What responsibility does a landscape photographer have to her subject?

Tufa formations at Mono Lake silhouetted in predawn light.

An interesting and impassioned discussion broke out on the photo-blogosphere today over a photographer’s bad (and potentially damaging, and certainly illegal) behavior.  Photographer G Dan Mitchell suggested this may be a teachable moment, and I agree–so here are my two cents.

The debate centers on a photo of a photographer posted on Facebook (you can see the offending photo here).  Taken during a recent photography workshop at Mono Lake in California, the photo shows another photographer standing on one of the fragile tufa formations that make the lake so famous.  This is a protected area, signs on the trail to the lake clearly warn against climbing on or otherwise damaging the tufa, and it is, in fact,  illegal to do so.  Yet, there stood the photographer, proudly balanced on the rare and delicate limestone formations.

Tufa formations at Mono Lake, with the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada in the background.

My first impression when I saw the picture this morning was outrage, laced with a little horror.  A landscape photographer should know better.  Period.  Not only does that picture of him standing on the tufa set a horrible example to photographers and non-photographers alike, not only has he potentially damaged the tufa, but bad behavior like that reflects negatively on all of us who carry tripods, and could ultimately lead to restricted access to fragile areas like the Mono tufa.  None of us want any of that, especially restricted access.

I began seriously photographing the sierras about two years ago–a relative newcomer, to be sure–but it doesn’t take long for this place to make a powerful impression on you.  There’s a reason John Muir, Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell were all so strongly drawn to the area, and it’s the same reason so many of us continue to go there at every opportunity, whether it’s to take pictures or just enjoy being up in the sierra high country.  And like every other wild place, the sierras deserve not just our respect and our emotional attachment, but likewise our stewardship.

As I’ve watched and learned over the last few years to  improve my skills as a photographer, I’ve noticed that almost every photographer I’ve looked to for guidance and inspiration–Dan Mitchell, Guy Tal, Steve Sieren, William Neill, Jim Goldstein (to name just a few among many, many others)–are all overtly conservation-minded, and speak eloquently on the importance of treading lightly in the wilderness we love so much.

As ambassadors for the wilderness, landscape photographers have a greater responsibility to preserve, protect, and speak out.  We should never get so focused on getting a good composition that we forget that responsibility and behave with such disregard for the very subject we’re capturing in images.  The concern for wild places extends beyond simply behaving ourselves when we’re out shooting–there have been several discussions recently on whether it’s a good idea to reveal specific locations lest they be overrun or, worse, damaged and destroyed.  I’m generally inclined to share information with other photographers, because I certainly wouldn’t have progressed to where I am now if others hadn’t shared with me–but when I see pictures like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I’m far less inclined to do so.  If this is how a photographer–a fellow traveler, a kindred spirit and steward–treats such a uniquely fragile place, should I really be so willing to share locations and potentially invite such trouble?  I’ll surely continue to do so, but with growing reluctance.

I’m off to shoot somewhere in the sierras this weekend–the weather will dictate where I land.  Hope to see some of you out there.  Oh–and please stay off the tufa!

5 thoughts on “What responsibility does a landscape photographer have to her subject?

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  2. Richard Wong

    Thanks for pointing this out, Robin. I am a little bit late to the discussion but even more than the guy standing on the tufa, I was appalled by the response of the photographer to Dan’s comments. It seemed like he only begrudgingly wanted to point out the transgressions of the photographer in his photo and wanted the “controversy” to go away.

  3. Tim

    It’s the context that makes it a bad thing. If there hadn’t been law, or signs, forbidding it, then it would just’ve been a bloke with an embarrassingly long lens standing on a rock.

  4. Paul Conrad

    Great post Robin.

    You don’t know how many times while photographing in the desert around Moab I’v'e seen people walking through the crytobiotic crust and destroying it.

    It is not just about following the law, it’s just about using our common sense and respecting the land we love and want to protect so much.

    What showed me as pure stupidity was photographer Michael Fatali lit several fires under Delicate Arch to demonstrate night photography techniques to his students. (http://photo.net/nature-photography-forum/001oMT)

    We as photographers must be vigilant in our efforts to save our natural resources, yet not destroy what we value so much.

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