Responsible Photography

Responsible Photography

By Heather Long | Heather Long Photography & Hoya Ambassador

Sustainability. It is a word that is regularly introduced when discussing our environment, our way of life, even the way we create our artwork. As a photographer, we are always thinking about the sustainability of our work, whether our captured moments will last the test of time. Right now, though, I’d like to focus on another form of sustainability. I’m referring to the ability we have to help protect our precious habitat, and the responsibilities we adopt as a landscape photographers.

There are moments when I stop and wonder what Ansel Adams would say about our industry today. He used photography as a form of advocacy, to help protect and ensure that natural beauty be preserved for future generations. This train of thought gained modern notoriety after reports that an illegal campfire, ultimately burning over 107,375 acres of wilderness, started in Big Sur. I also reflect on the fires of Shenandoah National Park this past summer where 10,000 acres were burned, and the wildfires that burned thousands of acres outside the Smoky Mountain National Park. Humans caused each of these incidents: humans who weren’t educated about the risks and how to protect our environment.

Much like Mr. Adams, landscape photographers desire to share what we see and how we see it with the world and tell our story within it. As landscape photographers, we have to be willing to test boundaries and push ourselves to hike or explore places many will never see, and then share these adventures with the world through our galleries, websites, and social media. Of these, social media especially has changed the level of availability in which we can display our work, so we are able to share glimpses of the farthest corners of the earth that the more sedentary person may never see. This is a wonderful advantage! However, also due to the boom of social media, the opportunity has opened up to the average person the ability to gain access, to figure out how to get to those far corners of the earth, no longer making them special and sacred. This makes necessary the responsibility I mentioned previously. So the question I ask is, what responsibilities should photographers convey to the public? As I mentioned, we have the best medium at our disposal to do this, our social media. We can be more responsible with geotagging; practice more responsibility and care with individual habits. I practice “leave no trace, take only photographs” but have realized there are many photographers out there who do not.

A group of traveling filmmaker/photographers were caught on camera disturbing the delicate ecosystem of Yellowstone’s iconic Grand Prismatic Spring for the sake of a few pictures.

Do we love our natural terrain to death? I often ask myself this when I’m taking photos. Images are shared so easily, so quickly, and through geo tagging, we can provide access to those delicate areas. I have stopped specifically geo tagging my photographs on social media. I would prefer to provide a general location, if at all. I feel that by doing this I’m taking a small step towards protecting a little piece of the world. I am considering eliminating geotagging and stripping that information out of my photography entirely. I, like my predecessors, wish for future generations to enjoy and love the beauty this planet has to offer.

Hawaii’s Volcanic National Park built a structure to protect the petroglyphs. Photo by Heather Long

One of my favorite places in the world is Zion National Park. The environment in Zion National Park is so fragile, and I would be heartbroken and devastated if something ever happened to this sacred beautiful place. With that in mind, I also question myself, “Have I depicted this special place in a way that promotes a perception that the environment isn’t fragile?” I have to admit, I haven’t always considered this, but have now become more aware after some of my very favorite locations suffered directly due to the lack of respect for the land and wilderness. With our urgency to share on social media, are we losing the opportunity to bring awareness to these beautiful grounds and how fragile they really are? Are we missing the opportunity to help leave these a better place for future generations? It is of the utmost importance to remember the fragility of the environments we work within.

A ranger removes graffiti in Arches National Park. photo by Andrew Kuhn

In my opinion, our final responsibility as photographers is to start changing the perception of the industry as a whole. While working hand-in-hand with the national park system, photographers have developed a reputation as being destructive to the environment around us, while portraying advocacy to protect the same locations we so adamantly love to photograph. We need to become an example of what we preach, taking all steps to start protecting the environment, now more than at any other time. Easy ways to make this a practice is to be aware of where you are stepping and of where you are placing your tripod. If something is in your way do not break it down or move it, instead find a way around it to preserve it. Stay on the trails, camp only in designated places, and leave no trace, only taking your amazing memories with you in the form of photography. By breaking that stick, or pulling out that plant, your presence can have ramifications that are incomprehensible. As a whole, there is a need to be more active in preservation and sustainability in the areas that we photograph and love to visit time and time again.

I want to do my part, and I know I don’t have the answers, but I want to be part of the solutions. I want to create a legacy I’m happy and proud to leave behind. What do you think? I know we can be better!