Petroglyphs Stolen: An Ethical Lesson For Photographers

I just read the stunning and deeply disturbing story of the theft (not “merely” the all-to-common defacing) of a number of petroglyphs from a California location. (See “Petroglyph Thefts Near Bishop Stun Federal Authorities, Paiutes”) Apparently a group of depraved individuals hauled rock-cutting equipment to the site and sawed out the rocks holding several examples of native rock art, defacing and destroying other examples in the process. Anyone who has visited the better known examples of rock art is aware that a certain pathetic sub-group of the human race finds itself unable to resist the temptation to add their own “art” or deface that which is already there, but this incident represents a new low.

Defaced Petroglyph Site
Defaced Petroglyph Site

Photographers, those who operate photography workshops, and those of us who write about photography need to take this as an opportunity to think very carefully about how much information we should share about fragile places and things and about where and how we do our sharing. A few years ago I wrote about an occasion on which some friends and fellow photographers called me out on this (“Disclosing Photo Locations: How Much Information is Too Much?”), causing me to re-think how and what I write about my photographs and the places where I make them.

Here is the problem, more or less. “Back in the day,” we might well share what we knew about certain places and subjects without much care at all. While we certainly would not blabber about fragile places in front of people who we thought might disrespect or even damage them, we had no qualms about sharing information with trusted friends. And, in fact, the dangers of that kind of sharing in the pre-web world were not really all that great. The word-of-mouth sharing reached very small number of people, and it was unlikely (though not quite impossible) that the information would eventually get to “the bad guys.” We could even argue that we were serving a greater good by sharing this knowledge with others who should know, and whose voices might contribute to the protection of these places and subjects.

However the web has changed everything. Anything that you or I post today becomes cataloged, is searchable, is readily shared and re-shared, becomes linked to other pieces of information about the same subjects… and can be seen by millions of people you don’t know, among them many whom you would not trust and some that you would never share this stuff with. That’s the new reality. Among the people who may see our work and read our descriptions online are thoughtless barbarians who stand on top of fragile arches, who climb on tufa towers, who inscribe their own “art” into ancient sites, who drive all over the landscape, who remove “sailing rocks” from their playa homes, who leave trash in the landscape, who create trails across wilderness landscapes, who harm wildlife, who party in sacred and quiet places, and more.

As photographers who share our work and write about it and even take other people to these places, we have a responsibility to our subjects to do everything we can to protect them, even if this means restricting what we say, what we share, and where we share it.

Using photographs of rock art as an example, I think that responsible photographers should adopt the following policies:

  • When posting a photograph, if location information is not important to understanding the photograph, don’t share such information at all.
  • When some location context is actually important – and sometimes it is – anonymize it as much as possible. Perhaps the name of the 200-mile-square geographical region is sufficient. Perhaps the word “canyon” can be used without naming the canyon.
  • When making photographs of such things, avoid the inclusion of surrounding or background elements that will help the cretins figure out the location. I know this is hard, given the photographic potential that you’ll need to forego – but a your discretion serves a greater good, and you can figure out an effective alternative way to shoot these subjects. (For my part, I enjoy the challenge of trying to work out an effective composition that doesn’t give things away.)
  • If you realize that you have been too open about information, edit your text, remove unnecessary or risky references, or withdraw certain photographs. (There used to be an extensive guide to photographing in Death Valley on this web site – it was removed for such reasons.)
  • When writing about photographs of such subjects, always include some reference to their fragility, their significance, the power of experiencing them, and the responsibility of protecting them.
  • Recognize that everything you share, no matter the online forum in which you share it, will eventually reach a much wider audience – and think about how much you want the lowest-common-denominator types in that audience to know.
  • Exercise caution even when you share directly with those you know. Share only with those who you trust to share your love for and concern about these places, and only with those who will refrain from sharing more widely. Perhaps sharing with “online friends” is a bit to liberal – maybe you want to restrict this to people you really know and work with. Even with direct, personal sharing… be conservative.
  • As tremendously tempting as it is – for financial as well as self-aggrandizement reasons – don’t take your workshops to these places. I’m afraid it isn’t enough to think you have told your students how fragile these places are. Once they leave they will share their photos, they will talk about your workshop, they will give directions, they will brag about the cool thing you showed them… and they’ll do it in that linked, searchable, uncontrollable world of the web.
  • Speak about these issues more openly – with other photographers, online, in your workshops, and so forth.

