(NOTE: This post originally included only the first section based on the story that begins the article. The longer second part was added later to address some important related issues.)
In the summer of 2010 I had the good fortune to join a several other photographers (Charlie Cramer, Mike Osborne, and Karl Kroeber) for a few days of shooting in the Tuolumne/Tioga Pass area of Yosemite National Park. Getting to spend time with photographers who have so much experience and knowledge of Yosemite was inspiring, and I was grateful for the chance to join them.
While sitting around during the “boring light” hours one afternoon – waiting for early dinner before travel to an evening location for the good light – Mike mentioned that they were going to a place that was best not publicized, and he joked that he “might have to blindfold” me if I were to accompany them. Mike was a Yosemite ranger for decades before he retired, and it is clear that he loves and cares for the place deeply. He mentioned posts on this blog in which I had named photo locations and given, in his opinion, a bit too much information about where they are located. This concerns him because he has seen first hand the damage caused by publicity of certain special locations. He also feels that it is often better to gain information about these places the old fashioned way – by word of mouth from an acquaintance or by sleuthing it out yourself. In addition, he also points out – correctly, I think – that many of the photographs I post are not so much about the specific location as they are about some thing I saw there that is not location-specific, and that it might make sense to title photographs in a more generalized way with that in mind.
Mike’s comments caused me to think quite a bit about this issue. First, a few words of self-defense, but then some changes that I decided to make here at the blog and in other places where I share my photographs.
As we sat around the motel room talking about this, my first thought was, more or less, “How can my little photography blog have any serious effect!?” Meanwhile, Charlie was on his laptop looking up web rankings for various photography web sites and blogs. No site like this one is going to get hundreds of thousands of hits*, but it surprised me quite a bit when he pointed out that I get more traffic than some fairly well-known photographers. So perhaps it was possible that what I post could have a larger effect than I had imagined. This was a new realization.
*Actually, and somewhat to my surprise, now it has!
Another response was that these places are not “just photographs” for me – in my mind they are almost always connected to stories — and I like to tell stories! While another person might look at the photographs purely as images of subjects and places, for me they are also associated very specifically with the situations and conditions in which the photographs were made, who was there with me, and more. When I look at the black and white photograph of trees along the shoreline of a lake that I posted recently, I recall the choice to be there at this time on this morning, the recognition that the sound in the cold early morning air suggested autumn, running into a ranger who thought that I had illegally camped overnight at this spot, and the process of slowly considering how to compose a photograph of this scene. And I want to tell those stories.
But Mike is right. Or at least partially right. OK, he’s mostly right.
Several times during the weeks before I wrote this, people contacted me to ask about photographing a location shown in one of my photographs. Several weeks ago one person asked about a particular photograph and seemed to want some pretty specific details about the location – and the follow-up messages sounded to me like a request for information about “where to put the tripod” in order to re-create my photograph. (I don’t have a problem with people using the photographs of others as a learning tool or for inspiration, but in the end the goal is to photograph the subject in your own personal way. And even with your tripod in the same spot, you and I should and will produce different photographs.)
With all of this in mind, I started to think more carefully about how I’ll identify and describe my photographs. Careful readers may have already noticed a change when some photographs were given titles that reflect a more general identification (e.g. “Pond With Boulders and Trees” without the name or location of the pond) and when descriptions of how and where have become a bit more general. I can’t say that I will never offer specific location information. For some photographs the location still provides the most appropriate title for the photograph and revealing it creates little risk to the subject, but I’m going to try to refrain from needlessly letting my inclination to “tell stories” about the photographs lead me to offer inappropriate details, especially when the area is fragile and/or already too accessible.
Thanks for your understanding. And thanks, Mike, for encouraging me to think about this.
Addendum – February 2014
After recently viewing a photograph of wanton destruction of a special place in Death Valley, almost certainly by photographers, I would like to add some explanation of the nature of “the problem” and how it has changed in the last few years – and how these changes suggest that we have to think differently about what we write, about the things we describe, and where we share.
