Clear Evidence To Stop Geotagging Specific Locations Of Your Nature Photographs On Social Media

I recently wrote an article asking photographers to stop tagging locations of outdoor photographs. Here's a follow-up to that piece, with a great supplemental video from Vox. 

After writing the initial article asking photographers to stop tagging specific locations on social media, I was honestly stunned while reading the comments. First, this isn't a new idea or proposal: Leave No Trace, a center for outdoor ethics, recently released social media guidelines as a framework for helping to protect the great outdoors. Additionally, there seemed to be about a 70/30 split of opinion within those who commented on the original article, the majority leaning toward the idea that this is a made-up issue and that not tagging locations won't do anything to help the issue of overcrowding and misuse of natural and public spaces. 

As landscape and nature photographers, I was honestly surprised that most people didn't view geotagging as an issue. With so many of us constantly outside photographing the natural world, I'm genuinely in awe that more people don't notice the effect we have on public lands. I was especially shocked that most people didn't see a correlation between posting locations on social media and the amount of people that subsequently visit said locations. 

One general consensus within the majority of people who disagreed was that myself and others who withhold specific locations on social media are elitists or even arrogant, entitled, or condescending. But this is far from the truth. As someone who has spent and spends more time in my life between the pines than on city streets, I feel an innate sense of duty to help protect the natural world, because it means so much to me. I've hiked for my entire life in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, and have worked on a professional trail crew for two summers in the very same park to help give back to the place that has given me so much. Further, I've traveled to many national parks and public lands in the United States, including but not limited to Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, and Acadia National Park. Throughout all of this, I've seen firsthand the effect we've had on the land in a rather short period of time.

I do realize and can understand why others are mad or annoyed at the idea of not having a location handed to them. Everyone should be able to visit a location and get the pictures they have in mind, especially places on public lands. All myself and others that share my mindset are asking is that we think twice before sharing exact locations because this can have detrimental impacts on the land and can forever negatively change and shape landscapes. Besides, in order to find a spot, many of us have had to pull out a map, do our own research, or just serendipitously stumble upon a location. Many of us also did not have the exact coordinates of the locations handed to us. 

This video created by Vox showing what happens when nature goes viral does a fantastic job explaining the negative effects that geotagging specific locations on social media can have. Vox uses Horseshoe Bend as its prime example, explaining how geotagging on social media has forever changed the visitor experience and the landscape at this particular location. Vox interviews locals at and near this location to get firsthand accounts of how the explosion in popularity due to social media geotagging has affected the landscape. 

trail-widening-leave-no-trace

Sometimes, the final destination isn't the only part misused. Here is an example of trail widening and erosion in the Adirondacks. The original trail is in the center. Educating others and sharing Leave No Trace principles, such as staying on marked trails, can help alleviate damage in the woods.

Another aspect to this video that is worth discussing is the fact that in order to compensate for an increasing number of visitors, the Park Service and city officials near Horseshoe Bend are planning to build a large parking lot and welcome center. They're also planning to build a new trail and safety railings to help protect the natural landscape. While the building of new trails and barriers is commendable, I wonder what the effect of this will be. If more people continue to visit the area, will the Park Service and other officials continue to build more parking spaces to accommodate these guests? Or will a permitting system appear? How many people and footprints can the land realistically handle? As a park official states in the video, this is a difficult balance. 

Being a photographer who shares work on Instagram and other social media platforms, I'm always conscious of the catch-22: how do we promote people to have their own outdoor experiences, which will hopefully lead them to become future stewards of the land, while also not loving natural and public places to death? Hence, Leave No Trace's social media guidelines. When I do post locations on Facebook, Instagram, or any number of online apps, I'm sure not to tag a specific location, but rather the park or state, if one at all. Further, I do my best to share Leave No Trace principles, such as packing in what you pack out, staying on a hiking trail, respecting wildlife, etc. It sounds like a miniscule effort and change, but just like if every individual person stopped throwing their one piece of trash on the ground, this change can have lasting consequences.

As Leave No Trace states: "social media, if used the right way, is a powerful tool that can motivate a nation of outdoor advocates to enthusiastically and collectively take care of the places we share and cherish." Please take a few minutes to watch this informative video that further explains why we shouldn't be geotagging our nature photographs. 