Our work to photograph these subjects and the photographs that result from this work should be evidence of our recognition of the importance of these places and of protecting them – and not something that will contribute to endangering them.

Update: A few months later the petroglyphs were recovered. Final outcome in the case is not known as of this writing.

27 thoughts on “Petroglyphs Stolen: An Ethical Lesson For Photographers”

  1. Courtney,

    I think one vast difference between the ancient rock art and scrawling Joe and Mary 2006, or DH Harper 1886 is that these petroglyphs and paintings were often done as part of sacred ceremonies, and vision quests. They are the outward expression of some the deepest spiritual aspects of native peoples.

    In our local hiking group there was heated discussion about some youth who climbed a sheer rock face in the local foothills and spray painted an enormous peace symbol there. Some said it was no different than ancient rock art, others such as myself, considered it vandalism of no small order.

    Chloe M.

  2. Context. How about widening out the context a bit?

    Many petroglyphs have deep history. That is, different people coming upon previous markings on the rock and adding their mark.

    We readily proclaim that “Dave & Susan 2006” is vandalism. My gut agrees with that. But what about something like “DH Harper 1886” or some other “historic” graffiti? I’ve seen situations in which something like that is considered, by “authorities” of that site, to be a valuable historical record, somehow rendered not vandalism by virtue of what? Distance in only time from the present?

    I’ve talked to First Nations people who think that ANY (relatively) recently historic markings qualify as vandalism, and don’t qualify as anything else.

    I’ve talked to other persons who ask the questions: “Where do we draw the line between historic, ancient and recent vandalism?” “Aren’t any defacements of the rock simply defacements of rock that we collectively have found intriguing (or disturbing, depending on the point of view) at this moment in time?”

    How much do we know about what ancient peoples thought about existing (pre-existing to them) petroglyphs and what compelled them to add their own imprimatur and put on something new? Were there others who came upon the new stuff and found it offensive in comparison to the older petroglyphs, much as we now see “Dave & Susan 2006” as defacement?

    I’m certainly not saying that I think “Dave & Susan 2006” should continue to be a valid way of recording transitory human states of being on rock. But Dave &/or Susan obviously did.

    And cutting the rock and removing to another site? Agreed. Wrong. But the people who did it, they must have rationalized it somehow. Perhaps in their own twisted way they were “honoring” and “valuing” these “underutilized” petroglyphs by putting such effort into displacing them.

    What does the current status of the Elgin Marbles say about our collective moral stance on this issue? How is what the Duke of Elgin did to the Parthenon really any different, ultimately, than this defacement and theft of petroglyphs? Elgin had his rationalizations.

    For me, I don’t have enough answers, just questions that pose new questions.

    1. There is much to say in reply to your message. But for now, might you agree that it at least makes more sense to do no harm while – in your view – the jury is still out?

      1. Agreed, with one caveat. If we underfund the parts of our government that are tasked to protect these sites, just passively waiting for the jury to act – so to speak, we may well cause, by our inaction, more damage to happen to these ancient sites that we treasure.

        1. Well, yes, of course. I’d be the last person to argue with you about funding for these agencies.

          However, there is no amount of funding (or of government) alone that can protect such places… which was largely the point of my post.

  3. When you walk in the Bishop BLM Visitor Center they had maps and directions to these petroglyphs. There was a developed parking area at the site. Most of the time when these crimes are solved it turns out to be a local that is already familiar with the area.

    1. Joe, all true, no doubt this is apparently not the case – see later post from someone who knows this area very well. But My point still remain(s) true.

      The difference between blasting the info out all over the web in posts that brag of seeing, photographing these places and encouraging others to do the same versus knowing enough to walk into the (seldom-visited) BLM office and know to ask about such a thing is tremendous. One of my primary points was that the sharing of information about such places on the Internet has a far more pervasive and overwhelming effect on them than the sort of sharing that has gone on for years with little (but not quite no) risk to these sites.

      Take care,


    2. Joe you are absolutely mistaken. The site that was vandalized is not included in the BLM Petroglyph Loop Tour. The BLM does not publish or handout locational information for this site. The BLM does handout locational information for 3 of the 90 identified rock art sites located within the Bishop area. This map is given to tourists willing to visit the Interagency Visitors Center, identify themselves, and provide contact information. This interface allows the ranger the opportunity to educate the visitor on site etiquette and the value of these finite resources. Since this policy was initiated over a decade ago there have been no major incidents of theft or vandalism at any of these “public” sites. These sites are managed as “public” sites since they are all easily acessible by car, have been fully documented, are regularly monitored, and have been determined to hold greater value for public education than for ceremony or science. What you call a “developed” parking area is unaltered dirt with a barricade of stone and wood that was built by the local tribe. The site that was vandalized is easily located using directions and maps found on the web. Enough said.

