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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Nick Rains's picture

She heard about a place people were smilin' ... Seeking a place to stand or a place ... And they called it paradise ... You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye ...
Eagles - The Last Resort

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

There are several interesting aspects in that video.

1.) The correlation between geo tagging and visitor increase is not really researched. They have one person saying he "believes" it's the reason and some graphs. What they do not talk about at all is the general increase in tourism caused by easier access to travel resources (ridiculously cheap flights), increasing wealth in parts of the world which leads to more tourists that might not share environmental ethics.

2.) I did not see many, photographers there (in terms of nature photographers/enthusiasts). Mostly holiday smartphone snapshots and while the conclusion is the same, the approach to reach those people is completely different. They don't care/don' know about some nature photographers ethic code. They need to be educated on site about their impact on nature. It will also be very hard to forbid those people to tag the location of their holiday location.

3.) Those tourist groups i mentioned above often don't plan these trips themselves. They are planned by tour agencies and given to them as a ready package. So also here the approach has to be different.
This is not to sound racist but based on actual experience in central Europe. Some of those tourists (especially Asian groups), are completely unaware of where exactly they actually are. They are just dragged along by the tour.

What I'm trying to say is, that the topic might be oversimplified by telling photographers not to geo tag. It is certainly a good and noble approach, but it is not gonna solve the problem as it is rooted in various different sources (my opinion, not based on scientific research).

I'm a bit conflicted with this. I believe the stop geotagging movement is a valid one in some circumstances...in the case of Horseshoe Bend, not so much. Of course visitor counts have risen over the years.... Yosemite, Zion, Glacier, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone.....every single one of them has seen astronomical rises in visitors. How many have you visited? Do we pretend they don't exist and stop geotagging? Like your Adirondack example, I see IG photos of experienced hikers trudging though rainy muddy trails, they're doing far more damage than someone crossing the hard rock of Horseshoe Bend.

Local lore became word of mouth which became guidebooks which became internet blogs which became social media. I have just as much right to visit those iconic places as you, and other people can visit the iconic places I've seen. It's up to us to figure out a way to lessen our impact.

I don't geotag my photos nor do I use other people's geotags. Geotagging is simply unnecessary in my opinion.
Horseshoe Bend is a nightmare. After seeing the aftermath of four high speed multi vehicle collisions at the Horseshoe Bend turnoff, and too many close calls of my own, I no longer even drive by it. Nor does anyone I know who lives in Page, AZ.

Zac Henderson's picture

I completely agree that it is in almost any location's best interest to not geotag its exact whereabouts. National and State Parks alike get loved to death and can over time be ruined for everyone either by excessive degradation or by a park service restricting access.

I have to stress that not geotagging images is NOT automatically the same thing as telling someone they shouldn't be allowed to go there. Believing so is reductionist.

Nearly anyone with the means can gain access to the location that any given landscape photo was taken. The difference is that by not geotagging images, it requires people that want to find that spot to actually do some research. Start large, then narrow down, reverse image search, gain permits, hike the wrong trails, then the right ones, etc. Its all possible... just more difficult. And that difficulty is what can prevent these beautiful locations from, to use the term again, being loved to death. Not geotagging the image could be the difference between thousands of people visiting that exact locations vs 10 or 20.

And I'd say that chances are the people that did do the research to find that exact spot will likely also be the people to respect it.