Dean M. Chriss

Sharing Photograph Location Information Online
Photographers are Destroying Their Favorite Places
September 6, 2019

Geese in the Garden, Garden of the Gods
Geese in the Garden, Garden of the Gods, Colorado

When I was a kid I thought photographers were the good guys. Ansel Adams was a larger than life figure whose photographs had helped create national parks. A large and amazing book called "This is the American Earth" with photographs by Adams and words by Nancy Newhall inspired the environmental movement of the 1960s. The writing is every bit as good as the photographs, and it remains one of the most moving works I have ever seen. In more recent times the work of photographers like Thomas D. Mangelsen and Robert Glenn Ketchum gave the wonders and the plight of nature greater visibility. Many lesser known photographers did the same kinds of things in their own unique ways. I'm one of those, or at least I hope so.

Before 1990 even the most popular photography locations were seldom crowded. I recall going to Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park for sunrise numerous times when I would be the only one present. Once in a while there would be one or two others. It's a small area even for three people, but everyone was careful and courteous, and got their pictures. Today there can be a mob of over fifty photographers and as many tourists at Mesa Arch for sunrise. The same and worse happened in countless places all around the world at about the same time. What the hell happened?!

This disturbing change began in the late 1990s, coinciding with the exploding popularity of the Internet and the advent of social media. Photographers were sharing their beautiful pictures along with the locations at which they were captured. That quickly inspires hordes of photographers and others from around the world visit the same locations, literally destroying many of them. The same photographers who had formerly been nature's champions had unwittingly become a destructive force. I use the word "unwittingly" because I don't think anyone was aware of why or how this was happening, though it was impossible to be unaware that something bad was occurring. At the time I thought it was a symptom of increasing population combined with greater mobility and disposable income. All of that certainly plays a role, but it's not the root cause is often the instant and focused popularity brought by online "advertising" of these places by photographers. We can no longer claim ignorance of that fact.

When pictures and their locations are shared online they can be seen almost simultaneously by millions. If some small fraction of those millions are inspired to visit the place that month, or during the season in which the picture was captured the following year, the place is mobbed. Those people in turn post their photos and locations online and the problem spirals out of control. Today I'd guess that the list of places photographers and their pictures have destroyed is longer than the list of places they have helped save. Posts in forums, social media, and websites persist for a very long time, keeping the crowds going to places that were formerly known only to those who spent the time to actively seek them out.

Making the situation worse, most online photography forums have categories like "Location Advice" and "Landscape Photography Locations". Some of the topics in these forums ask exactly where a certain feature or circumstance is found and how to get there. These photographers are either too lazy to expend a little effort researching places they plan to visit, or are incapable of reading and using a map. In other cases, when a photographer posts a great picture without disclosing the location, someone will always ask where it is. If the photographer does not answer or evades the question, other photographers will usually chime in and disclose the location! Can they actually be so clueless? This may come as a shock to some, but finding subjects to photograph is actually a part of taking pictures. The worst part is that in doing your own research you might actually learn something about the place you intend to photograph. Oh horror of horrors!! I admit to having "discovered" a few locations by not closing my eyes when browsing certain websites, but I wouldn't dream of asking or answering any of these questions in a public forum. In fact there are only a couple of close friends with whom I would ever exchange that sort of information. I can't imagine why anyone would want to shout this stuff out to the universe, thereby destroying places they supposedly love.

I have been to quite a few places and have found the vast majority of them completely on my own. Before affordable GPS units became available, that often required using paper maps, a compass, and days of exploration. More recently I somehow managed to find subjects on my own, in countries I had never before visited, without any online help, and without hiring guides. I'd love to say I have super-human powers, but the truth is that it's not very difficult. If I can do this anyone can, unless they are just too damned lazy. With the tools that exist today finding your own photo locations is only a little more difficult than having them spoon fed to you on online. The biggest difference is that a few million others will not "discover" the same places simultaneously.

We photographers and our photographs, are now responsible for the massive destruction of the places we claim to love. We are no longer the good guys, and many land managers and national park rangers and employees now view us as the villains. If you don't like that then do something about it! Keeping natural areas off the radar is the best way to protect them. I personally regret posting as many location names on this website as I have in the past. I am in the long process of scrubbing away many of the lesser known ones. At least my photographs were never geotagged. What a nightmare that would be.

Please visit Nature First, The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography, and follow the principals they outline to the best of your ability. You can be part of the solution instead of continuing to be part of the problem.