Earlier this week I had the good fortune to join a several fine photographers (Charlie Cramer, Mike Osborne, and Karl Kroeber) for a few days shooting in the Tuolumne/Tioga Pass area of Yosemite National Park. Getting to spend time with photographers who have so much experience and knowledge of Yosemite was inspiring, and I’m grateful for the chance to join them. While sitting around during the “boring light” hours one afternoon – while waiting for early dinner and travel to a shooting location before the good light – Mike mentioned that they were going to a place that was best not publicized, and he joked that he “might have to blindfold” me if I were to accompany them. Mike was a Yosemite ranger for decades before he retired and it is clear that he loves and cares for the place deeply. He mentioned a few of my posts on this blog in which I had named photo locations and given, in his opinion, a bit too much information about where they are located. This concerns him because he has seen the damage caused by publicity of certain special locations first hand. He also feels that it is often better to gain information about these places the old fashioned way – by word of mouth from an acquaintance or by sleuthing them out yourself. In addition, he also points out – correctly, I think – that many of the photographs I post here are not so much about the location as they are about some thing I saw there, and that it might make sense to title photographs with that in mind. Mikes’ comments have caused me to think quite a bit over the past few days about this issue. First, a few words of self-defense, but then some changes that I intend to make.
It’s not just a photography issue. These situations come up in birding a well; once or twice a year here on the west coast I here of a situation where a notable bird is run off by a birder who gets too enthusiastic and encroaches on its territory enough to scare it away (ruining it for everyone else); it’s fairly common to see both birders and photographers go out of bounds — over fences, into restricted areas, blazing “new trails” in fields of wildflowers, etc — in an effort to get the shot or see the bird. Nests of notable species like owls get popular, and sometimes they get too popular and problems happen; sometimes the nest is abandoned.
What to do? Whenever these situations occur, the debate springs up. In reality, in birding, the debate was over long ago; the senior birders have learned over the years to be careful about being too disclosing about sensitive birds and habitat. They self-edit public disclosure to protect senstive birds and locations from being pounded to pieces by popularity — which occasionally creates debates about whether they have the “right” to not disclose these things by the folks not “in the loop” (short answer: of course they do. it’s their information. they’re under no obligation to share; get over it, and earn their respect and get involved enough in the community to be part of those private discussions. hint: I’m not yet; and I’m in no hurry).
What I wonder abut here is how technology is affecting this. Do sites like Flickr and ebird make it harder to be careful about these areas? Well, more and more of us carry phones with GPS in it; more and more cameras are coming with GPS chips in them, automatically encoding location in great detail, and sites like flickr will automatically disclose that data for you. Location-based sites like Gowalla and Foresquare are building businesses around this data, and I admit I’ve been exploring and experimenting with Foresquare and mobile GPS data as a way to help networking among birders — but this issue is one that’s made me go slow and try to think through not just how to use these new techie toys, but when, and why.
We haven’t yet STARTED the discussion of the ethics of these capabilities, or created some kind of standards to help people know when to publish that data and when to hide it. Who makes those decisions? Right now, it’s the elders in the group making judgement calls informally, but that model is going to fail over time as technology automates disclosure of this info. Is part of your instruction at a photo workshop going to be telling students to disable the camera GPS?
I think we need a dialog on this, and an understanding of disclosure vs. protection and how precise. Right now, since I geoencode my photos manually, I can choose just how precise my location is going to be; I have consciously chosen at times not to be TOO specific about the location of something, especially if I’m shooting a nest or working in sensitive terrain.
For that matter, the fact that I DO photograph nesting birds is controversial in some parts of photography, and I’m sensitive to that; I try to work under very specific rules when I work near nests, the first of which is simple: any time I get any hint I’m interfering with the nest, I leave. Immediately. I might try again at some later time and be more careful about distance and approach, but if I see any sign the birds are stressing, I get the hell out, now, and figure out next steps after they have the ability to settle down. I feel that way about any animal I’m photographing — if I flush a bird while trying to set up a shot, I slow down. If I flush it twice, I stop trying.
Unfortunately, not all photographers worry about their subjects enough, whether it be animal or a pristine location. And this is nothing new. I remember reading one of John Shaw’s photo books from the 80′s on macro photography in which he complained about witnessing another photographer take macro shots of a flower, and then destroying the flower to prevent any other photographer from shooting it.
Unfortunately, some people are jerks, some simply don’t care, and many are simply well meaning but naive. And I think we need to figure out how to teach those that are teachable to behave, and how to protect what we cherish from those that aren’t — especially since our tools are creating solutions that make it easier to show everyone where images were made and where birds were found, and in many cases, those tools are going to be doing so in an automated way that we may not remember to turn off (or strip), and that many others won’t even realize is happening…