Can photographs destroy the places we love?

This is an important question in light of some recent events and rising trends. In January, Tasmanian photographer Jason Futrill complained that an “Instagram-fuelled spike in visitation” to a previously obscure waterfall had caused a lot of environmental damage. See the story here.

The influx was based on Jason’s own images shared and named on social media, an action he now regrets. Jason also pointed the finger at Tourism Tasmania for blithely sharing social media images from sensitive places in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area without regard to potential impacts, and called on photographers and websites to “reflect on their own impact and take more responsibility for the conservation of the photos they post and share”.

In 2017, ABC TV reported that much less remote places were also copping a hiding from too many tourists because of social media promotion. Hyams Beach in Jervis Bay, NSW, and Esperance in Western Australia have both been besieged with tourists all looking for that perfect selfie with white sand and blue water. These issues were discussed with Futrill and Esperance photographer Jaimen Hudson (who wasn’t so concerned for his patch) on Radio National ‘Sunday Extra’ on 18 February 2018.

In Royal National Park near Sydney, Wedding Cake Rock and Figure of Eight Pool have both become Instagram ‘trophy’ sites. At least they are hardy spots…but hazardous for some (lives have been lost). Here in the Blue Mountains, some previously quiet bush swimming holes are now crowded with Facebook tourists. This started with a book on ‘wild swimming’ and social media took it from there. In less remote settings worldwide, locals in places from Iceland to Barcelona are jacking up against tourism impacting their quality of life. The phenomenon has spawned a new word: overtourism.

This is an issue that has concerned me for a while. I’m all for people enjoying the outdoors, as long as they are respectful and the environment can cope. I have had disagreements with people who seem obsessed with promoting particular places in the bush. Sometimes this is done for areas that need to be protected from other, more destructive impacts like logging or mining: if people know the place, they might care – and who could argue against that? But if the place is already secure in a conservation reserve, and in untracked, rarely-visited terrain, then I say let it be. And I find the sheep-like flocking to particular places rather distasteful and undignified.

Many images (especially of mine) are not readily attached to a specific place, being of natural details, bush interiors and other phenomena. But certain types of recognisable places are inherently attractive, and can look exceptional or highly appealing in photographs: white sand against blue water for instance, or a beautiful rockpool in the bush. People will want to go there. Places away from tracks can be just as vulnerable; if they are not too arduous to get to, and a position is GPS-pinpointed on social media, then there can be no turning back.

My position is clear: photographers do have a special responsibility. Its a privilege to be able to visit wild places, make photographs and share them. But just as we need to be careful to do no harm while out there, we should also be careful what we do with the images when we get back. So when I caption my photos, I tend to apply vague or generalised locations – unless the place is already well-known, recognised, popular and resilient, like, say, Govetts Leap waterfall. Why draw attention to a very specific but obscure bush locale and have it damaged when there are so many fabulous places to see and find for yourself? And its never going to be the same as the photo anyway, when it may have taken careful composition and several visits before certain conditions were found (and often over-hyped in processing, which I find philosophically disturbing).

For me, and I suspect most people, the most wonderful experiences arrive unexpectedly, by discovery, not from just following the crowd to the next tick. The best events are unscripted, and often associated with ephemeral circumstances like the weather or how you’re feeling on the day. They are as much about you as the place. Most spots that have not been hardened by track construction and so on cannot handle lots of people without becoming damaged. Then the Instagram crowds will move on to the next big thing, like slash-and-burn farmers. Its just sad, on so many levels.

(The image below involved serendipity. It had been raining heavily for days, filling the lakes brimful. Then late in the afternoon the storm abruptly faded away into clear skies and calmness.)

Will anyone find it just like this again? (Sunset, Myall Lakes National Park)