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116 Comments

John Horwitz's picture

Tell us again why it's OK for you to visit these places and take photographs, but the rest of us should be denied that very same 'privilege'.

The Park Service has to add parking spaces? Fine. Some of us are disabled, are you saying we should be denied access as mandated by the ADA?

I'm shocked that you are shocked!

user-208255's picture

Why don't you copy and paste where the author states people should "be denied" access.

Take your time. Take all the time you need.

John Horwitz's picture

Bill, look at his group, then get back to me...shall I google that for you?

user-208255's picture

Your lack of substantive response is noted, Jonny.

John Horwitz's picture

keep reading sonny boy, you whippersnappers need to do your homework!

John Horwitz's picture

THIS - bill Murray...THIS:

"I was especially shocked that most people didn't see a correlation between posting locations on social media and the amount of people that subsequently visit said locations."

It reeks of KEEP OFF MY LAWN - it was good enough for Behuniak to visit, but not for the teeming millions who come after.

Learn this: the land is PUBLIC LAND, here for everyone, not just for some with a moral attitude...

user-208255's picture

So, as I asserted, the author hasn't suggested that peoples' access should be restricted at all.

How about rather than saying stupid crap on social media, which is predicated upon your own poor comprehension and incorrectly drawn inferences, you spend more time working on your English comprehension.

John Horwitz's picture

here is the direct quote:

"How many people and footprints can the land realistically handle? As a park official states in the video, this is a difficult balance. "

user-208255's picture

What's your point, old man?

user-208255's picture

And just an FYI, it is sometimes entirely appropriate that public access should be denied.

user-208255's picture

Of more interest is why you believe you are entitled to the benefit of my hard work. Guess what, I don't owe you a single thing; including the locations of my shoots.

Because it's for all to use, we should encourage all to use it as they see fit even when detrimental to the land?

You're the kind of person that are the reason we can't have nice things...

There's something to this -- a small group of elites want to be able to visit the cool places and keep them to themselves. They certainly don't want the rest of us unwashed types to have access. So whether they're to be denied formally, or just made difficult that the rest of us will give up, they want the cool places to themselves.

Leave no trace? Absolutely. I practice that every time I shoot nature. Tell me that I can't go somewhere that you can go? Hmmm, smacks of elitism to me.

The "Leave No Trace"™ social media strikes me as just another small group of people who have taken over a great idea to use as a tool to order the rest of us around. No thanks.

Michael Holst's picture

"Leave no trace? Absolutely. I practice that every time I shoot nature. Tell me that I can't go somewhere that you can go? Hmmm, smacks of elitism to me."

You might practice "leave no trace" but as pointed out in the article, many don't and it's having a real impact on these great locations. The author has just suggested not geotagging locations to keep the viral-ness associated with social media to a minimum. He never said keep people out of parks.

The point of this article is more about keeping the land protected from people who would abuse it than it's about keeping honey holes (for lack of a better term) safe.

You're also not entitled to know where people shot their images... I don't quite get why you're so against this.

Correct, I'm not ENTITLED to know where people collect their images. But I'm allowed to know. I'm also not to be prohibited from sharing where I shot an image myself, if I choose to share. I'm also not to be prohibited from learning where others shoot their images, if THEY choose to share. It's their choice, not that of some social justice activists.

Take this a step further -- if geo-tagging is wrong because it tells others where you shot an image, then ANY hint of where you got the image also can't be shared. In some cases at least, that includes the image itself (that great shot of an arch at Zion -- people will know that. Sorry, you can't include that in your portfolio).

The author doesn't say he wants to keep people out of parks -- he just wants to keep them away from the photogenic parts of the parks. Frankly, it's selfish.

You correctly note that some people don't practice "leave no trace" -- you're right. That's an educational mission. But telling people that they can't share a location isn't education, it's coercion. And is usually the case with coercive policies, you and I don't have a voice.

Michael Holst's picture

"The author doesn't say he wants to keep people out of parks -- he just wants to keep them away from the photogenic parts of the parks. Frankly, it's selfish."

Semantics...

He actually says the opposite "Everyone should be able to visit a location and get the pictures they have in mind, especially places on public lands."....did you even read the full article or are you just arguing based off what you think it's about.

