Do photographers have a social responsibility to protect environmentally sensitive locations?

January 18, 2018 -

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Landscape and travel photographers, I am sure we have all done this before – we find the most incredible, scenic location, photograph it, share it onto our social media profiles, add as many hashtags or account mentions as we can in our captions hoping to get it re-shared by larger accounts therefore amplifying the images and our own personal reach. We then bask in the glory of people praising us for going on amazing adventures to beautiful places. As comments and messages pour in on our own profiles we share the locations and directions with others. When tourism boards and other organisations with large followings share our images we then watch as people commenting on those accounts tagging their friends into the post, promising “next weekend” or “on their holiday” they will go there too. Not long after there’s enough traffic and people visiting these places that there’s probably enough potential business for mobile food trucks and coffee vans to sit at the beginning of the remote tracks and make a good profit.

 

Does this sound familiar? I know it does to me. I have been one of the people guilty of helping to cause this type of action, just as many, many others in our photography and social community have been too. Lately I have been wondering whether what we are doing is the right thing. What are the consequences of the way images, locations and things we are saying about them doing to the health of the environment in many of these places? Are we slowly but surely causing some of the most beautiful, previously out of the reach, unknown and hard to find locations to die a slow (or in some cases, a very, very quick) death?

 

I know as a photographer it is becoming more and more difficult to capture anything that is truly unique in many places throughout the world. And I don’t mean unique as in just special, extraordinary conditions – I mean unique as in capturing locations that do not already have social media saturation. As soon as a new location is shared on social media, and it has any scenic significance I can almost guarantee that it will not be “new” for very long. I am well aware that in most places throughout the world it would be very difficult to claim you are the “first” to photograph it. But with social media now being so widely used and only continuing to grow, and a lot of people having followings and reach that many “old school” media organisations could only ever dream of, the impact of sharing images from remote (and often times not even remote), beautiful, scenic areas of the world are having consequences that people are just simply not considering.

 

Let me give just three examples of this within my local state of Tasmania.

 

Lower Chasm Falls Tasmania - I genuinely regret the way I handled sharing this location when I first published images from here. In my rush for "engagement" I neglected to think about what my reach could possibly do to this amazing place.

Lower Chasm Falls Tasmania – I genuinely regret the way I handled sharing this location when I first published images from here. In my rush for “engagement” I neglected to think about what my reach could possibly do to this amazing place.

 

1. Chasm Falls – I am not the first person to photograph this location. I actually found out about it by doing research via state government maps documenting trails and streams that just about anyone can get access to if they know where to look. I am though quite certain that I am the first to have shared images from this location onto a large social media profile. And a very good friend of mine who was with me when we made the trek into this spot was the second. At the time (June 2016), all up combined we had a social media reach on our personal profiles of just on 75,000 total followers (as of June 2016). My mate and I also control another account which we operate together which at the time had 150,000 followers (as of June 2016). Within a few days of visiting this location we both shared our images onto our own personal profiles, and also onto the larger account we control together. Our local state tourism board (250,000 followers at the time) shared an image of ours from there, and I personally joked with one of the team there that thanks to the fact the top 5 posts on the specific tourism hashtag for the next week were of this location (mine, my mate’s, the one of ours that they shared, the one we shared onto the 150k+ following account, and another that we shared onto an account we also operate that had 30k followers at the time), that Tasmania Parks & Wildlife might as well open a cafe and visitor centre at the beginning of the track. I was only half joking.

