Gatekeeping in Landscape Photography: Good or Bad?

Gatekeeping in Landscape Photography: Good or Bad?

Whether to share locations in landscape photography is a frequent topic of discussion in landscape photographer communities. People get frustrated when they ask where a photo was taken and the photographer won’t tell them. Are they gatekeeping, or are they trying to protect the natural landscape?

We have all seen it unfold on the internet, whether it be a comment on a social media post, a discussion in a Facebook group, or maybe you are the landscape photographer receiving direct messages asking where a photo was taken.

When these requests for locations occur, they are often prompted by a beautiful image of a lesser-known place the photographer shared. The photographer did not geotag the spot or maybe tagged it with a broad location, like Arizona or West Virginia. And the questions start: Where is this? How do I get there? What is the name of this place? And so on.

In many cases, if the photographer didn’t tag the specific location, the answer will be, “No, I cannot disclose the location of this photograph” or something along those lines. From here, the cries of gatekeeping or trying to keep locations from others arise, and the debate unfolds.

What Is Gatekeeping?

Today, the term gatekeeping usually has a negative connotation. Essentially, it means controlling or limiting access to something. When a person is not told the location of a particular photograph, some people will accuse that photographer of “gatekeeping” the location by not sharing. But are they?

Why Not Share A Location?

Not all locations are created equal. Some have had infrastructure built to help accommodate large numbers of visitors. A park service has built parking lots, trails to sustain foot traffic, toilets, and more. These areas, with their infrastructure, can help minimize the damage people could do while exploring an area.

Many areas have sensitive flora, wildlife, or even dirt when it comes to cryptobiotic soil, which can suffer harm that would take years to recover from. Areas with infrastructure built for visitors help keep people away from those more sensitive areas or at least contain the damage we do simply by visiting locations.

Some of the lesser-known areas a landscape photographer might photograph lack these protections. A high volume of visitors could alter the environment beyond repair—flowers could be trampled, sensitive soil disturbed, or even outright vandalism, with people carving their initials into rocks and trees near the area.

This is one of the primary reasons a landscape photographer might choose not to share locations on their posts or why they might not tell you the exact location of a photo. They aren’t being elitist, they are trying to protect sensitive areas and keep them from being overrun with people when the infrastructure and environment might not support it.

Many practicing landscape photographers have stories to tell about areas damaged by over-visitation. Some have learned the hard way and been the ones that shared a location, or they are at the very least familiar with watching the popularity of a location change the environment around it as word gets out.

Can I Never Share?

People often wonder when to share and when not to share. There isn’t really a set rule, but I highly recommend erring on the side of caution and being deliberate about when you share a location.

One only has to look at my social media feed to see I vary how and when I share a location. If an area has infrastructure built and maintained by a park service, I am more likely to share an exact location.

For example, if I am at one of my favorite local areas to photograph and take a picture of one of the more popular waterfalls, I am much more likely to mention the exact location. The park service has built infrastructure to help minimize the impact of people visiting. There are designated parking lots, marked trails, areas marked as restricted (which are unfortunately ignored all too often), and restrooms for visitors. These are easily found areas, with or without my photograph.

Meanwhile, there are other places in the region that I do not tag because the infrastructure is not there to support a high volume of visitors. In those cases, I might tag the county or the state, but do not provide specifics. Even when people ask me in comments or via direct message, I decline to comment on the specific location.

Are We Limiting Access?

If you look at the definition of gatekeeping, it says controlling or limiting access to something. Are we landscape photographers really limiting access by not sharing a location? No—everyone has access to the same tools and information we used to find lesser-known locations.

Using my local area again as an example, several of the locations I have found were done through studying topographic maps, reading trail reports buried deep on the internet, or possibly seeing another photographer’s photo and sparking my own research on the spot to help find it.

For me, exploring and finding new places is part of the fun, whether I'm following something interesting on a topographic map or spending hours scouring the internet for some old, obscure reference to a spot that might be worth checking out. As with all things landscape photography, learning to enjoy the process pays some of the best rewards in the end.

Take the Opportunity to Educate

If you are a photographer who does not share locations, be prepared for people not being happy when you don’t disclose a location. Many are quick to accuse of gatekeeping because some don’t understand the why behind it.

Instead of being annoyed if someone asks for a location, take a moment to tell the person asking why you are not comfortable sharing. Explain the consequences of publicly sharing certain locations and the detrimental effect on the environment of that location. Explain how not disclosing locations can help protect the beauty we are trying to photograph.