"But telling people that they can't share a location isn't education, it's coercion. And is usually the case with coercive policies, you and I don't have a voice."

Taking the author literally on one line and then injecting additional content to others isn't consistent. He never said you CAN'T share locations. He's just making a case against it. You're free to share locations as you see fit. I think the author is trying to get people to think about the impact of doing so if the location is not ready for a large increase in use by instagram fame seekers.

Personally, it doesn't sound like they want to deny access. Just don't want people to put it on social media. Maybe with the idea it doesn't make their photos any more special if there are 10 thousand photos of the same thing.

Honestly, it's not for any individual to tell others what to visit/film. If the organizations responsible for that particular area see a need to limit of deny visitors, give them all the power necessary and be respectful of those decisions.

Matthew Saville's picture

If you think that about the LNT mindset, then you're completely wrong, Steve.

At its very core, the "Leave No Trace" admonition is an assumption that people WILL be visiting these places, instead of being unable to. That's /WHY/ they're encouraging LNT.

The only thing that is encouraged to be restricted is the public sharing of exact locations. But, there is nothing elitist about that at all. If anything, it is the exact opposite- fairness and equality. How? Because it means that EVERYBODY who wants to go somewhere must put in the /SAME/ amount of "work" to find it.

So, they spent a few hours on the internet before going on their adventure, and then they spent an entire half-day hiking around in the wilderness? Now, so do you. Sorry! That's only fair.

You're complaining because you don't want to put in the same effort as someone who went befor you. That's entitlement.

John Horwitz's picture

ENTITLED ~ to your opinion, you are!

Matthew Saville's picture

That's not an opinion, that's universal logic.

It is the very definition of fairness to create a condition in which two people have to put in the same amount of effort to get something.

Oppositely, it is the very definition of entitlement for one person to say, "now that you put in the hard work, you better share the reward with me so I don't have to do that hard work!"

It's truly plain and factual. Want to go somewhere "secret"? Put in the same amount of work like everyone else who has already found it.

John Horwitz's picture

Well, Matt, for those of us who are handicapped there had damned well better be wheelchair ramps...ADA ( law of the land ) says that's fair!

Matthew Saville's picture

John, I don't know if you're actually handicapped or not, but that's kind of a non-sequitur. A handicapped person isn't going to be able to do certain things like climb Halfdome, unless they really and truly want to become an athlete and overcome their handicap. In other words, there are many people with handicaps who do amazing things in the outdoors, but you can't expect a ramp to everywhere, only to places of business and other such things that already have a normal pathway to.

In other words, it's not going to matter at all if I tell a handicapped person where a "secret" location is, it's still up to THEM to find a way to physically get there. So, total non-sequitur.

John Horwitz's picture

The ADA Standards establish design requirements for the construction and alteration of facilities subject to the law. These enforceable standards apply to places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and state and local government facilities.

Matthew Saville's picture

Indeed, John, so, ...are you asking for an ADA regulation wheelchair ramp to the top of Halfdome? Surely you aren't.

Which means your mentioning of disabled / ADA is a non-sequitur, as this whole discussion centers around remote locations that are off the beaten path to begin with.

If you're an amputee and you want to see somewhere crazy and obscure Reflection Canyon, with a little PT I could help you get there, it'd be my honor. But the mere mention of wheelchair ramps is still totally irrelevant to this discussion.

John Horwitz's picture

Not asking for that, but I could. And no, I am not an amputee, a broken neck is as devastating as the loss of limbs with the resulting loss of mobility.

The building where my disability hearing was held didn't have a wheelchair ramp...I was the only one who thought it funny.

To you, sir, I also say Bravo-Yankee-Echo.

It's not entitlement to say that I'm allowed to learn from others -- otherwise we'd be inviting all our own tools all by ourselves, starting with wheels, let alone cameras. All of us have it easy, and hard, at different times. Yes, I might go to school on a location from an image you've collected based on its coordinates. But I might also have learned of that location any number of ways, from a friend to a guide to a book to a website to a class. So what? Once I set out to go to that location (the entire route there and back), I LNT. What's your problem with the fact that I might -- might -- have had a slightly easier time of it than you did? Does that smack of being unfair? You don't ever do the same?

