Photographers, We Need to Put Nature First

What is the most important thing for a photographer? The simple and easy answer is the camera, or something closely related to it (like tripods or lights). And for many photographers that might be true… but not for a nature or landscape photographer. What we prize most, what we need most is uncompromising vistas of land, views unobstructed by the hand of man.

We can always buy a new camera or get a tripod fixed, but we cannot reverse the damage of a graffiti artist on rocks or even a careless hiker on cryptobiotic crusts in Arches National Park or elsewhere. We destroy these now — consciously or accidentally — and they just simply won’t be there for the next person.

I think the awareness of this problem has really come to a head with the recent “superbloom” in the California deserts, and the stampede of photographers across the fragile landscape for a selfie or “that perfect shot.” In the process, it is repeatedly documented that some of these people go off path, or trample the fragile environment they are ostensibly there to document and promote.

And now, there are even Instagram profiles of people to call abuses out.

We’re also seeing more of another kind of nature abuse: the ignorance of how to behave around wild animals. I seem to see this a lot at Yellowstone National Park, but I am sure it happens everywhere.

From as simple a thing as “Do NOT Feed The Animals” to the much more obvious restrictions on approaching or even tourists taunting wild animals, there are reasons for these rules. When in doubt, keep your distance and at all costs avoid interactions- these are wild animals, not cute, cuddly playthings.

The knee-jerk reaction is to blame all this bad behavior on Instagram because that seems to either be the cause or the inspiration for these types of abuses… or where the images of these abuses end up being seen. I do not believe this is the case; in fact, I think Instagram is a great thing. It is popularizing the outdoors and bringing an appreciation for nature to even more people. The last thing I want is to create some hierarchy of who should be allowed into nature and who shouldn’t. The whole point of our National Parks is top share all this beauty with everyone, not just a sainted few.

What we need is education. We need to call out the abusers, we need the rangers to arrest and fine the offenders…. but we also need to show people what is and what is not acceptable. Someone who has lived in New York City their whole lives may not have any idea what harm hiking off trail in Arches can do. The desert does not show its secrets readily. Do we need to require a 30-minute “Respect Nature” class before allowing entry to a National Park? No, that would probably not work. But a “Respect Nature” brochure- specific to each park- to every entrant at the gate might help.

More than anything, we as users of the park must also step up and be its protectors. The rangers can’t be everywhere. If we want to protect our lands, we have to have skin in the game. I admire photographers like @phillmonson who do this on their own, with very little publicity, and with very little reward; Phil is who we should all strive to be.

And how do you start? First, just awareness. That is why I am writing this. I have seen enough trash, enough bad behavior, and enough abuse. I have hiked out of the Subway — a Zion Wilderness permit area — with other peoples used toilet paper, candy wrappers, and bottles in my pockets. You’d think a place like the Subway would be pristine, but any more, it’s not.

It is time to speak up and to encourage others to speak up. Join an organization (like I have) that promotes awareness, like Nature First. Most of all, use your head. It’s not too difficult to be responsible. Don’t scratch your name on rocks. Don’t feed the bears. Give wildlife room (it’s their home, not yours!).

Nature First has seven principles you must agree to when you join. They are easy, straightforward and make sense. And they are not hard to do! Let’s all agree to follow these rules:

  1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
  2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
  3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
  4. Use discretion if sharing locations.
  5. Know and follow rules and regulations.
  6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
  7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

Please share as appropriate, and let’s all take back out outdoors!

About the author: Dave Koch is an event, portrait, and fine art photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Koch’s work on his website, Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. This article was also published here.