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.

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56 Comments

Leigh Miller's picture

Geotagging does nothing to destroy a location. Selfish/Ignorant/Entitled people do that.

Ludwig Hagelstein's picture

that´s true. But geotagging makes their actions easier and more accessible. Why not use the good old image caption instead of a tag that can be indexed by a search engine or an algorithm. The geotag is just a factor that makes it easier and more accessible to find a location and thus makes a location more accessible to idiot xyz who wants to get his unique magnesium flare shot.

Michael Holst's picture

You are correct! Though doesn't a Geo Tag tell those "Selfish/Ignorant/Entitled" where they should go if they want to see that view?

Leigh Miller's picture

...That would suggest the only way to find out where the really interesting views are is via geo-tagging.

This isn't a new problem. I've been in this game long enough to see trash/vandalism and wildlife
harrassment at various spots around the world long before instagram made it's first appearance.

You can't stop stupidity...you can make it uncomfortable for that to be an excuse though.

Michael Holst's picture

What social network platform do "Selfish/Ignorant/Entitled" people seem to gravitate towards the most?

I never suggested that it's THE ONLY way but certainly it's making it easier since so many "Selfish/Ignorant/Entitled" people are on Instagram. My point is that, yes it's a large problem but denying that geotags could have a part in this would be a little dismissive.

"Geotagging does nothing to destroy a location. Selfish/Ignorant/Entitled people do that."

This just seems like an over simplification.

Ludwig Hagelstein's picture

I disagree with keeping locations strictly secret, but I think geotags are harmful, because they enable an algorithm or basically anyone to "pull" that data. For example one might program an algorithm that selects geotagged locations by the likes they get on instagram and uses the data for a "Lanscape Photography Scouting" app. This does not sound harmful at first, but it bears the potential danger that way too many people see it and get the exact location to "replicate" that one shot they saw. And I´m sorry, most photography on instagram nowadays is a replication of a replication of a replication of the same motif. And the more people frequent a location, the more harm is done to the place. If someone wants to share a location, that´s fine. But making it super accessible for a machine or an algorithm or a business to exploit is dangerous in my opinion. Sometimes, self opposed limits are a good approach, and having a location accessible for basically everyone with a smartphone at the tap of an app á la "places you could like based on your social media preferences" bears the potential danger that too many people want to go there, instead of the 5 people reading your image caption.

This is the most persuasive argument against geotags I have heard so far. Instead of vague scaremongering you are actually presenting a reasonable case.

michael andrew's picture

Geotagging is super goony. Why do it? Look at me I’m cool I was here. Bail the geotagging it’s reall super dumb. All it does is bring more people to an exact location, the type of people too lazy to care about the ethics and etiquette as rules of a location. STOP GEOTTAGING ITS IS SUPER LAME.

Everyone that geotags is just a sheep using software without giving 2phucks about the impact. It’s making Instagram billions and putting somewhat hard to find locations on the map for literally everyone with a phone. So random this time we live in where anyone would support or defend this horrible feature.

Go explore on your own! Go find new location on your own! Get inspired by others work and go make something fresh on your own!

The 'Go explore on your own!' argument doesn't work if the area you are visiting is far from where you live and you don't have the luxury of wandering around for weeks.

I do do extensive research before going to a remote area not to replicate anyone's shot, but rather to identify where I want to go as the list of potential destinations usually varies from long (cities) to virtually limitless (nature).

Your argument is that geotagging brings tourists and so it's good. But you don't have to geotag, you can just say the general area where you took the shot... Most tourists want to visit the region, not to go there just for a photo. Also, if you know it's an off track area that very little people go to, why would you geotag it ? Tell your mates about it if you want, or bring them here yourself, but don't boast about it on Instagram by showing how remote it is with the geotag. Wildlife photographers don't do it because of poaching. Well imagine instagram users as poachers of the landscape. Do you see the apalling state some National Parks areas are in right now because of the shutdown ? I know it's better for your sanity to imagine the best in people, but in that particular case you're reaching millions of people. A few dozens with bad intentions and bad manners is all that's needed to utterly ruin a location.

Matthew Saville's picture

Cue the "guns don't kill people..." comments. (eye roll)

Yeah, human beings are terrible, and need to be taught how to better respect the outdoors.

But to point fingers in such a manner is to get into a "chicken-VS-egg, which came first?" fight. The bottom line is, the FASTEST way for us to actuallly START increasing the preservation of certain locations, is to significantly reduce the number of geotags, period. THEN you can work on teaching current and future generations how to better respect the outdoors, how to explore their own new favorite cool spots, practice LNT, etc...

To sit around bickering about which is more effective is to get nothing accomplished, thus taking a step further down the path of increased entropy.

Michael Jin's picture

"The bottom line is, the FASTEST way for us to actuallly START increasing the preservation of certain locations, is to significantly reduce the number of geotags, period."

Is there actual data to back up this assertion or is it your own speculation?

Matthew Saville's picture

If you need "data" in order to understand such incredibly basic, clear logic, then you may be part of the non-solution.

Michael Jin's picture

The funny thing about relying on logic is that we often encounter unintuitive responses to what may initially seem like logical solutions because in the process of employing our logic to problem solving, there might be a myriad of factors that we are not taking into account.

It's entirely possible that erasing every geotag on social media may have no appreciable effect on the problem. Responses like yours assume that geo tags are the core problem in leading people to these sites, but what research do you have to draw the conclusion that geotagging is the specific cause of this trend?