 

The very next weekend there was an instant increase of traffic into this location. Images starting flooding in on Instagram and Facebook. The number of requests we had from both locals and visiting photographers for us to provide them with directions to the location was ridiculous. Even now, we are still fielding regular requests for the best time to visit and how to get there. Unfortunately though, the location is now starting to show quite a lot of deterioration. The beautiful, green moss that was previously untouched is now severely worn away and may never return to the condition it was thanks to the constant traffic in there. The path that was quite overgrown in some places is now extremely well worn. The paths to the upper tiers of the waterfall are now heavily trafficked, and in some places it is so easy to see where damage to the foliage and moss that had lay untouched for years is now quite severe. There is now rubbish littered throughout the area and specifically within the main cascade of Lower Chasm Falls itself. While I am extremely happy I have some amazing images from there, I am also quite upset at myself for not thinking about the consequences when I did rush to share this amazing place with such a big audience. I have no right to tell people not to visit these places. But sadly the “trophy hunting” that I myself have been guilty of as a photographer has caused such a beautiful place to deteriorate substantially.

 

2. Secret Falls – every local photographer knows that “Secret Falls” is no secret. Technically I would call it Lower Myrtle Gully Falls. It is one of the most accessible waterfalls in the Hobart region with it only being a combined 20 minute drive and walk from the CBD. The combination of that accessibility, the allure of the “secret” location, and the social media reach has caused this spot to explode in popularity. Unfortunately the two paths (that actually didn’t exist before the social media explosion) into the waterfall have both become very well worn due to the foot traffic. Branches of the large ferns at the first “path” onto the waterfall have been torn out. The second “path” is now basically a mudslide, with the plant life now all but killed off due to being used as leverage and pulled on to get into and out of the steep drop into the waterfall. Some of the elevated platforms looking into the waterfall were previously covered by this beautiful vibrant moss and are now completely bare.

 

There are clear signs of slippage in the banks within the waterfall from people climbing around the mossy areas to try to get “unique” compositions. I have personally cleaned out cans, bottles, food wrappers and other rubbish from within the little waterfall cavern itself. I would estimate that in 90% of my many visits (I live not even 10 minutes from here so I regularly walk the tracks throughout this area) to this spot in the last 2 years I have met other photographers in there who have traveled from interstate or overseas. Sadly though with the popularity of this place, there has been no investment in facilities by our council or parks organisations to prevent any further damage to the surrounding area. Secret Falls is dying a slow death thanks to what we as photographers have done to promote this location.

 

Secret Falls Tasmania - I laugh every time a visitor or tourist asks me about "Secret Falls". I have no doubt just that unofficial name alone has caused people to deliberately seek it out.

Secret Falls Tasmania – I laugh every time a visitor or tourist asks me about “Secret Falls”. I have no doubt just that unofficial name alone has caused people to deliberately seek it out.

 

3. South West National Park and areas like Lake Oberon – some of the most iconic and recognisable images that have been shot in Tasmania are by photographers like Peter Dombrovskis. And one in particular is of Lake Oberon (click here to view). Until quite recently you would have been hard pressed to find images across any large social media accounts of this location. Sadly though now you can find images of this place everywhere. Thanks to social media, this location is now an extremely sought after destination by many visitors. But here is the thing – the remoteness of this place makes it quite a treacherous and dangerous trip for those with little to no experience in hiking. To be safe you would want to plan a bare “minimum” of three days to get in and out if you are fit and know what you are doing on these overnight hikes. And that is not taking into account any photography time or exploring of side tracks. The single location that I now get asked the most questions about by anyone looking for tips on where to go in Tasmania is Lake Oberon. This is no word of a lie – I regularly have people asking me to go on “day trips” with them to this location. I recently had one photographer tell me he was going to start walking in at lunch time expecting to be back not long after sunset. Thanks in part to the widespread promotion of this location across personal, government and community social media profiles people genuinely believe this is on our “tourist trail”.