Barely more than a decade or two ago, it was common to share information about how to find locations we had photographed. Perhaps we had photographer friends that we knew and trusted – if we heard they were traveling near such a place we might say to them personally, “Hey, check out this spot.” Or perhaps we might meet with a group of fellow photographers and mention such things to them. Such information was occasionally shared in printed newsletters. Some books even spoke of such places, though they often tended to be a bit circumspect. In general, such information did not travel far, and finding it on our own was not all that easy. We could find it, but it took a bit of research and persistence.
The internet has changed everything. In our personal lives we now must be careful to not reveal things about ourselves on social media that we might freely speak of in personal conversation – because we know that what we say lives well beyond our immediate utterance and can come back to haunt us or reveal facts about us that are better not out there in a world of information that is cataloged and searchable and bought and sold.
Knowing this, we can no longer ignore the fact that what we used to share with a few friends about special, endangered, and fragile places cannot be shared in this new networked world without consequences that are potentially far-reaching and ultimately out of our control. In the past, it was virtually impossible that telling one person how to get to Location X would end up revealing that place to thousands or millions of people. Today, it is almost a certainty. The information we share will be captured, archived, tagged, cataloged, and rendered searchable in the context of every other mention of that subject. And know that those who search for it and use it will not all share your/our concern for places of great beauty, fragility, and solitude. I have even run into those who use the information to intentionally harm these places.
The first story about this that I distinctly remember occurred some years ago when folks realized that they could quickly share “conditions reports” about spring wildflowers on bulletin boards. In the past, finding the flowers was a matter of getting to know the natural patterns of the land, learning a few special places, and perhaps reading and studying – and then going off and looking around. As the internet conditions reports flourished, all of a sudden hundreds or thousands of people would show up at a few spots proclaimed to be “best” or “perfect” on these bulletin boards, and eventually there were horror stories of the “nature lovers” showing up in such numbers and with such enthusiasm that they trampled plant life and created instant use trails, ruining the very thing that had been “best” and “perfect.” (Meanwhile, folks who had followed the spring flowers for years knew that the “best spot!” hyperbole was largely just that.)
Today when you/I share specific details about a location, the consequences of our sharing are tremendously amplified by the networked world we live in. I’ve been shocked more than once to discover that someone had found some bit of information in an obscure post of mine. In one case I had shared a photograph of a fragile geological feature and its location, only to have it linked to a photograph of some damned fool climbing on the thing in a way that might destroy it.
It is time to rethink what we write and where we write it, with the goal of reducing the specificity of information that can risk the very things that we all love so much. Sure, go ahead and identify Half Dome as “Half Dome” in your photographs – there is little or no danger at this point in being specific about a thing that is so well known. But if you travel to a seldom-visited location in the outback somewhere, or you know of a petroglyph site that is thus far not well known, or if you spend time at an isolated and beautiful high-country lake, or do similar things in similar places… consider exercising a great deal of caution about offering up details.
In the end, your photograph is not about proving that you went to a place. It is about making a thing of beauty that expresses something about your own experience with and orientation toward this world. If your photographs have power, it does not come from your special knowledge of a place but from the visual power of your image. Offer it as an image and let it speak for itself – you don’t have to tell us where it is.
Every time I share this idea, I expect to hear two sorts of objections, so rather than waiting to hear them, let me take them on directly.
- “The bad guys will still get to those places and you cannot save them by keeping them secret.” Yes, this is ultimately true. There is no perfect protection for any of these places or resources. But the fact that some bad things might still happen does not excuse us from doing what we can to reduce the opportunities for harm. As the old saying goes, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Inability to offer a perfect solution does not negate the value of acting in ways that do good.
- “You are just trying to keep your own special locations for yourself – you are a selfish elitist!” No, that is not at all what I want to do, and that most certainly does not drive my choice to say less about places. In fact, I also no longer press my friends and acquaintances to tell me about such places. If they trust me, they will. If their concern for these places is great enough they won’t, and I’m fine with that. Fortunately, the world is contains a sufficient number of beautiful places that I’ll find others!
So, please, out of your love and concern for these places, say no more about where they are or how to find them than absolutely necessary.
(This article has been edited since it was originally posted in the summer of 2010.)
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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