  4. We have long used a Leave-no-Trace philosophy, and I am adamant about our participants respecting and avoiding Biological Soil (called many different things, depending upon the year). I also ask our participants to not share where they made some of their photographs.

    As for me, I use Jeffrey Friedl’s Metadata Wrangler and remove all location information. It’s there in my metadata if I want it, but it does not appear to the public in either location, caption, GPS, or keywords.

    I think it is important for all of us educators to make sure our students appreciate (in every sense of the word) the locations we show them.

    1. Those all sound like ethical stands, Margo. The only thing I might add is that I hope that there are perhaps a few places where you would not take even your workshop participants. These are the places that you might tell no one about, or that you might only share with trusted personal friends who have already proven their trustworthiness and sensitivity, in ways that workshop participants cannot do. (The tricky thing is that while we can tell folks to not talk… they will. ;-)

      I’m a bit less thorough than you about the metadata issue. In some cases a very diligent searcher might find out a bit more concerning some of my photographs by looking through metadata or even deciphering my image naming scheme. However, with some images – such as relatively unknown petroglyphs – I will leave certain terms out of the metadata, and only more general stuff in there.

      I applaud your recognition of the fact that when we introduce people to these things we must do more than just take them there. “Introducing” them to such subjects is incomplete until the introduction includes some very important context.


      (Who still thinks that, in general, workshops should stay away from all but the most accessible and well-known sites, and who wonders whether capitalizing on private knowledge of sensitive places might not be the best idea… when other more accessible places could provide an appropriate introduction to these subjects with a bit less risk. I will admit that these are tough ethical questions.)

  5. I am not american, but have travelled the southwest as a tourist. At times I was shocked to personally see some of the petroglyphs defaced and personal messages engraved in the middle of ancient paintings. I was shocked and appalled that people would do this. Though this is a new quality. It has to be severely persecuted.

    Now what I think is, that hiding information is not always the best solution. I am a friend of the idea of educating people of the cultural value and the uniqueness of those pieces of art by showing places and presenting them.
    Of course it is not always a good idea to post the information all over the internet. Still sharing knowledge and sharing fascination and educating seems a good idea to me.

    Being a tourist to your country I only got to see a few of those pieces (like the Newspaper Rock or the Cottonwood Panel) and was absolutely amazed. To me those are among the most beautiful things in the southwest, which says a lot considering the natural beauty of the landscape. Real cultural treasures.

    Here in Germany we have a similar problem. I am engaged in the german native orchid society and we have learned that hiding data has more negative aspects than positive aspects. People have to learn to appreciate the plants. Some will go so far and trample plants to get a good photo, some will even try to steal them. Still I think people can only really appreciate, what they experienced. Of course there will be places we don’t tell anyone. And of course we don’t give out data over the internet. Still we try to educate people and offer excursions and presentations.

    Not sure I made my point. Still thought I’d share my feelings.


    1. Martin:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this – and thank you for visiting the US and enjoying the Southwest!

      Most Americans who encounter the defacement and (banal) personal messages at these sites share your revulsion. I respond to these things on many levels, but one is astonishment and some sadness that people can be so unaware of the difference between these petroglyphs that have existed silently and alone for centuries and which were created by a long-gone and little-known people… and their own pathetic and childish and thoughtless violations of this site. Have they no self-awareness? Have they no ability to comprehend the deeper significance of these things? Have they no humility about their own place in this universe? Scratching “Joe and Mary 2006” on a rock next to a centuries-old mystery is not only offensive – it also is extremely pathetic.

      I would agree that hiding information is not always the best solution, but I strongly disagree with those who hold to the contrary extreme, namely that no information should ever be withheld or, even worse, that information about all things should simply be shared without context or thought.

      As I have pointed out, there are places where the locations are well known and access is made as easy as possible. The very accessible and very interesting rock art in the Fruita District along the highway through Capitol Reef National Park is one such example. Great effort was made here to ensure access and to protect (to the degree possible) the artifacts found here, and to clarify their value and significance. These sites also provide an excellent opportunity to educate people who can and will visit them with background about these places, their meaning, their fragility, and their value. I’m certainly not advocating for “hiding” these locations or taking away access to them.