 

The promotion of this location across our official tourism accounts makes people believe this is an easily accessible location. The constant promotion of this region is causing an increase in visitation in an environmentally sensitive and remote region that has no tourism facilities whatsoever. At this current point in time there is no planned investment from our parks and wildlife or tourism organisations into safe shelters or larger designated camping areas. I know this is quite morbid and sad to say but my timer is currently running for how long it takes until we see at least one death in this area of an unprepared visiting tourist who believes it is an easy trip to take. It’s being shared on our “tourism” accounts and by other “tourism influencers”, so it must be an easy trip, right? Wrong. You are risking your life going here if you are not extremely well prepared for it. Not only are you risking your life, but thanks to the increased exposure this place is going to deteriorate extremely quickly. The reason Lake Oberon and other parts of the South West National Park are so special is because they were untouched. They are out of the reach of the average person. They are remote enough that you cannot get there without a lot of effort. Unfortunately though social media has made the world seem like a much smaller place, and this region is no longer “untouched”.

 

The Social Media Factor

 

Social media is now the single biggest factor in influencing people’s travel decisions. Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat and other platforms make sharing our experiences and adventures so easy. Local, state and federal tourism boards the world over are increasing their investments into social media channels quite simply because they are so effective. The “cheap” marketing channels that have been built from user generated content are one of the most cost effective means of promoting regional assets, which leads to an increase in tourism numbers, which then leads to an increase in expenditure by those tourist, which flows through to tax dollars. These organisations want us as photographers to be out there producing content because that’s who it comes from. Our own social media profiles are in most cases free exposure for all of these incredible places in the regions we visit. Our willingness to post images and share stories is influencing our followers to literally follow in our footsteps, which has a huge flow on effect financially into the local regions we are “promoting”.

 

Out of respect for this location I will not be naming it. Recently I visited this spot and spoke with a local photographer who i have a lot of respect for about the location. My visit influenced him to also visit it. Since then he has shared the location with what I personally feel was a great message and this led to a backlash against him. I again feel somewhat personally responsible for sharing this location with anyone.

Out of respect for this location I will not be naming it. Recently I visited this spot and spoke with a local photographer who I have a lot of respect for about the location. My visit influenced him to also visit this location. Since then, he has shared the location in a local Facebook group with what I personally feel was a great message about environmental protection, and this led to a backlash against him from some who believe he should not have shared the name of the location. I again feel somewhat personally responsible for sharing this location with anyone as I am sure it will not look this lush in the months and years to come..

 

But what are we doing to the world around us in the process? What are the consequences of this endless stream of imagery photographers are producing that is encouraging people to copy our adventures? Should we be taking responsibility for what we are doing to so many beautiful places? Since the launch of Facebook and in particular Instagram, there has been a huge increase in speed of so many places deteriorating at an accelerated pace. Destinations like Iceland, Greenland, Canada and New Zealand can barely keep up with the increased demand of tourist numbers. This increase in tourism numbers also requires investments into sustainable facilities in the most popular locations, and that in itself is ruining many places. Locations where there were previously no pathways, accommodation facilities, cafes, roads or any other permanent facilities now require it for safety reasons, and just simply to provide access to those seeking to experience these places. We are causing our natural landscape to deteriorate. We are in effect helping to damage the landscapes we so desire for our beautiful imagery just purely through the act of sharing our photos far and wide.

 

As I have already said above I have been part of this problem. I no longer share a lot of the images, or give up the locations of some that I do capture from places that I feel are even slightly “remote” or dangerous to access for my general audience. I have slowly grown aware of the consequences of sharing my images, ideas and articles like this with the very large following I have across my many different channels. There is a fine balance between wanting the whole world to know how “awesome” the adventures I have and places I visit are, and knowing how quickly the reach I have influences other people’s decisions. I do not have any right whatsoever to tell other people what to do. But each and everyone one of us does have the ability to consider the consequences of what sharing our beautiful imagery is doing to a world that is changing so quickly due to the increased availability and reach of our content.

 

The locations and amazing places we seek out as photographers are our assets. They are what gives us so much enjoyment through the adventures we take to capture them. I feel we do have a responsibility as photographers to protect our environmentally sensitive locations so future generations can experience them the way we have, before they become destroyed.

 

 

 

 

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