Geotagging, Selfies, Crowds, and the Menace to Nature

I last visited the majestic, awe-inspiring Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River south of Page, Arizona in 2015. I don't anticipate seeing it again, at least not when it's crowded.
I last visited the majestic, awe-inspiring Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River south of Page, Arizona in 2015. I don’t anticipate seeing it again, at least not when it’s crowded.

An article on Petapixel recently brought to my attention the fact that due to recent invasions by huge numbers of tourists at an easy-to-access but previously only sparsely visited location, Horseshoe Bend, which I have visited twice, now has a new $750,000 steel railing at the overlook.

My experience with Horseshoe Bend is the same as anyone else's: I was part of a very large number of people trying to enjoy the experience of a very beautiful natural place.
My experience with Horseshoe Bend is the same as anyone else’s: I was part of a very large number of people trying to enjoy the experience of a very beautiful natural place.
Abby and I got married at Arches National Park's beautiful and evocative Delicate Arch, which, fortunately, was not at all crowded on that October morning. This image was made six years later, on a sunny afternoon, packed with visitors.
Abby and I got married at Arches National Park’s beautiful and evocative Delicate Arch, which, fortunately, was not at all crowded on that October morning. This image was made six years later, on a sunny afternoon, packed with visitors.

I’ve been aware for some time that crowds are discovering and choking places that were once only inhabited by a few dedicated naturalists or photographers.

The worst of these, in my opinion, has to be Antelope Canyon, which I saw in 2012, and to which I have no intention of returning. It has been taken over by geotaggers and their phones, and because it is so popular, holds little appeal to me. On that visit, a women in our tour group put away her camera halfway through the tour. When I asked her why, she said, “This isn’t relaxing.”

Geotagging is using the GPS coordinates to mark the location associated with your photos, allowing others to easily find it and visit it.

It is also significant that locations swarming with visitors dilute the value of photos you might make there: sure, you have a nice image, but so do all the hundreds or thousands of people huddled around you. Instead of creating a unique image, you are part of a group of stenographers.

Visitors make pictures at Antelope Canyon in 2012. This is a splendid example of a beautiful natural phenomenon being crassly commercialized.
Visitors make pictures at Antelope Canyon in 2012. This is a splendid example of a beautiful natural phenomenon being crassly commercialized.

Even our beloved Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park, which I have had the privilege of visiting nine times,  including when  Abby and I got married there in 2004,  may soon have restricted visitation or even require a permit.

Then, to make matters worse...
A pair of artworks by renowned painters Salvador Dali and Francisco Goya were damaged over in Russia after a group of girls posing for selfies accidentally knocked over the structure on which they were being displayed.
While it is true that our National Parks belong to all of us, such privilege also comes with it an implicit mandate of responsibility to protect and respect the natural world. This image was made at Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park in April 2015.
While it is true that our National Parks belong to all of us, such privilege also comes with it an implicit mandate of responsibility to protect and respect the natural world. This image was made at Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park in April 2015.

There is a little bit of good news, though: if it takes a fair amount of physical effort, like hiking 10 miles for example, most of the population are too lazy and out of shape to do it.

A friend photographed me on the Joint Trail at Canyonlands in 2016. It is a moderately difficult, moderately long day hike, and unlike features close to roads and cities, we had it nearly to ourselves.
A friend photographed me on the Joint Trail at Canyonlands in 2016. It is a moderately difficult, moderately long day hike, and unlike features close to roads and cities, we had it nearly to ourselves.

So what is the essential cause of this issue, why does it matter, and what can we do? Is this just a symptom of an Earth with 7.7 billion people on it? Do we have the internet to blame? Social trends? The selfish selfie scene?

By their very nature, people are destructive to many of the natural phenomena we hold in high regard, not just by their appearance, but also by their consumption and erosion of natural features. Their footfalls and Twinkie wrappers are far more damaging than their appearance in our images.

A truth to remember, though, is that we all want to create beautiful photographs, we all want to record and preserve our memories, and we all want to show off our experiences. It’s hard to be too critical of tourists and photographers while being one of them.

What can we do to both protect and experience these beautiful places?

  • Visit during off-peak seasons
  • Visit when the weather discourages visitors, like when it’s super-cold
  • Get to the trail head before the sun comes up, and get off the trail before the crowds start to thicken
  • Obey and defend the Leave No Trace paradigm

Despite some locations being “discovered,” there are still wild, unspoiled spots in the world, worthy of our exploration and our respect.

In 2014, I photographer Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on a cold pre-dawn October morning. As a result, I had beautiful, unique light, and was completely alone at an otherwise crowded location.
In 2014, I photographer Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on a cold pre-dawn October morning. As a result, I had beautiful, unique light, and was completely alone at an otherwise crowded location.
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2 Comments

  1. It’s disheartening that so much scenic beauty is being overtaken by thoughtless crowds of tourists. I’m not sure I could tolerate the jostle and noise when I’m sure I’d rather be focusing on the moment.

    I think it’s probably a combination of the ease of iPhone photography, coupled with the instant convenience of the Internet, that has led to the proliferation of selfie nonsense. To me, it kind of devalues the individual experience. Everyone has the same shot!

    Thanks for the list of ways to cheat the crowds. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed our Wichita hike without the huge crowds that would have shunned those frigid winds. For me, the windy cold was part of the experience. And I think that’s what large crowds miss. I’m after a once-in-a-lifetime experience; they’re trying to impress their friends and coworkers back home.

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  2. It’s hard to be too critical of tourists and photographers while being one of them.”

    I feel like this is a positive evolution from your previous viewpoint. While each of us certainly considers ourselves as separate and inherently different than others, I think it’s helpful to realize when we’re just like them. I can take a lesson from this too.

    And I like your underlying optimism that we can be better.

    “Is this just a symptom of an Earth with 7.7 billion people on it?”

    This is surely part of it. As long as our births outnumber our deaths, it’s unrealistic to expect most places to get *less* crowded. As I drive past empty, unused fields, I can’t help but wonder “how long before we put up a shopping center right *there*?”

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