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.