I often find this a good opportunity to mention some of the key Nature First principles or direct a person to the Nature First website so they can learn more about them. It is a very helpful resource, especially for those who might not have grown up with Leave No Trace principles.

Jeffrey Tadlock's picture

Jeffrey Tadlock is an Ohio-based landscape photographer with frequent travels regionally and within the US to explore various landscapes. Jeffrey enjoys the process and experience of capturing images as much as the final image itself.

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I think it's good. There's a ton of places I'd love to go to. I'd want them to be preserved rather than getting destroyed by photo tourism though. If a place is meant for photo tourism then fine. But the stuff of the beaten path should be left for the few people that actually respect these spaces and leave them as the same as when they arrived.

Agreed! The way I look at it, not telling someone where something is isn't preventing them from going; they just need to work a little harder to research, look at maps, scour the Internet to find the location—or maybe even make a few trips to an area just looking for it.

I also think people that take those extra steps to research things like that, fall a little more into the category of people that will leave no trace and help protect the area as well - but I have no data for that, possibly just a hopeful thought.

I 100% agree. I feel the same that if you put in the work to find a place that you are more likely to appreciate. Like earning the money to buy that camera you want. You're more likely to take care of it because you understand what it takes to earn it.

Nicely stated, if it's a place able to support heavy visitation sharing the location is fine. A more sensitive location that will suffer harm from insensitive visitors should remain guarded. What makes a photo great is sometimes a unique and rare place that won't be so special anymore after the hoards in flip flops with their cell phones trample the place. Your emphasis on education is admirable. Many wouldn't take the time to answer in a positive way.

Thank you! I think the education component is important, I see a number of landscape photographers who get annoyed when people ask them for a location, but I feel like the question might not be coming from a place of entitlement, but more a lack of understanding about why a location isn't shared.

Not to say everyone is going to agree, but as landscape photographers (or photographers photographing unique locations), I think we can all be ambassadors of Nature First principles and help people understand the why and not just get frustrated when people ask for a location.

Totally agree. If there is no infrastructure and or sensitive ecosystems the location should never be disclosed.
I know of an area in AZ that has become a garbage dump full of human feces, toilet paper and garbage because it was revealed by someone.

That's sad to hear about that spot in Arizona - I was just out there last week (southern AZ).

You seem to be skirting around the possibility that people aren't disclosing locations potentially because they going to them illegally or unethically and using the excuse of preserving a location instead of snitching on themselves. These places that you mention with no infrastructure for people are usually off limits either because they are private properties or restricted access areas in public parks. That means you aren't supposed to be there. The preserving a location argument sounds like a cop out. If a person is so concerned about the preservation of a location with no infrastructure for people then why are they themselves going to it for a photo? I get that there are a lot of terrible people that will liter and destroy things and landscape photographers are generally more conscious of nature and its eco-systems but it's pretentious to say you should go someone that no one is supposed to be simply because you won't liter. These are photographers, not environmentalists. How about instead of asking "is it gatekeeping" we ask "should anyone even be here?"

Completely agree. Also, what makes these "gatekeepers" the font of all knowledge as regards access to an area? As you say they aren't environmentalists or for that matter rangers or land managers in an area.

While there are certain tourist hot spots with views made (in)famous via social media where people queue for a sefi I don't think we are talking about such locations here but areas off the tourist track and remote enough the selfi brigade would never venture anywhere near. So I find it rather hypocritical a photographer would venture to such a remote location and then having had whatever impact they had on the area themselves appoint themselves custodians effectively telling everyone else to stay away. Hypocritical and patronising.

It isn't unreasonable to think a landscape photographer might research an area or its environs and be familiar with how to access it safely and minimize impact. This is actually the second item of the Nature First principles: to educate yourself about the area to avoid harm.

Many landscape photographers have stories of where they shared a location that was relatively unknown, only to see it change several years later due to the increase in visitors. It is how areas get popular and potentially lead to damage.

The photographer isn't gatekeeping from the perspective of denying access, they simply aren't handing them a map and GPS coordinates. People can do their own research, investigation, study of maps to find interesting areas that are less traveled - and hopefully educate themselves about the area as they do so.

I agree with you. These photographers always say dont go there only after they have gone themselves. It IS gatekeeping.

They don't reveal the location - not say don't go there. There is a difference. The resources exist for each of us to find a location.

There is certainly that possibility, and I don't condone accessing prohibited areas and trying to hide behind not sharing the location. With that said, it definitely isn't true in all cases, and I would venture to guess not true in even the majority of cases. A subset yes.

The part that irks me is that paint artists are never asked for a location. Viewers by asking that question devalues our art. It’s just another form of scrolling through. When photographers show me their work, I spend time viewing it for what it’s worth and making a statement of the emotional impact of their image.