      However, there are many problem with the idea of sharing information about the other thousands of similar site throughout the American West. As you have seen when visiting the more accessible places, even here, where we have supposedly protected the sites and educated the visitors and where other people may be around… this has not stopped the cretins from defacing these places. So, while some theorize that more access and more education will protect more sites, there is little or no evidence that this is actually the case, and there is plenty of evidence that, in fact, the opposite is true.

      No site can be perfectly protected – that is an unfortunate truth – so no argument can claim an outcome of perfect protection. Sites will degrade,both naturally (though this seems to take a very long time when they are undisturbed) and, bit by bit, those vandals who find them will add their marks. However, when most of them remain relatively or nearly-completely unknown to the general public and when access to a number of them is not at all easy or obvious. the second of those sources of degradation (the “vandals”) is greatly reduced.

      I am no expert on petroglyphs compared to many other people, but I have encountered them in various places. I’ve visited the intentionally accessible sites, I’ve been told by personal friends who know and trust me about other sites, and I’ve “discovered” one or two on my own by thinking about where to look and then looking very carefully. In virtually every case where I have visited well-known and accessible sites there has been evidence of vandalism, and in some cases the vandals have made marks that are as extensive as the original petroglyphs. On the other hand, when I have found isolated and unpublicized sites they have almost invariably been undamaged.

      Take care,


  6. Greg, thank you very much for stopping by and sharing that perspective.

    I agree that finding the most appropriate balance between protection and other values is a tricky one, and I’m actually not an absolutist about a lot of the underlying issues. For example, I really do understand the complex balance and tension between access and preservation.

    You are absolutely right to speak of the “ego-driven” publication in these very direct terms. From my own personal experience – and here I refer to my own writing – I understand the ego rewards of being the person who “knows stuff.” Sometimes this is OK, but there are limits. And when gratifying one’s own ego becomes more important that caring for and respecting these resources, there is a problem.

    I wonder if you would mind if I quote your post in some other forums where this issue is under discussion? I could attribute the writing to “Greg H.,” “eastern Sierra archeologist,” “a poster at my blog,” or to your full name. If you see this, please let me know here or by email to



    1. Dan-
      You may quote me freely. Please consider that while the views that I have expressed are derived from my professional experience, they are personal and are not intended to represent the agency that I work for. Thanks again for your concern and your willingness to write openly about such matters.

  7. Dan I fully agree with your ethical position on this matter. Your experience based perspective is more sage and persuasive than that of the more naive comments posted here. I am the archaeologist responsible for protecting literally thousands of archaeological sites on public lands in the Eastern Sierra. The balance between 1st Amendment rights and resource protection is a difficult one to establish. Too often ego driven publications by short sighted individuals result in the degradation of these finite resources. Your guidelines should be adopted by all professional photographers and webmasters. It is true that we can only control our own behavior, but we should not allow the lowest common denominator to undermine our moral footings.

  8. Thank you. This is real food for thought as well as for action. I can think right now of some postings I will edit. While I have never been overly concerned about such sharing I can see that the advent of the world wide web has introduced changes I had never considered. While I tend to be a bit of a wilderness deconstructionist and have no complaint against every trail I find it is certainly true that photographers should take care to protect delicate and sacred sites.

  9. This is an important and well-written post, Dan. As Greg above, I agree completely. I was one of the commenters on his post. Many photographers today don’t realize the impact that imagery has on the traffic a place gets, they forget that ecosystems are fragile and that if we do not stand on the side of protecting and preserving the natural places that are our stock-in-trade, sooner or later these places will gradually be ruined, which is obviously already happening, and we won’t have anything left to photograph. One challenge is that contemporary photographers don’t have the perspective of time. I have revisited some of my father pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde’s locations and found them profoundly changed from what they were like when Dad made his photographs. We need to be voices advocating for wild places, not aggrandizing ourselves to other photographers by sharing the details of locations that we had to work to discover ourselves.

  10. I’m speechless. I know lowlife scum out there do this stuff and always will and yet I will never understand it. I sure hope they catch them though. Throw ’em in the slammer and throw away the key.

  11. This is just heartbreaking – not only because these are rare and beautiful sites – but because they are sacred – places of mystery and magic. It’s as heinous in some respects as the defacing of a church, temple, or mosque.

    And Greg’s point about the joy of discovery is so well put.