If you're asking people to go out of their way to change their behavior, I feel like it should be backedup by a little bit more than "this is the logical result that I foresee".

Also, an unrealistic solution (eg. Getting everyone to go the extra step to erase location information automatically recorded by your device) is not a solution at all. It's just mental masturbation. It's more reasonable to demand park services and municipalities to increase patrols, penalties, and maintenance than it is to fruitlessly try to change the behavior of millions of people.

Or better yet, if you care so much about the issue, use your own time and resources (the only things you can actually control) to start a group that volunteers to keep these sites clean.

Matthew Saville's picture

"It's entirely possible that erasing every geotag on social media may have no appreciable effect on the problem."

There's maybe a 0.01% chance. This is not a "innocent until proven guilty beyond all (reasonable) doubt", ...this is a time-sensitive situation that needs to begin testing solutions asap, especially if they're 99.99% likely to have at least a small effect.

Also, I think you're misrepresenting what goes into geotagging a location on many social media platforms. By default, you have to actively tag a location, in apps like Instagram etc. So, all we're really asking is for people to break the habit of "bragging" about where they've been.

But, I get it. You're not interested in doing anything unless there's a 100% chance it'll work. That's a very respectable attitude towards any big undertaking. Unfortunately, like I said, that's the attitude that will get us nowhere, and allow entropy to increase. Oh well.

Michael Jin's picture

The way I figure it, this planet is doomed no matter what. Whether it's an ecological thing, nuclear warfare, or the rock we live on getting swallowed by an expanding sun, I don't care all that much as long as I'm not alive to see it. As for our grandchildren, they won't miss what they never knew in the first place.

Call me indifferent. I've never seen a dodo and I don't think my life would be any richer if I had. I don't get this thing about preserving nature for its own sake. 🤷‍♂️

Matthew Saville's picture

Haha, if it's an indifference challenge you want, I'm game! that's why I'm probably not bringing children into this world, and I'm ready to just wander off into the mountains and be self-sufficient if/when the global economy decides to implode and anarchy ensues... :-)

user-216690's picture

There's the slight issue where we, as a species, are utterly reliant upon the environment for our survival.

But hey, I didn't have children either.

Michael Jin's picture

Yeah... my kids will probably just look at me and shake their head just like I look at my parents and grandparents and shake my head. So the cycle continues. LOL

user-216690's picture

Your kids are likely to be fighting for survival. Things are quite catastrophic, and the rate of environmental collapse is terrifying. The human population is going to collapse, and we will be lucky to come out of this with more than a billion humans.

The bitch is that it doesn't matter how many people I can convince at this point, nothing can alter it - the extent of current extinction, combined with the rate of extinctions, and the fact we continue to aggressively pursue economic growth make it so.

We think we're safe in the West, we aren't.

Michael Jin's picture

Well I guess that's a problem they'll have to deal with. Every generation deals with its woes.

user-216690's picture

As I said, I didn't have kids.

Now, I'm well and truly middle aged, and I'm going to have to deal with it. The marine environment is proper screwed, but we simply aren't paying attention, after all, it's under water.

2 billion people rely upon the ocean for survival.

user-216690's picture

I tend not to tell people where I am, beyond a general area, if I'm in delicate habitat.

Simon Patterson's picture

Good article with a well stated conclusion.

Good, I never started geotagging, so I am so far behind that I am ahead again.

William Howell's picture

Geo-tagging, is not unlike global hotness™️, it’s a scam.
People who like to control people, make stuff up, like this new crisis of “geo-tagging”!

I have responded several times that geotagging is the least of our concerns in an era where rolling back EPA regulations, unpledging support of the Kyoto accord, and ignoring the murder of journalists for oil from allies are more critical topics. I have suggested that people could hike locally rather than travel by evironmentally inefficien5 means such as jet planes.

But I was thinking about this conversation further and have an additional perspective; people want it all but don’t want anyone else to have it. We want the other person to compromise, to live without, but not ourselves. If geotagging is such a problem then give up your camera and witness with your own eyes or better yet don’t go if it is over-visited. No, instead we tell snowflakes “have at it” but just don’t post your geotagged pic and encourage others; this is f***ed up. This only comes from an age on entitlement where non NFL fans purchase thousand dollar tickets and show up in expensive jerseys just so they can say they were there. It is an artifact of wealth distribution that creates out of touch millionaires that are self serving and a working poor that go further in debt trying to keep up with the Jones.

No I am not a communist or a liberal. I just wish that people would once in a while push away from the table and consider the future of our society and our kids.

David Pavlich's picture

So do we appoint Kent LaPorte to be the arbiter of how others should spend THEIR money? There's a lot of places on this Earth that already do that. I prefer to live where there is still a choice as to how I spend MY money.

I have no way of knowing you're political leanings, however, wisdom guided by experience gives me a pretty fair idea which column your name would be in. I'm quite the Libertarian, by the way and wear it on my sleeve.

Matthew Saville's picture

The mentality, "it's my money, how dare you put any restrictions whatsoever on how I get to spend it!" is what will destroy our planet, unfortunately.

The problem is, we're too short-sighted and small-minded to fully grasp the long-term ramifications of our "freedom" to be as wasteful and greedy as our disposable income allows. The bottom line is, we're not all scientists, and yet we're burning through natural resources like they're infinite. Political leanings are irrelevant; one way or another, things are going to go sideways eventually.

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