Photographers Doing Bad Things: The Internet Doesn't Forget

Photographers Doing Bad Things: The Internet Doesn't Forget

I think that it is fair to say that photographers have probably been doing bad things to public lands, popular landmarks, and other natural resources since around the time that the camera was invented. There’s no way to keep ignorant people from acting irresponsibly. But, with the power of the crowd and the reach of social media, photographers need to think twice before staging shooting sessions that could result in damage.

To be fair, it isn’t just photographers who are messing things up for the rest of us. There is plenty of blame to go around. Just ask the Gonzales family whose kin decided to deface Newspaper Rock in Utah not once, but twice. First in 1902 and again in 1954. Back then, there wasn't as much awareness for conservation and protecting our public lands as there is today, but it would have been nice if people would have exercised better judgment just the same.

Sometimes the offense isn’t quite as permanent but it is equally disappointing. Below is a shot showing a ridiculous amount of garbage thrown about by people camping in the Dixie National Forest. I stopped at this small campground planning to get some nice photographs along Coal Creek but instead spent most of my time picking up a lot of other people’s rubbish.

Even at the lowest elevations on the planet, amid the otherworldly landscape at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, you’ll find that people can’t just leave things alone for the next person to enjoy. It seems that visitors are interested in seeing, and maybe even tasting, what the salty earth is like. The hundreds of finger size holes dug into the white crust are a testament to their curiosity. Along the way, others feel the need to leave their initials on the surface as if they are marking their spot on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. We have “DK” to thank for the wonderful memory below. I am not sure how long it takes for the surface of Badwater Basin to repair itself but I imagine it takes quite a while.

Sometimes, however, there is really no doubt that damage is done by photographers or videographers. It is typically when they are using a prop to try to “enhance” their shot where things go horribly wrong. Perhaps the most infamous of these events is the early 2000’s case of photographer Michael Fatali who decided to light fires under Delicate Arch inside Utah’s Arches National Park. The soot from the manufactured fireplace logs that were used caused long-lasting damage to the soft sandstone on the underside of the arch. Fatali eventually pled guilty to seven federal misdemeanors. More recently, an unidentified photographer made headlines when a fire broke out on the S.S. Point Reyes shipwreck in California. The boat is a local landmark and a favorite destination for photographers. One too many photographers it would seem. The fire on the abandoned vessel was apparently caused when embers from a wool spinning photography session ignited the stern’s dry wood a day or so afterward. No one has come forward to accept responsibility in this case. 

Which brings me to an event that happened in late 2017 and caused short-term, but still reprehensible, damage to the incredible rock formations at White Pocket in northern Arizona. If you are unfamiliar with the area, it is located in the spectacular Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. The rock formation is made up of Jurassic era sand dunes that have solidified into impossible landforms. Many geologists believe that the swirling lines and undulating shapes are the results of an earthquake that caused wet sand to slide down into a pond or oasis and eventually solidify. However it was formed, this difficult to reach location is a photographer's dream.

In early October 2017, most likely photographers or videographers ignited a two-ended smoke grenade similar to the one pictured at the top of the article. The smoke grenade left significant blue residue, emanating in two directions, on the unique streaked surface of White Pocket. When photographer and photography workshop leader David Swindler did a post on his Facebook page alerting his friends and followers about the damage there was clearly outrage. 

Yet, there was hope that the people who created the mess would either come forward or would be found out. The coming forward part never happened. Fortunately, creators usually capture visual evidence of their wrongdoings. They are also very social media-centric so they are highly inclined to show the world the fruits of their labor. These two facts make it extremely difficult to hide from the social media detectives. What’s most interesting about the White Pocket situation, however, is the long memory of the Internet. One might think that the blue smoke event would have blown over and we would be on to the next infraction. But, in just the past week, and well over three months after it happened, the Internet sleuths have now identified the potential offenders. I am going to refrain from sharing Instagram pages or other evidence since no one has specifically been caught or charged. Still, I am surprised, proud, and impressed that good folk have kept up the search and I am hopeful that some sort of justice will be done.

I think that it is important to note that 99.99 percent of the photographers and videographers out there look before they leap when it comes to this stuff so this should not be considered a commentary on the community as a whole. I am also not against creators doing steel wool spinning, painting with light, or even using smoke grenades as props. They can truly be interesting and effective visuals if used responsibly and in the right environment. The main thing that I'd like for you to take away is that these remarkable places are ours to enjoy, let's leave them the way we found them so that others can have the same experience for years to come.

Facebook post used with the permission of David Swindler.

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16 Comments

I thought the Point Reyes guy was caught, since he did post an image of the wool-spinning, the very next day. The day after the boat was reported burned, he took down the image.

Was it an anonymous/pseudonym post why he was not caught?

The Point Reyes photographer had posted an image on Instagram that morning. When he heard all the backlash, he took his image down, and apparently called (or someone called) the fire station to say he was not to blame.

I see few wool-spinning photos that are actually worth the cost of the wool. Of what little I remember about that particular photo, it was quite well exposed and composed, but was still a dumb idea —and possibly illegal, un-controlled fire in a state park.

He got about 100 likes and about a thousand negative comments.