Famous landscape painters are often revered for how they have interpreted well known landscapes in the same way photographers like Ansel Adams photos of Yosemite are.

Part of the attraction of Adam's photographs are how he captured pictures of famous landscape landmarks.

The idea location is unimportant is nuts. It often provides a context that makes the photograph more meaningful.

It is true some painters were adept at painting what I would call a scene. So an idyllic English meadow in spring for example but everyone knows such paintings are idealised fantasies. Landscape photographers don't deal with such abstract scenes so location is an intrinsic part of the photograph for me.

Well that's the thing. Many photographers actually deal with the abstracts of the scene. Their images aren't necessarily popular. The ones who turn their images into travel brochures and pretty pictures tend to get the credit. By the way, Ansel Adams actually made people aware of places like Yosemite and Point Lobos. He was there first. Today, I think that as Photographers we have an implied obligation to show portions of a place that is not necessarily obvious. An example below is from an iconic place but not the kind images that you necessarily see on posts:

I disagree. I understand all the environmentalist speech over it (I am an ecologist!) but I dont find it sincere. If you are REALLY concerned about site preservation, then you would not go yourself. You would restrain from going to a place that is fragile and/or in a restricted area to take your own photos.
I find a lot of these arguments by landscape photographers, but they do it only after THEY have gone. No one is saying: "I´d love to go to this place, but as a responsible landscape photographer I choose not to because I understand that my presence would be harmful". They think that OTHERS should not go.
So, in conclusion, besides all the good intentions, what these photographers are doing is keeping the places for themselves. I understand that, competition in profesional landscape photography is though, and you have to discover new original locations to keep in the business. But please don´t disguise it as environmentalist action.
Be true to yourself and to the community.

I'm not advocating going to restricted locations or even fragile areas necessarily.

For example, let's use the Grand Canyon for example in Arizona. The Grand Canyon has its main trails (Bright Angel, Kaibab), it has its secondary trails (Hermit Trail, Tonto Trail, Horseshoe Mesa tail, and so on, and son), but it also has areas with routes that are fully permitted to hike, visit, etc. There is no support, they are not maintained, but they exist.

It is quite possible I have photographed some interesting rock formations, waterfall, etc in one of those areas and would choose not to share the location. I would not have broken any rules and it is a publicly accessible area with research. *But*, because it is unmaintained area and it is closer to a route than a mainstream trail, it would not be able to support a large amount of people visiting it. Therefore I would not share its location.

That is more my point, not hiding locations because one is going to restricted areas or stomping through a fragile area.

"If you are REALLY concerned about site preservation, then you would not go yourself. You would restrain from going to a place that is fragile and/or in a restricted area to take your own photos"

I do actually practice what I preach.

"So, in conclusion, besides all the good intentions, what these photographers are doing is keeping the places for themselves."

I think this is fine too. As long as they leave the location in the same condition as when they arrived. Sometimes it's nice to have a place to yourself.

98% of landscape and wildlife photography is learning and exploring potential locations. You want me to do 98% of your work for you? No. I spend years searching for a perfect spot so you can run up there with your iphone for a selfie? No. Photographers don't owe any information to anyone about the locations they have success with.

There is that element too. I know I actually enjoy finding locations and the process of finding locations.

Even in the area where I tend to photograph, I know there are several waterfalls that are out there that I haven't found yet. I could ask some of the folks where a particular one is at, but instead, I like to do some more research, sleuth the Internet, get out the topo map, and see if I can figure it out. Some of the adventures of looking for some of them have been a great experience - even when I don't find it the first time! (Still looking for some of them!)

A photographer is under no obligation to say anything about a photograph. I am also reminded of a quote by Oscar Wilde very pertiment here: The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.

I really like that quote!

Like others have said, if the attraction is designed for tourism then fair enough. If you've spent some time and effort find a location yourself then i feel you have every right to keep it to yourself. There is one particular spot here where i live, I had 20 comments asking where it was so people could go take the same photo. I spent a month searching for possible locations and upon actually discovering it quickly realized that it would be destroyed if its location went viral.

Not only that but its far more rewarding putting in the time and effort to be rewarded at the end rather then scabbing the location from someones hard work just so you can post it on the "gram"

There is definitely a big difference between a small number of people visiting a location and crowds of people every day - completely different impacts on the environment.

I enjoy the reward of putting time and effort into finding locations as well. Very similar to my landscape photography in general, I enjoy the whole process as much as the end result.

