Nature First Alliance

The Dutch have a word for it…. Landschapspijn — literally “landscape-pain”, “place-pain” (Dutch); the distress that comes from seeing familiar habitats or ecosystems degraded and depleted. This popped up on Twitter as Rob Macfarlane’s Word of the Day last week. (If you don’t follow, Rob, you should.) There is a painful symmetry here as it was also the Dutch who gave landscape photographers and painters the word ‘Landscape’. They named the beginning and foresaw the end of what we do.

I’ve written before (here) about our responsibility to minimise the damage that we ourselves cause. Those arguments don’t need to be repeated here. Last week a number of interrelated events coincided.

As Rob was tweeting this word, David Ward published a Facebook post explaining why he doesn’t share photo location details. At that very moment an ‘adventure organization’,  IGO Adventures, was spray painting waymarks on boulders in the Langdale Valley. While all these were happening, I was waiting to hear confirmation of my membership of Nature First, The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography. This is a new group, born in America that is growing very quickly.

Their principles can be summarised as below:

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

While perhaps not quite as far reaching as the code of the League of Landscape Photographers, this set of principles provides a worthy guide to trying to improve our practice.

My own code of ethics is published on my website here. This IS NOT a set of laws that I think anyone else should follow. It is a set of principles that I CHOOSE to follow.

First however I’ll echo something I’ve written before on other occasions. This is not about ‘Rules’, these ideas are offered as items for consideration. Photography is a wonderfully anarchic endeavour, it benefits from being without rules. Most of us take photographs of the landscape because we believe it to be beautiful. These gentle principles encourage us all to reflect on the impact that our photography has on these precious and increasingly fragile places.

35 years ago I was fortunate to train under the guidance of the great Colin Mortlock. His guiding principles were to develop knowledge, respect and love for Self, Others and The Environment. Whether due to this early training or otherwise, I have always placed the highest priority on the way we interact with our environment. My introduction to the mountains was conducted under the banner ‘Take nothing but photographs, Leave nothing but footprints’. To cause any form of damage by destruction or litter was anathema. There are contentious issues now but it has always seemed straightforward that we should try to cause the minimum impact possible.

The issue of sharing locations is a particularly thorny one and I was interested to see David Ward’s carefully argued position. I like the Nature First principle ‘use discretion when sharing locations’. This seems a positive approach, no pointless ‘rules’, just give it some thought and decide what’s best.

There is always the argument on location sharing that we may be seen to be elitist, ‘pulling the ladder up after ourselves’ or simply selfish. Those that refuse to share are accused of actively preventing new photographers from accessing the same opportunities that they had. I’m of the opinion, that pretty much any location can be found if some effort is made and the appropriate tools are used. I remember trying to find locations before there was even Google or Google Earth  let alone the plethora of locations guides that now grace the shelves. The substance of the argument by Nature First is that by not sharing, a little more effort is required from those who follow and this will inevitably slightly reduce the footfall. I’m often asked for a location even when I’ve added the place name to the image. This is the response from people who wont take a moment to Google the place name.

Personally I find an absorbing fascination with searching for a location. I enjoy both finding the place and also finding out about the place. I spent hours last month finding a spot in an image in a vlog from Alex Nail. I’m not going to go to that spot but found enormous enjoyment and satisfaction in the search for a small Lochan with a distinctive shape.

The argument can of course be further extended. If by sharing images we increase the footfall, perhaps none of us should share landscape photographs at all. Many of us hope that by sharing images, occasionally someone may be encouraged to find beauty in our landscape and may then develop a more caring attitude towards it.

When someone contacts me directly for a location, I generally help them out. The only time I can recall ever refusing to share a location was due to an ongoing difficulty with access and relationships with the land owner.

Finally we do need to be aware that there is another reason to ask a location other than to immediately set off and ‘recreate the photograph’ or even to explore for oneself.. When we as humans see an image of a beautiful (or even awful) place we instinctively wonder where it is. This isn’t simply to enable travel but it serves to develop our construct of the world and its geography.

This is a contentious issue. I’m not advocating that anyone refuses to share locations nor am I advocating that everyone immediately stops captioning images with location. I’m not even suggesting that anyone joins the Nature First Alliance. I do suggest however that we each give the subject some thought and act in the light of that reflection. Feel free to add comments, I will reply to them. Also feel free to subscribe to receive updates on new posts ( your email address wont be used for anything else. If you’ve come here from Facebook or Twitter, feel equally free to discuss over there if you so desire.

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  1. davidwardphotography
    May 04, 2019

    A nicely written piece that echoes what I have felt for many years about preventing the pursuit of photography becoming something that degrades the environment.
    It’s a sad fact that I have on more than one occasion had to admonish workshop participants for causing damage to plants, and even for wrecking fragile geological features. These selfish acts in the pursuit of photographic ‘perfection’ should be as much anathema as spitting on a bus or sticking your used gum under the table in a friends house.

  2. MikeP
    May 04, 2019

    Agreed on all counts. I hope that gradually we can make all such actions unacceptable to all photographers and other visitors to our wild places. [there is one exception to spitting on buses……Boris’ Bus….]

  3. Tony
    May 04, 2019

    Excellent piece Mike. I have always tended towards not offering location information, but for me it has always been more in line with guy tals philosophy. There is a genuine joy in discovering a new location which is simply not the same when you are following directions.
    Weirdly, I did almost exactly the same thing as you with one on Alex’s images a year or so ago. It was the lovely shot from near Glencoe of the white snow covered hill with the dark sky. I spent ages trying to find it, and ended up speaking to Scott Robertson etc. I’ve never been, but it was an enjoyable exercise!

  4. MikeP
    May 04, 2019

    Cheers Tony, suspect this is an issue that will divide people. I hope it provokes some thought and debate however. I think solving the puzzle of locations is really engaging, all part of the fun.

  5. Neil P
    May 04, 2019

    I don’t tend to specify locations now just the subject matter. Landscape photography should be like sailing down a river on a canoe, leaving nothing in our wake.

  6. MikeP
    May 04, 2019

    That’s a fine analogy, leaving nothing behind as we sail down the river. That’s exactly how I’d want it to be. Thank you

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