  12. John, I think that in some limited context, you are correct about this. For example, some areas have been both protected and made accessible in certain national parks. There, rock art is already-accessible locations has been made “just accessible enough,” but with fences and other means of keeping people’s hands off. But even there, a determined jerk could do irreparable harm pretty quickly.

    But when it comes to spots that are a bit more off the beaten track (and in some cases, really not well known at all) the best protection at this point comes from keeping them relatively unknown and by not making access easier. It is simply impossible to sufficiently protect all of the locations where this stuff is found, much less all of the other sensitive places of other sorts.

    In fact, the location that is the subject of this story is plenty accessible already – it could hardly be made more accessible aside from creating a park with road signs.

    In a general way, I think the notion you mention of making things more accessible and known and then attempting to raise the level of “presence” and protection can make sense in those few situations in which the site is already somewhat accessible and know and in which there is a realistic opportunity to administer and afford sufficient oversight of the area. Remember that simply declaring it to be a park, for example, doesn’t help much if that area of the park is left unattended. (Consider a few well-known places in Death Valley, for example, where significant vandalism and theft has occurred.) A cost of this sort of protection is also to “sanitize” the experience by putting it behind protective fences and so forth, thus ending the possibility of the powerful experience of discovering such a think unexpectedly in a remote and lonely place.

    However, I don’t think that approach works well at all for those sites that are most affected by the changes that electronic communication and photo-sharing have wrought – the little-known, out of the way, seldom-visited, obscure sites that were relatively safe in the past precisely because they were obscure, hard to find, and difficult to reach. Those factors, which afforded them some protection in the past, are greatly diminished by photo-sharing, GPS coordinates, linking and searching on the web, and so forth. And it is precisely those places, which admittedly will be discovered at an increasing rate no matter what we do, are most in need of some discretion on that part of those who know about them.

    As for the argument that some make that there is a responsibility to share the experience with others, and thus that it is selfish to withhold information about them… it can equally be argued, I think, that doing things to encourage access now that will accelerate the rate of loss, we may render them inaccessible to future generations as the current generation destroys them.

    Take care,


  13. Rosemary, you are correct that we cannot completely protect these places. However, we also cannot bury our heads in the sand and imagine that we have no responsibilities. At a minimum, as individuals we have a responsibility to think about how to best behave ethically and in ways that don’t contribute to the worse degradation.

    I used to feel more like you do – in that what I do could not have any significant effect – until the little even that I described in the earlier post I linked to, during which my friend Mike gently upbraided me for sharing more than necessary, and my friend Charlie looked up the web stats to prove that my reach was larger than I had imagined.

    In reality, we don’t have to give up all that much in order to act ethically. For example, I don’t suggest that we should not photograph rock art or anything that radical. I’m really just saying that when we do we should consider the context of our work and make decisions accordingly. And, as Greg points out, there are even other, different reasons for a bit of circumspection.

    Take care,


  14. Thanks, Greg. I’ve written about this a bunch of times, and I’ve often focused on your point about “stealing the joy of discovery,” which is also a very real issue.

    It really isn’t helpful – though they don’t know it – when we write in ways that suggest to people that the point of going out and making photographs is to go to the places that thousands of others have gone to try to duplicate their wonderful photographs. I’m not saying that people should not photograph famous and iconic subjects – heck, I do it at times – but that this is a distraction from what most really want to accomplish through photography and from the potential for something much more satisfying.

    As I write this, I’m trying to think of any really good reasons to be overly specific about places and so forth, and I’m coming up with fewer and fewer of them these days…


    (Since I would not be surprised if someone points out that I write a lot about many of my photographs, I’ll point out that I’ve tried to move more and more away from writing the specific “where to go” and the “how to shoot this icon” stuff, instead sharing stories about the experience of shooting the subject, perhaps along with a bit of technical stuff that might be relevant.)

  15. Excellent post, Dan, and I agree with your comments completely. A few months ago, I blogged on this exact subject, but not in reply to such heinous acts by a few:

    Something the commenters on my blog pointed out (that I had not thought of) was that by sharing so much about the locations of some sites, we’re also stealing the joy of discovery, which may be worth more than we know.


  16. I know, I know, Dan. But people like these will find out these locations whether we protect them or not. Just by bring attention to the beauty of these and their historical and cultural value is enough to prompt those who think they might profit from them to begin their treasure hunt. But I doubt we can protect them, too much is already known. The world is being explored corner to corner. It’s sad that we have to become secretive. It makes it seem like we’re forming an exclusive club of good guys. There have been treasure hunters always.

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