of our founding group who felt more toward that. We ran the spectrum. But in the end we decided to provide this more educational-type work.
…which keeps a potentially larger audience listening rather than putting them off with what could be perceived as a political statement…
Everything today seems so politicized. And we didn’t want this to become a political movement at all. It shouldn’t matter what your political leanings are. We would hope that everybody can look at those principles and say, ‘Yeah, that just makes common sense.’
Leave No Trace has been around for decades, and we see ourselves as very similar to that. To me, Leave No Trace makes total sense, but that is also the way I grew up and the way I was taught.
And yet, at one point or the other, we have all felt the urge to just jump over that rope and take those three quick steps to get a slightly different angle…
One person does it, the next person sees it, and before you know it, you have three or four photographers on the other side of the rope. It is a slippery slope.
Ben Horne goes to Zion a lot to photograph. He talks about how he was off in this canyon, hardly any signs of anybody around. He was trying to get the shot of this tree, and he said he scrambled up this loose slope, and he said he noticed he had kind of made a path. He shoots large format, so he had to make several trips back and forth. The year that he was there was really dry, so there weren’t many plants. When he came back the next year, it was wetter. He came back to the same spot. He said he could see where he walked, where he had disturbed that soil, there were no plants growing there — even though you couldn’t see footprints. That was his personal revelation about the impact that just one person can make.
What are the next steps now?
I don’t want to be a pain in the rear. I don’t want to spam people. I want to be a resource. We also want to keep it positive. There are a few Instagram accounts that publicly shame people. We don’t want to do that. We want to continue to spread the knowledge. We’d like for people to talk about it. It’s just about education.
Colorado has changed so much since I was a kid. Now that I have children, I am taking them to the places that I visited when I was a kid. And I can see how different it is. Now there is a paved parking lot and a railing and an overlook when it used to be just a little pullout on the side of the road. I want there to be places that my kids can go and have that same experience that I had, an experience of wonder and discovery and exploration. And I think all future generations deserve that.
…after all, that is what draws so many people to the state, right — the ability to have these experiences. And it leads to conversations around managing these wild places…
Some people grouse about how things have changed. If I have to pay $6 or $15 when I pull into a parking lot to use the place for the day so that there can be a latrine there because so many people are visiting, I don’t even bat an eye about that. Because if not, the trash is going to overflow. People are still going to go there. Some places are going to have to be managed, and then there will be new places that are less discovered and less visited.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.