Steve Cullen's picture

The image you saw on Instagram was by a guy who said he wasn't responsible. That said, the same person reposted the wool spinning shot on his Instagram feed in January 2017 with the caption "I'm a trouble maker."

I am sickened every time I see the deliberate destruction of the beautiful places I have visited. Everyone seems to want to "leave their mark" at the places where they have been and ruin it for everyone else. There have been times I wouldn't even pull my cameras out because of it.

Thing is: People do such things for exposure, followers and likes. And fstoppers and others are a part of this with countless articles going: "Wow, this photographer pulled of that crazy #*#*?..."

Steve Cullen's picture

I agree that the media needs to stop making stars out of people who are doing the wrong thing.

"To be fair, it isn’t just photographers who are messing things up for the rest of us. There is plenty of blame to go around. Just ask the Gonzales family whose kin decided to deface Newspaper Rock in Utah not once, but twice. First in 1902 and again in 1954. Back then, there wasn't as much awareness for conservation and protecting our public lands as there is today, but it would have been nice if people would have exercised better judgment just the same."

You don't see the irony in complaining about someone carving into rocks to protect a more ancient people's carvings into the same rock? Are the ancient people any less guilty?

Steve Cullen's picture

It is definitely ironic but certainly not the same. The people who made the original carvings were probably doing so to tell others where there is water or how not to be eaten by a mountain lion. The more contemporary carvings were done by people who had a few thousand years of progress on their side. They should have known better.

The results are the same. The natural has been altered.

Probably? Why probably? You're assuming something innocent or noble from such people simply because they were ancient. That's a big problem when it comes to archeology, academia and the media. That somehow because something is ancient the people behind it had innocent, noble and deep meaning intentions.

Steve Cullen's picture

I say "probably" because no one really knows why those older scratchings are on that site. I think that it is pretty safe to say that the people who lived there a few thousand years ago didn't have paper to record events or to communicate with others and that they spent most of their time working on the basic necessities of survival. I don't believe those endeavors are innocent or noble, it is just a fact of the state of civilization in the region at the time. Could those more ancient scratchings be the equivalent of a signature or last name, certainly. In fact some scholars and American Indian groups believe some of the carvings into the desert varnish to be family symbols.

Only harsh penalties and very visible warnings and coverage of such penalties will address this problem.

Steve Cullen's picture

I would definitely like to see more penalties. That said, I'd also like to see more public education rather than just resorting to prosecution. As for the visible warnings, I am not a big fan. The signs and barriers that get put up are as bad as the infractions. I was just up at Jasper National Park a few months ago and at two of the scenic waterfall areas there were plenty of signs and an ugly fence all around the ledges. It was an eyesore if you ask me.

The warning signs and education should start at the entrance to all parks. They don't need to be elsewhere inside the park, outside of obvious ones that tell people to say stay out of a certain areas, for example.

As for an emphasis on the kind of education I believe your interested in, the kind of people that do the kind of damage typically seen will not be helped by such education. They're like lowlife neighbors that just don't give a damn.

Steve Cullen's picture

Well, Bob, I guess that's one way to think of them. Before my brain goes there though, I'd prefer to consider them to be children who don't know better. Perhaps making them aware of what they did wrong will work. If that still doesn't do the trick then I am all for more severe measures.

As for the signage and barriers, my experience having been to a significant number of National Parks, State Parks, etc. is that they all over react when presented with an issue. I don't know if it is a government mentality or what, but the decision making seems to be binary instead of shades of gray.

Sad to say, and think/realize, but human nature is inclusive of the "Kilroy-waz-here" syndrome.

A now departed uncle discribed to me being in the Ardennes post WW2 and seeing how neat it was. No downed trees or limbs. He was impressed that the population kept it that way. He was probably not entirely correct as I'll bet what kept it that way was that the locals could take up down wood for house fireplaces, and they needed to, but cutting down trees was illegal because the trees weren't public property as we know it.
I would hate to see our wild places go that way but conservation is considered an elitist way of being by many people.

«conservation is considered an elitist …by many people.»
…And those many people are mostly modern. Most native Americans —meaning, natives of the Americas, such as the Tainos— and many ancient African and Asian civilisations, practiced recycling, composting, and other environmental conservation protocols, because they realised the importance of preserving the environment for their own survival.

In today's world where many live on the principle that food comes from a can, purchased from a supermarket, and prepared at a factory, the environment does not seem all that important. Even extending the thought to, “…and the factory gets its stuff from a farm, which buys its resources from a farm supply store,” the need for preservation of the environment seems far removed from any need to survive.

The truth is that, many important things which farms and farm supply stores need, such as crop pollination, and nitrites, still comes from nature, and those resources cannot depend on farms to keep themselves around. Indeed, many farms teem up with bee keepers to help pollinate, —and bees are only a small part of the pollination population— but even bee keepers are having a hard time keeping their bees, as destruction to the environment are causing their hives to fail.

The preservation of greenspace, wilderness, and refuges, is more than merely preserving the beauty, but preserving OUR survival, as our food supply still requires them, despite the fact that we are no longer a hunter/gatherer civilisation. the purpose of preserving the beauty is to raise money to support preserving the environment.