Outdoor Ethics and Nature Photography

Today, I had an interesting online debate with a couple of peers of mine from grad school. As you may know, I’m an avid rock climber and have a graduate degree in environmental studies with a focus in environmental education. So while out for a run, I discovered a large glacial erratic big enough to climb on and posted an iPhone photo of the boulder on my personal Facebook page. In the caption, I mentioned that the boulder needed some cleaning, a term climbers use to describe removing debris and sometimes mosses and lichens from the surface of a rock to make it suitable for climbing. What ensued was a lengthy debate of the ethics of rock climbing and bouldering, where two of my grad school classmates (both environmental studies students with a concentration in conservation biology) argued that cleaning a boulder to climb on was selfish and destructive and that climbing in general was an activity detrimental to the environment. We went back and forth a bit, respectfully, and it’s possible that some feelings got hurt. The reason I bring this up is because in our discussion I noticed something very interesting. While my classmates were so quick to critique my mention of cleaning a boulder, they’ve never criticized, critiqued, or even questioned my other actions that take place in nature, and in the whole scheme of things, cleaning a single, easy to find boulder not far from a well used (and heavily impacted) pathway is really low on the scale of things I do with potentially destructive environmental impacts.

For years, my main source of income came from nature photography. To make that work, I spent countless hours in the field, interacting very closely, often intimately, with wildlife and natural landscapes. Yet rarely does anyone ever question the impact of me doing so. People don’t ask me if I trampled native plants or disturbed an animal to get a shot. They just ooooh and ahhh at the aesthetically pleasing results of my work and only rarely question the methods I use.

I know the general public is unaware of what goes into a nature photograph and potentially how much manipulation, impact, and destruction are a part of the photographic process. Issues like moving branches or rocks, using calls and sounds to mimic other animals in distress, stalking feeding or nesting areas, and attracting wildlife with bait probably don’t occur to most people. But most people probably think little of the impact rock climbers have either, so why should two educated, environmentally minded people worry about my relatively isolated and infrequent climbing impacts while ignoring my photographic ones.

On my Facebook page, I wrote:

[If] I shared a photograph of a loon (which I will at some point soon) I doubt you’d question whether I got too close to the loon and disturbed it, or if I sanitized my boat for milfoil and other organisms that could be transported between waterways and contaminate “pure” ecosystems before plopping my kayak in the water to take that picture. No one has ever asked if I baited the owl in that beautiful snowy owl shot I have that everyone loves (for the record, no I didn’t, but a lot of snowy owl photos you see are from animals that have been lured with the promise of a meal of pet shop feeder mice). You trust me enough to be a responsible and ethical nature photographer (or maybe you just never thought about it). Please trust me to be an ethical climber too.

The truth is I try to be responsible in everything I do in the outdoors. I’m not perfect, but I realize that my existence impacts the environment around me every day. When I am hands on in the environment, be it rock climbing or taking photographs, these impacts are more direct. I step on and crush plants! I startle and disturb animals! I make noise and track toxins and species from one location to another. My presence in the environment undoubtably changes it, but I do try to minimize my negative impacts as much as possible. So I look where I step and give wildlife its space when possible. I stick to well worn paths or wander off trail on surfaces that can best handle the pressure of my feet, avoiding the rare or intermittent plants in favor of rocks, bare ground, or hardier, more commonplace species. When photographing animals, I carefully watch their behavior and back off if I sense I am distressing them or making them upset. I leave a trace, but I try to leave as small of a trace as possible or otherwise ensure that the overall impact of my presence is a positive one instead of a negative one.

I am aware of my influence on others as well. As a rock climbing instructor and an important person in our local rock climbing community, I know that how I act and behave while climbing or in the outdoors sets an example for other climbers, particularly the young ones who first venture into outdoor climbing under my guidance. As a photographer who teaches photography and sells my work, I know that my actions model my values and tell others how it is acceptable to behave when photographing nature.

I feel it is important to bring awareness to this very issue. As nature photographers, we (and all outdoor enthusiasts) need to think about what we do, and how and why we are doing it. We do impact the environment, sometimes negatively, sometimes positively, usually both. We also influence each other. Do your actions reflect your beliefs and values? Are they what you hope others would do? When given the chance, are you educating and encouraging others to act responsibly and respectfully? I hope so.

As a photographer, I believe in full disclosure (of techniques, not so much of locations). For me a good rule of thumb is if I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling someone how I got a particular shot, then maybe I shouldn’t do it that way. In the past I’ve used bird calls to attract territorial birds during mating season and crossed over fences that clearly said to stay on trail. These days, I’m not so proud of those type of actions, so I avoid them and instead stick to more natural settings and following posted signs and warnings. I’m more aware of my actions now and the potential consequences of them. Occasionally, I mess up. I’m human and inherently flawed by nature, but I try to be virtuous and most importantly, I try to be honest. And I genuinely do care.

Call me old fashioned, but I still think there’s value in that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.