If you think that I'm not sharing the same amount of work you did in 'finding' a place, sure -- but then don't put your photo into a public forum in the first place. Keep it to yourself, because that's the ONLY way you'll be sure that you're the only one who's done all the 'work'. Once it's out there rest assured that others will figure it out.

As Hitchcock once observed, three can keep a secret if two are dead.

If a given location can't handle the burden of humanity, fine, I get that -- restrict it equally (since you think equality of effort is good, you can't object to that). Let the park service or whoever close the gates to that location, and I'll support that. But for the author to say that HE can photograph a 'special' place that he won't share with the rest of us unwashed folk because of HIS judgment that there is a 'danger' that the place will be trampled is elitist to the core.

It's not a question of the 'work' involved in finding a scene, it's about the scolds who tell us what we can and can't do. The author doesn't just believe that LNT means that we shouldn't geo-tag, he wants (demands) that the rest of us abide by that definition. I suppose that's the definition of advocacy as well, but I'm free to tell him to go jump, and to resist his desire to have others demand my acquiescence.

Matthew Saville's picture

Steve, learning from others is great, indeed, I do it all the time. The difference is, I don't /demand/ that anyone ever reveal a location. I search for people who are willing to share, and I try and make an effort to personally connect with them.

It is indeed easy enough to find most places, without GPS coordinates or location names on social media. With just a little more effort, you can find it.

My point is, I can get almost anywhere, and so can you, without calling someone elitist, or shaming them into telling a secret. Fairness goes both ways.

Regarding /why/ we share our images on the internet and social media- it's not because we all consider ourselves "teachers" who are sharing images for the purpose of helping /everyone/ else go there. In fact, quite the opposite- we share photos because not everybody can visit a place, and yet they can experience it through our photos and videos.

Also, photos serve to aide in conservation efforts, by increasing awareness of a location's beauty, if/when a bigger threat (development, etc) arises.

Either way, if you feel scolded by this philosophy of "keeping secrets", that's unintended. Nobody is saying you should be excluded. Just that it shouldn't be /too/ easy for "just anybody" to find certain places. Because when the barrier for entry is set to near-zero, that's when the riff-raff starts showing up.

Obviously, you're not "riff-raff". Most of the people here in this discussion, on both sides of it, are not riff-raff. We probably all truly respect the outdoors, and practice LNT. We're not the problem. And with a little effort, any one of us can probably find out where any "secret spot" is. So, go find that spot!

Then, when you do actually go there, you should practice LNT as always, and if the location is truly delicate, you should do future generations a favor and refrain from "blasting" the spot on social media.

If this polite, environmentally-respectful level of "you should do this, you shouldn't do that" feels like scolding to you, that's unfortunate. But I feel that anyone who truly wants to support the conservation of these locations will understand the importance of at least some low level of protection.

If not, then maybe that person just wants to bag another "trophy" on their bucket list, and share that pin-drop on social media for their own bragging rights and fame. Don't be that person. Go places because you truly love them, and want to see them preserved for the future, not because you want to brag about everywhere you've been. (As I said, clearly that is not who WE are, but the fact is that those types of people are indeed out there, and that's the problem, not US.)

Michael Holst's picture

You're adding quite a bit of context to the article. You've put up a lot of straw men to argue at.

Matthew Saville's picture

Thumbs DOWN, John.

Here's the bottom line: Not sharing GPS coordinates is not STOPPING you from going to a place. In fact, the only way it COULD stop you from going there is if you're ridiculously lazy and entitled.

Here's what happens when someone doesn't geotag a location: It leaves in place the SAME barrier for entry that was already in place, instead of silver-spoon-feeding it to /too many/ people.

By calling a "secret-keeper" an elitist if they don't share a location, you're asking them to take (some of) the effort out of getting there, for you. That person is simply saying, "no, sorry, you need to do the same work I did, if you want to see this place."

There is absolutely zero elitism about that. If anything, it "reeks" of equality and fairness.

If you want to go somewhere, figure out where it is on your own. THEN, when you do go, practice LNT principles just like everybody else who goes there.

It's that simple.

Mark Guinn's picture

Perfectly worded, Matthew.... I couldn't agree more.

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