Ethics in Landscape Photography – The Photographer’s Role

Image of Turret Arch - red rock formations at Arches National Park by Lee Watson.

Turret Arch – Arches National Park

Open the latest copy of any outdoor magazine, and your eyes will immediately fall upon a beautiful landscape photograph. Alpenglow paints the sky with brilliant crimson, gold, and purple shades as the last rays of a setting sun set fire to the landscape below. Seductive, isn’t it? Makes you want to go there on vacation? The problem of ever-increasing hordes of people descending upon our National Parks and Monuments is only the tip of the iceberg the National Park Service faces.

Destruction is the main topic. We’re loving our parks to death! Don’t even try to get in Yosemite or Yellowstone during the peak season. Three or four hour waits at the entrance gates will greet you, while traffic backs up two miles down the road! Yosemite rangers have been know to close the park due to capacity crowds.

Ease of access, multiple-use management philosophies, and a Disney-ish approach to marketing by the Park Service have all added to the problem. Visiting a National Park has never been easier or more comfortable than it is today. Environmentalists lose battles daily as new motels, roads, and concessions are built in our parks at the expense of what the founders of the park system considered an essential wilderness experience. The “wilderness experience” today can consist of driving along paved roads, air conditioner blasting, while the kids in the back seat beg to visit the nearest McDonalds.

Our collective environmental conscience has been betrayed by Madison Avenue hype. Aldo Leopold said it best. Many would like us to believe over-use is the fault of the early photographers who popularized the parks. I don’t think so! Standing before Half Dome as the fog lifted to reveal the sun-bathed monolith, Ansel Adams had no idea of the legacy which was about to unfold!

“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we pioneers have killed our wilderness.”
– Aldo Leopold, The Green Lagoons (1945)

Analyzing the Issues

What, then, are the issues? Do we, as nature photographers, share a common responsibility to preserve the natural world? You bet we do! The problems are more subtle, however, than they first appear. Overcrowding is one issue about which we can do little. The dilemma is in the hands of the Park Service for now. Secrecy is no longer an alternative. This is the information age. However, hiking guidebooks can do more harm than all of the collective wilderness photographs taken over the past several generations.

The challenge facing us is how to help preserve what’s left of our pristine wilderness environment. Sensitive natural areas and archaeological sites are of paramount importance in this fight. Little known areas that are unique in their geological or biological diversity–areas that have remained hidden from view, tucked away from the photographer’s lens or hiker’s bootprints–still exist. If you know of such an area, keep it to yourself. The question we must ask is, “Should we photograph this area at all?” Published photographs offer an open invitation for people to visit. A pilgrimage will take place, so others, too, can worship at this shrine. You’ll hear the rationalized retort, “If I don’t photograph it, someone else will!” This is true, perhaps, but it’s a cop-out, none-the-less. Stay true to your heart, and don’t fall into the same stylized thinking that now paralyzes the National Park Service.

When you go into an area to photograph, keep in mind that someday, with a little luck, your images may grace the pages of a national magazine. It could be your photograph that entices members of a younger generation to visit these same special places. The role of the landscapist is a seductive one, indeed. By capturing provocative, decisive moments in time, we promote a larger-than-life concept of the wilderness–moments when nature is, perhaps, the best it has ever been!

Image of Fiery Furnace Fins - red rock formations at Arches National Park by Lee Watson.

Fiery Furnace Fins – Arches National Park

We, as nature photographers, choose in which direction to point our cameras. We can portray a beautiful flower-filled meadow, or turn around and capture the bulldozer gearing up to plunder. The choice is ours–pretty picture, or harsh reality? Normally, pretty pictures win hands-down over shots of new developments going up within, or just outside, park borders. Beautiful landscapes triumph every time over photos of coyote massacres from helicopters, new road enhancements, or wilderness cherry-stemming for the sake of oil and gas development. Documentary, photo-journalistic images such as these are difficult to sell and even more difficult to accept as reality. What they provide is hard core evidence of the continual, rampant destruction of our natural world.

Photographs have the ability to change the collective environmental paradigms of our society and our political process. Wilderness photography has a profound impact on the way we view our planet. We have a moral and social obligation to use this power wisely, perhaps by acting as guardians and orators for the landscape that, unfortunately, stands as a deaf mute, unable to protest or pass verbal judgement.

By each of us making a small contribution–giving back to the land a modicum of the solace it has given us–our collective efforts can have a profound effect on the way society views abstract concepts such as “multiple-use management philosophy” and “wildlife management.” Our recognition of this role is the first step we can take to assure that wilderness will exist for future generations to enjoy. The late Wallace Stegner recognized this need in his famous “Wilderness Letter,” written back in 1960: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
– Aldo Leopold, Foreword to A Sand County Almanac (1949)

Establishing Guidelines for Ethical Behavior

Many, many years ago, a forum of renowned nature photographers gathered at the Roger Tory Petersen Institute in Jamestown, New York, to discuss many of the issues presented above. This was the first time such a group had assembled to share their views on what has become a national issue. Although each participant presented his or her own personal interpretation, the consensus pointed towards a need for a set of ethical standards to guide photographers engaged in capturing our natural world through images. Though “set-in-stone” guidelines have not been developed, each photographer needs to set his or her own boundaries within the limits established as environmentally sound, prudent behavior.

Per the NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association): “NANPA believes that following these practices promotes the well being of the location, subject and photographer. Every place, plant, and animal, whether above or below water, is unique, and cumulative impacts occur over time.”


Take good care of the environments within our world.

Commentary by Lee Watson
Article and photos updated from earlier version: © 2014 Lee Watson. All rights reserved.

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