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Are Geotags Destroying Nature? The Growing Movement Against Geotags

Are Geotags Destroying Nature? The Growing Movement Against Geotags

Recently, there has been a push to have photographers keep their shoot locations secret, as park administration and others are asking photographers not to geotag their images. I don’t agree, and think this practice is counterproductive.A number of organizations, including the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board and Leave No Trace have started to push the concept of #nogeotag. They argue that the landscapes many photographers enjoy documenting are under threat from hordes of “influencers” who learn of the location via geotags. The Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board has even created a focused campaign to “Keep Jackson Hole Wild”, connecting a geotag with “one big problem”. The growing awareness of the practice even lead to an article in the New York Times.

Many photographers appreciate the practice of geotags, for both researching future locations, getting inspiration, and sharing images among users with a specific geographic focus. Many popular instagram hashtags have a geographic element, with specific pages and groups of users focused on certain locations. This practice is even built into most phones, which embed a geotag into the EXIF data at time of capture.

As a landscape photographer, I’ve uploaded images to Instagram or other platforms with geotags intact. I’ve tagged images with location specific hashtags, and mentioned locations by name in captions or online discussions. I’d hate to think that I’ve caused damage to these locations through my actions, but after some further thought, I believe the organizations are approaching this problem from the wrong direction.

Photography is an essential medium for tourist destinations, now more than ever. It is little coincidence that tourism boards, national parks, and hotels all run Instagram pages promoting their unique locations and encouraging visitors to “share your favorite images with our hashtag”. I’ve been inspired to visit locations based on work from other photographers I admire, and I know that browsing other images of a location is the best way to plan shots in an unfamiliar location.

Some of my favorite locations are in the wild, or in state and national parks. I appreciate how important it is to follow the rules, not only for my safety, but for the safety of others and animals. I even try and go beyond the letter of the law by picking up some extra trash. Most photographers I’ve seen sharing the trails with me are following the same practices, so I’m disappointed to see the blame placed on myself and other photographers for problems that occur.

The hidden gem of Zion National Park- don't tell anyone

There will always be the potential for an individual to cause damage — a prominent example includes a graffiti artist who was banned for life from national parks for vandalism in a number of national parks.Interestingly, it was the very online communities that are now being demonized for hashtagging that helped track her down. In another instance, vandals carved graffiti into rock formations at Utah’s Arches National Park. Again, the park officials turned to their social media looking for help in tracking down the individuals responsible.In both these cases, the individuals weren’t lured in by a well composed image of a remote location that a photographer shared with a hashtag, but instead caused damage within a few feet of the trail.

When it comes to dealing with an increase in visitor volume, national parks have seen a 20% increase over the last decade, and a number of specific locations have gone “viral”.

Horseshoe Bend at the Grand Canyon, is getting a parking lot, a visitors station, bathrooms, and more, owing to the increase in visits. I don’t doubt that a number of people learned about this amazing location thanks to Instagram, and I don’t begrudge them wanting to visit. I think it is great that the Parks Service is stepping up to the challenge, and implementing some facilities to accommodate its new popularity.

Of course, there are instances where keeping a shoot or subject location secret is important. The Times article mentions a population of rhinos who aren’t formally protected, which could become the subject of poaching.

Going back to the original situation in Wyoming, I’ve visited in the past, and would love to go back, but I was surprised to see the hotel I stayed at had nearly doubled its rates, and was booked solid on many dates. Now, I didn’t geotag my stay at the hotel, so I was quite surprised. Clearly, only my photos had the power to drive crowds to a major travel destination.

On the other hand, tourism spending in Wyoming has risen by about 45%, with tax revenues from travel almost doubling in the last ten years. Clearly, with more visitors, and even more money flowing in, there must be some powerful geotags at work.

Jokes aside, I think tourism boards and local authorities have to take some responsibility. I’ve been on the waitlist for a permit to visit the Wave rock formation in Arizona for a couple years, and while I’m disappointed I haven’t had the chance to visit yet, I appreciate that measures need to be taken to preserve it for everyone. I also am happy to pay the seemingly ever-increasing park admission fees for our state and national parks, because they are worth it.

Anti-geotagging efforts seem to be the easy way out, as instead of coming up with a reasonable management plan for stewarding a location’s natural resources, or having to turn away visitors (and more importantly their revenues), these groups can blame photographers for causing these problems. It might be easy to have “security by obscurity” for some out of the way locations, but if it really is that good, it’ll end up shared. I strongly encourage readers to keep practicing a respectful approach to our natural resources, but would also call on those in charge of these locations to take responsibility. Create reasonable rules for visitors, and leverage the large amounts people that are willing to pay to build facilities, trails, and resources necessary to accommodate visitors. Like many issues, a poorly structured rule like “no geotags”, only harms those who aren’t causing the problems.

Alex Coleman's picture

Alex Coleman is a travel and landscape photographer. He teaches workshops in the American Southwest, with an emphasis on blending the artistic and technical sides of photography.

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Even with geotagging, within a few years at most, people can just let AI determine a photo's location. I recall shooting a mural for a book publisher years ago and I was trying to research it. I brought the photo up on my computer, pointed my cell phone at it with Google Goggles turned on, and it identified the mural, artists, and history is under 5 seconds, and that was at least five years ago.

If you’re worried about people stealing your location as a photographer, you should find a different hobby. You clearly are not a professional.

I only say this because if you were a professional you’d shoot a location, person, event, etc. in a way that only you could produce. Photographer’s that think this way probably fantasize about Christopher Columbus “discovering” America... you didn’t “find” shit.

This article and the four others centering on exactly the same topic should all be renamed to, “How to show people you are unoriginal with your work and prove you’re a joke”.

I think we should ban shoes. People won't be able to get there if they don't have shoes.

I think it could be argued that not geotagging specific locations for thousands of people to see is, in fact, a respectful approach to our natural resources. I don't understand how not tagging a specific location on social media physically or emotionally harms anyone. Rather, it is a step in the right direction to helping keep crowds down in sensitive areas. There are direct correlations between the amount of times a specific location on social media has been shared and the subsequent explosion of visitors to that spot. I'm not saying this out of entitlement, nor am I saying others don't have the right to visit a specific location, nor should they be kept secret, but I don't see why geotagging is necessary to find a location. I agree in that tourism boards and agencies are also responsible in the explosion of natural locations, but think that Jackson Hole is taking a responsible step and stance in the right direction. As visitors to natural locations, every single person - including us - is responsible for the treatment of land. It's up to us to help maintain the integrity of wild spaces and places, so why not do everything we can in this light?

Why not ban maps, too?