outdoor photography: leave no trace, leave social media
The Leave No Trace (LNT) Center for Outdoor Ethics has a universally recognized set of 7 principles that all outdoor enthusiasts should follow, to minimize our impact and preserve our natural surroundings.
Among those: “Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces”, “Dispose of Waste Properly”, “Leave What You Find”, “Respect Wildlife,” and “Be Considerate of Other Visitors”.
Yet all it takes is a ten-second scroll down an Instagram feed to find egregious violations of each of these.
The posts are there for a reason: they get attention. They attract likes, comments, and followers, many of whom will seek to visit the place and do something similar.
Is it just a tale often told of social media, though? Visit beautiful places today, and it’ll become immediately obvious that more than ever before, not only are places exploding with overcrowding, but visitors are failing to follow key LNT principles. Places that were once wild are now full of litter, social trails, noise, crowds, tour buses, selfie sticks, wildlife living off human food. Much of the damage is caused by photographers, artists, influencers. bloggers, content creators.
Time after time, travelers are entering closed areas, trampling flowers and meadows, disturbing wildlife, stopping on roads to put other visitors in danger.
IT’S OKAY. No need to feign innocence. You’ve done it. All of us have done it. We all violate LNT principles from time to time. But nothing we do in the field — the worst damage we have done to a meadow, the most people we have held up on the road — none of it compares to posting to social media.A single post is often responsible for an exponential rise in visitation that ultimately trashes the place. We cannot control who we reach on Instagram. We aren’t just sharing with friends. We are exposing a place to the world. We all think it will never happen to our special places… until it does.
Let me say that more clearly.
In today’s world, the most egregious violation of Leave No Trace we could possibly commit, is to post to social media.
Those who refuse to accept their responsibility might sneer, “well, if you want to preserve a place without impacting it, don’t visit it”. While this is technically true, the vast majority of the damage comes not from the visit itself, but from the social media share.
(Note: In my research, it matters little whether or not location information + directions/GPS is shared in the social media posts. Refusal to share the location does not prevent the destruction. It merely postpones it. I provide more detail in my article, “Location, Location, Location”. )
In other words:
There is no such thing as posting to social media with a goal of conservation. In fact, posting to social media is anti-conservation.
But, you might ask, weren’t things different in the past? Hasn’t art contributed to the preservation of our public lands?
In the past, art and writing was a powerful way of drawing attention to beautiful, little-known places, and advocating for their conservation. Ansel Adams’ work showed our parks to the world, and left a massive legacy of conservation. John Muir famously described our public lands as an advocate for their preservation. Painters like Frederick S. Dellenbaugh produced work of Zion Canyon that “raised awareness about this majestic canyon and influenced some to petition for its protection as a national park” (NPS).
To this day, many national parks still continue the tradition of conservation art, with artist-in-residence programs.
Today’s digital world, however, is different. Information spreads far more quickly. The global population is growing exponentially. Travel is easier. A large middle class is emerging around the world. An experience-driven economy has emerged to dominate leisure today. And, most of all, the consumption-based, attention-seeking, like-and-comment-driven society of Instagram has taken over. The need to optimize for attention, validation, and business. The need to do something more “epic” to stand out.
It’s hard to deny that social media is driving the destruction of our natural wonders — at an alarming rate.
And yet, time after time, photographers, artists, travelers, content creators… we keep posting. We feed the machine, knowing it destroys the places we love.
In this war we are waging against the environment, there are two directly opposing sides: we can continue to feed the social media machine, or we can take a stand and preserve our surroundings for future generations to enjoy.
The situation is dire. Apathy is no longer acceptable. Which side are you on?
WILL YOU CHOOSE INSTAGRAM, OR OUR PLANET?
stay tuned for the next article — “Where do we go from here?”