I hope the length of this piece doesn’t imply it is anything more than it is. In the same way that language enables thinking, for me, writing enables me to organise my thoughts. I’ve just been having a bit of a think, nothing more.
Two major outcomes have emerged in the past 20 years for Landscape Photography, largely I would suggest, as a direct result of the emergence of the internet, the growth of Social Media and the advent of Digital Photography.
- There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people enjoying the process of making Landscape (as opposed to holiday) Images.
- It has become substantially easier to discover locations in which such images can be made.
(I think that a third outcome probably exists which is to do with the speed of growth and coherence of ‘fashions’ in Landscape Photography. This aspect will form the subject of a future set of musings.)
There are many outcomes from these changes not least of which (in my opinion) a positive development in the art of landscape photography. However one unarguable change is a dramatic increase in the number of people making landscape photographs and their tendency to be drawn to a number of iconic sites. Whether this is good or bad for photography is the subject of yet another future article. What is inescapable is that they are causing damage to those very beautiful locations. In many ways such Photographers are no different from the millions of tourists who are loving the world’s beautiful places to death.
This damage falls into three categories:
- Accidental – resulting simply from erosion damage that exceeds the speed of recovery of the local ground.
- Careless – Accidental damage beyond merely footfall. Damage to soil structures or scratches to delicate rock structures caused by tripod spikes. Stream banks are frequently damaged by careless access to the water.
- Wilful – Photographers breaking off branches, pulling up saplings that impede their view.
Stuart Low wrote a very depressing piece about the new Massacre of Glencoe here.
Stuart lays the blame for a great deal of damage at the feet of photographers and while we as a community are not blameless, I do feel that the presence of fires, bottles and cans hints at the increasing taste in some parts of society for ‘pop up parties’. We see the evidence for theses all across our wild areas, the pattern is almost always the same. A relatively secluded area, fires are lit, wood both collected and sawn off purposefully off living trees, trees cut down, wilful damage to the local environment, alcohol containers, abandoned folding chairs and tents. I think these are nihilistic party goers rather than photographers.
If we view a specific site such as the waterfall view of Buachaille Etive Mor from the Coupall, we can consider the likely narrative for the consequences.
- It is ‘possible’ that the fashion for landscape photography has peaked and the issues may largely rectify themselves. Sales of cameras are certainly diminishing, though this may however be far from a guide to the numbers of people visiting iconic locations.
- If no effective actions are developed, the damage will increase both in depth and spread. We know that as access is limited by difficulty, the line of approach will deviate to the next easiest route and spreading the problem further.
- Our erosion may serve to permanently disfigure the very subject of our visits.
- The land owners will feel moved to take some sort of action whether driven by fear of litigation (resulting from slip or fall injuries) or genuine care for the local environment.
- Local councils may seek to limit the possibility of any suitable local parking. In my experience, many people will not walk for more than 10 minutes.
What then are the most likely outcomes? The least expensive is of course allowing the local site to become irrevocably damaged. In some locations I would suggest that the landowners are likely to amend access by the use of purpose built path or walkways. For a site such as the Coupall, my instinct is that this would eventually lead to a stable viewing platform with ‘sturdy guard rails’ all around and appropriate warning signs about proceeding beyond. Access to Blea Tarn has already been upgraded to allow a route for those with limited mobility, I suspect it is only a matter of time before a path is created down to the water’s edge.
I have heard many an established photographer complaining about numbers and seemingly suggesting that newer entrants to the field should have to find alternative locations. This is a selfish view in my opinion and has all the hallmarks of pulling the ladder up after us. Such a view should certainly never be espoused by anyone who has an image from these locations in their back catalogue.
Given that appealing to the better nature of the general public is likely to have little effect what other steps might be taken to attempt to limit or even reverse this damage?
- There is never any harm in appealing and hoping, such a process works to some extent in respect to climbing and environmental; damage/ protection of nesting birds etc. I’m not sure how effectively it works but anything is better than nothing.
- As a community we could draw up a set of voluntary guidelines to educate individual photographers with regard to the damage they are causing. We could circulate this and hope. Individual photographers could publicly sign up to such a code.
- We could attempt to create a voluntary code of practice or standard for organized groups and those who bring groups to such places.
- We might appeal for those providing workshops both to follow such a code and also to ensure that environmental impact be an element of their syllabus.
- As a community, we might seek to raise the profile of such places with landowners and look for ways to encourage them to to improve access. The most effective way of encouraging is usually financial but there may be other quid pro quo alternatives.
There are considerations to do with the sharing or attempted concealment of locations. I think there’s a real conflict here for many photographers but for different reasons. The selfish or perhaps reasonably protectionist ones seek to protect their business by trying the limit the supply of images from a particular location. Although I don’t fit in this category I do have substantial sympathy for someone who has found a genuinely un-photographed location after hours of research, map study and hard miles. They may not feel like simply giving this away. There are others, of which I am one, who struggle to reconcile the fact that we find quiet or unspoiled places and then contribute to their destruction by publicising them. Once upon a time you might photograph, print and exhibit without having any effect on visitor numbers. Today a single image, widely shared can lead to a devastating effect.
One a quick and unsophisticated Twitter poll this week encouraged 88 people to respond either via the poll or directly.
The question asked ‘ Do you share location details from your photographs?
The results were as below when additional answers were included.
No, I made the effort (others can do the same) 10%
No (Due to) protecting my business 5%
No to (reduce footfall) and protect (local environment) from damage 16%
A number of qualifications were added, these being:
Sharing locations with friends but not the general public
Sharing rough area but not precise details
There was a substantial view that as the photographer had made a significant investment of time and effort, there were not just going to give it away freely.
This was a very ‘Raw’ poll and made no attempt to differentiate between those making a living from Landscape Photography and hobbyists brand new to the activity. It does present a very positive view in terms of generosity and also perhaps serves to explain why the dissemination of location information is so widespread.
I would suggest that the following conclusions may be drawn overall.
- As people who photograph the Landscape, we ourselves are the cause of the majority of the problems. There is no honesty in pointing the finger of blame at any sub groups.
- As our numbers are comparatively small and usage intense our damage is not addressed in the same way as, for instance, Lakeland footpaths where there are both government funded and charity funded organisations working tirelessly to repair erosion damage.
- The solutions to wilful and careless damage may come partly from education and codes of conduct at group and individual level.
- The solution to damage resulting simply from footfall is likely to be complex. It will probably entail a blend both of on site footpath creation and an integrated parking plan. As we have seen at the Fairy Pools, building car parks isn’t enough unless it is accompanied by a strategy to limit reckless parking on nearby verges.
I’m not sure what else can be done apart from sitting back and watching the destruction of the very thing we love. If people have comments, please feel add via Facebook.
(And, yes…that is my image at the to made in 2012 so I’ve done my bit to ruin this beautiful place. )