As a landscape photographer, what is my impact upon the very thing that I love to photograph and how can I reduce that impact? This was the overarching theme of the conversation when I recently sat down with Scott Bacon, Managing Director for a group called Nature First, the Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography, to ponder this question. Scott’s passion for the subject was immediately evident, and I found him to be an engaging and committed ambassador for what Nature First is all about.
Nature First got its start around eight or nine years ago as a conversation between a few Colorado nature photographers who began to notice that more and more areas, even some of which they thought of as fairly remote, were seeing a dramatic increase in traffic. And with that traffic, of course, came more and more impact to those areas. This increase in traffic is driven largely by the rise of social media along with improved camera phones, making it easier than ever to share photographs and their locations with the world.
Knowing that they did not want to get into the political arena and also knowing that they did not want to take a policing or a shaming type of approach, the group instead opted to try to educate people about the impact that they are making upon the ecosystems that they travel and shoot in. In the founding principles, the group leaned heavily on the Leave No Trace principles, which are well known for backcountry travelers but are not as often applied to photographers.
We think that most nature photographers don't want to damage the places that they're going to and that it is happening as a side effect. If people take a second thought, and if they're a little bit more careful with their approach and have more knowledge, then we could minimize the impact on these areas.
With that intention, the group officially launched the organization two years ago on Earth Day, and so, Nature First was born.
The Nature First Principles
Here are the principles of Nature First, as stated on the website:
1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
4. Use discretion if sharing locations.
5. Know and follow rules and regulations.
6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.
Desired Impact of Nature First
When asked about the impact he would like to see from Nature First, Scott said that they are really going for a change in the mindset of people who are going out into nature to take photographs. We discussed something that had been on my mind, a kind of “trophy hunting” approach to landscape images that has become prevalent on social media. We both agreed that sometimes, that drive to get the shot takes precedence over the well-being of the actual locations that you are visiting.
The mindset that we want to change is right there in the first principle, prioritizing nature over the photograph. There's this huge pressure these days to not only to get the shot but then immediately share it on social media to show that you've been there.
But it seems that different places may require different approaches. This is why Nature First encourages photographers to be thoughtful about the location they are going to and what its sensitivity might be.
We realize that there are no set rules that you can come up with because going to a paved overlook at the Grand Canyon and the impact that you're going to make there in that location is very different than the impact you make on a trail at a National Park or even maybe an off-trail site in the wild backcountry. Those are very different ecosystems and very different environments”
What Can We As Photographers Do?
On a practical note, I asked Scott what some of the things a person could take away from a visit to the website and maybe even joining the group were. Scott directed me back to the principles.
If we go on the assumption that most people don't want to intentionally damage the areas that they're visiting, then having knowledge about those areas will help them minimize their impact. If they know more about the ecosystems which they're visiting, they are less likely to unintentionally damage those areas. So, knowledge is a big thing.
Another key point according to Scott is to follow the rules and regulations. If there is a roped-off area, it’s probably that way for a reason, so don’t hop the rope. The same goes for rules about not getting too close to the wildlife. Those rules are there for a reason, probably the protection of both the wildlife and the photographer, so just follow them. Seems like a no-brainer, except when we consider the urge to get that really unique shot. So, I can see for myself where this can require a real change in mindset.
How Does This Apply To Scott?
I was curious how all this philosophy had changes Scott’s own approach to photography. He said that the major change he has implemented in his own work is that on his website, he no longer shares exact GPS locations of his images like he used to.
That's something that personally I do very differently today because I think today's online-based information sharing just really allows for masses of people to visit locations almost immediately after you share that location. If you share a GPS coordinate on Wednesday, and it's a spectacular location, you could have 50, 100, or 200 people showing up to that location on that very weekend.
It's not always about remote locations either. As landscape photographers, we are often compelled to go shoot well-known places, sometimes because of a sense of needing to have those spectacular scenes in our own portfolio just to be competitive. As someone who does the art festival circuit, I see this a lot. Almost everyone has a shot of Mesa Arch at sunrise. Almost everyone in Colorado has a shot from Maroon Lake. A couple of decades ago, you might visit those places and hardly see anyone else there, but now, when you go you are often jostling with sometimes hundreds of others, ultimately clamoring for the almost identical shot. All this attention takes its toll.
When I look at photographs that I took at Maroon Lake 15-20 years ago, I have grass right up to the edge of the lake. Today, the shore is gravel and mud. The grass is gone because hundreds of people go to that shore during the fall and summer. The foot traffic has killed all the grass that's along the lake.
This illustrates how those of us who regularly photograph the natural world have had an impact, sometimes a big impact, on the places we love to shoot. The cat is out of the bag for the most popular areas, but Scott’s point was that the lesson learned from them can inform how we approach newer areas. It can provide an opportunity to ask ourselves what we want these locations to look like in five or ten years. Do we just want it to be yet another place where we have destroyed part of the ecosystem in an effort to get the prized image for our own portfolio or for that ad campaign? Or do we want those places to still hold that pristine quality that first drew us there?
I asked Scott about the response for Nature First that he has seen in the photographic community. Is all of this finding any traction at all?
The response that we've gotten from a vast majority of photographers has been so positive, and people want to help and see us succeed. It gives us the inspiration to keep going. If all we got was indifference and negativity, we would have quit a long time ago, but we continually get just this encouragement, and people want to see us succeed and to be a part of it.
Nature First has grown a lot in its relatively short time. They have over 4,600 members in 69 different countries around the world. Those members have taken a pledge to adopt the principles laid out on the website.
There are also approximately 20 partner organizations and photography workshops helping spread the word, introducing people to the Nature First principles and trying to change the mindset of nature photographers.
Some have even gone further and taken on being ambassadors for the brand, working in over 20 different countries around the world to help spread the word in local areas, and in turn, help Nature First learn how to apply the principles in different ecosystems, languages, and cultures.
That’s a huge challenge because the culture towards nature is very different in the US than it is in Europe, than it is in South America, than it is in Asia. With the goal being to minimize the impact and change that mindset, we need those folks in those local regions to help us do that and do it in a way that's consistent with their culture and their language.
In addition to taking the pledge or being an ambassador, people can also donate directly on the website. I asked Scott about where the money goes. He said the money goes to the programs and keeping the website going. It also helps to create materials for the ambassadors to hand out at events. There is zero paid staff, so it's not going into anybody's pocket. It goes directly to help spread the word for nature first.
The Future Of Nature First
Nature First has applied for tax-exempt status in the U.S. and has the goal of finding corporate sponsors once that status is gained. That will allow them to bring on some paid employees and have a small staff to help run the organization beyond the all-volunteer staff that they currently have.
To find out more about Nature First, click here.