Gatekeeping is not a nice thing per se, but I don't think it's exactly bad when it comes to landsapes and beautiful places you just happen to discover and don't want to be destroyed. Making it a point to not disclose a name of some clearly popular place that could be seen in every other touristy smartshow 3d video would be strange, but I think it's fine to keep to yourself those places that mean a lot to you. As others already said, save it for the few people who would respect it for sure.

For popular places that already are well known and have infrastructure to support a larger number of visitors, I tend to share the location for those places as well. It is more those lesser visited, harder to find places I tend to be more general in how I tag the location - usually moving up to at least county, or possibly even state instead of being specific.

I think it makes sense, if the location is environmentally pristine, best to try to keep it that way. However, if its somewhere fairly near to a population centre and is reasonably well known already - then perhaps not. Sometimes I protect, and sometimes I am open... and its not always black and white on the decision.

Yeah - it is not black and white; some discretion and consideration of the area seem appropriate.

I am always reminded of the disaster that the Cinque Terre in Italy has become. I know it it is a different case to landscape photography and ecology.

It is quite close to where I live, and up until a certain point, it was a collection of sleepy villages off season and during the week, with local tourism in the summer.

Then it was "discovered" by a travel writer for some glossy magazine, and its fame spread. It has joined the Italian Bucket list locations along side Venice Rome, and Florence. From May to October it is now uncontrollably overcrowded, and becomes some sort of hell on earth for much of the summer.

Good point - this problem isn't even strictly for landscape photography locations - can totally affect urban areas and whole towns. Sedona in Arizona is a place that is near overrun now - traffic is beyond terrible, parking is a mess, trails are crowded, etc, etc. I remember visiting there in the early '90s and while there were people and it was semi-busy, nothing like it is today.

Trouble is often people are asking just out of curiosity, not because they want to go there themselves. Maybe if someone asks that question, they should be clear why they want to know - "I was curious and wanted to know more about the place you photographed. Unless it's a well traveled location and easy to access, I have no intention of going there myself."

Sometimes landscape photographers will hike for many hours or even days, through terrain that requires a good understanding of how to hike safely in remote areas. Your average tourist is never going to make it to these places and would have no inclination to try.

Good point! A good reason to not assume ill will by people asking for locations as well.

My comment: Tourons.
The main reason for not publically posting or disclosing a location is Tourons!

Tourist + Morons = Tourons

At one time, a person ran a wildflower sighting list. The public would flock to a sight and overrun it. The tourons would trample plants that had yet to bloom or set their seeds. After two seasons, she took her list down. 15 years later, some of the sites have healed, and some may never come back.

I agree with you. I see gatekeeping as those who deliberately hold others back by discouragement. Keeping a location secret is worthwhile as it protects the environment and is different. There is a difference.

Yep! And it isn't like someone not sharing a location is *preventing* a person from doing their own research and work to find the location or putting in the work to find other interesting locations on their own. The photographer isn't preventing access to the same resources they had.

I stopped even telling the general region, unless the location is obvious. People are so freaking destructive. Not thoughtful, not respectful, not even creative. Just plain destructive. So why would I tell a location just so numb nuts can find it, take a dump in the middle of it, carve his initials in the sandstone or the trees and post his imitation on FB like another notch on his gun? Done with that crap. Not jealousy or “gate keeping” at all. Just protecting the beauty of a place. Keep the west wild.

and BTW. There is a loc in Southern Utah I used to go to a couple of times, or more, per year. Beautiful, pristine, untouched. A film crew from Europe snuck in, entrance was by permit only, and marketed as “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth”. The next year touron busses were disgorging at the trailhead with scores of folks - and none were permitted. When I first went in, dozens of years ago - there were sandstone fins that stuck out 12-18 inches and were wafer thin. What’s left now is black marks on the sandstone left by Vibram soled touron boots. Haven’t been back in 20 years. Infatuation with the place has destroyed it. Millions of years in forming. 15 minutes being destroyed.

That is terrible that these areas were destroyed. I don't think a lot of people comprehend how rapidly this can happen unless they've witnessed it. One year or even a couple of months of high tourist traffic can have significant, unrepairable damage done to a place. Maybe I should even reconsider general locations...

Unless the location is obvious I have started just saying Northern Arizona, Washington Coast etc. I am more a conservationist than an environmentalist meaning that we should protect our beautiful natural areas. If they all are destroyed, or we make sidewalks that go to all of them, then where will we go when we want just to wander? All who wander are not lost. Maybe in wandering we find who we are.

We definitely need to protect our natural areas, I always think back to Edward Abbey's quote in Desert Solitaire:

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”