With selfies being the image capture of choice for increasing numbers of tourists, alarm is rising over their effect on the environment. Fragile ecosystems, ancient monuments and sacred places are all suffering from negative impacts by millions of happy-snapping web-posting visitors. One resource management body has decided it is time to issue guidelines for Instagram users. By Jeremy Torr.
Tasmania, 11 February 2018. “The issue of sharing locations and feeling a sense of responsibility for any degradation that might occur is … something I can really relate to,” writes Rob Potter, who runs a Facebook page called Photography Hot Spots. Potter, who has over 8000 followers checking out his images, recently sounded the alarm over the potential consequences of posting images of iconic natural locations.
Potter says the response to one of his posts prompted him to write an article titled ‘Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints’ in which he pleaded with people to take better care of beautiful locations when photographing them.
About the image he posted, he wrote: “The [rock] itself became damaged and cracked. People began to graffiti it with chalk. People risked (and were injured) taking crazy death defying photos. And selfie-taking visitors left a massive amount of rubbish behind.” Increasingly, he says, this scenario is being repeated at beautiful locations, with accompanying risk to wildlife, fauna, and ancient places with special cultural significance.
As a result, one Australian body, Tasmania’s Natural Resource Management South (NRM South) has issued a pioneering photography guide that aims to educate and help would-be selfie and instagram snappers avoid damage to the subjects of their images – and maybe damage to themselves too.
NRM South Communications Officer Nathalie Laurence said the Ethical Photo Guide for Tassie was put together to address (specifically flora and fauna) issues which are not yet a serious problem on their patch, but that had the capacity to grow quickly.
“Researchers working on threatened species – particularly orchids and shorebirds – had been observing more frequent evidence of disturbance," Laurence said to Gaia Discovery. "As locations become known, more people visit the same spots which causes a range of problems such as soil compaction, damage to plants and disturbance to wildlife,’ she added.
“So we decided to proactively put together the Ethical Nature Photography guide. It is aimed at both researchers and tourists; to help ‘nature persist in a world where more eyes are watching than ever before’.”
Snapping beauty to death
But taking selfies and posting them - and introducing the potential for ongoing disturbance - is not restricted to rocks, plants and famous sites. Turtles struggling to lay eggs on Ostional Beach on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and baby turtles desperate to reach the sea at Cherating, Malaysia have both been cited as having been disrupted by selfie-seekers. The Costa Rica Ministry for Environment and Energy said social media-posting visitors have had significant effects on the numbers of turtles successfully laying eggs at Ostional. And in Malaysia, Club Med Cherating, GGO, Unetha Balachandran noted that: “It’s not just about turtle selfies – it’s about spreading the word on the importance of cohabiting with the natural world.”
Some tourists have even been jailed for inappropriate selfie-snapping. Three French tourists were arrested not long ago for taking naked photos at Cambodia’s Banteay Kdei temple, and deported from the country for taking “inconsiderate and pornographic” images which sullied the sanctity of the site.
However, NRM's Laurence notes that the problem of loving destination beauty too much is based most often on lack of information, not on overt negligence or disrespect. She says the issue is that most photographers think ‘Oh it’s OK, I’m the only one around’, but notes that ‘there is always just one more person coming after them’ to take yet another shot. Which can then contribute to ongoing erosion, or scare a rare species off, or wear new tracks. Which in turn leads to another great shot on social media that leads to even more “me-too instagrammers” flooding in.
One popular Instagrammer with 65,000 followers, Jason Futrill, explains how his post of a remote and beautiful waterfall led to severe damage through a sudden rapid rise in visitors.
"I was the first to publish [one particular image of a remote site] to a large social media profile and … a week later a huge amount of traffic started to go into the area,” Futrill told the ABC in an interview.
Futrill said he returned later to the same site later and was shocked to see extensive degradation. “… all of the moss has gone. The whole area has … become degraded as a result of sharing that location." He asserted that a strong environmental conscience was missing from social media's"follow-me culture", with potentially negative results to many previously pristine sites and other sensitive areas. Which is where NRM South believes it can make a difference.
The new Ethical Photography guide is aimed specifically at Tasmania’s remote wilderness areas, but could equally be applied to other world sites of natural significance. Its key recommendations are to run through a checklist prior to clicking the shutter. It asks:
Will your actions disturb animals?
Will you possibly encroach on rare flora habitats?
Are you likely to use drones?
Could you possibly spread weeds or non-endemic pathogens?
And lastly, will you share images on social media?
NRM South says all these questions should help frame a better photographic outcome for both the subject, and its audience. It also reinforces that “increased knowledge of a sensitive species or location will result in cumulative impacts as more people access the site. This is particularly important within declared nature reserves, which have been set aside to protect threatened species and communities, and are not intended as recreation areas.”
Others are also raising the education flag on photography, particularly with respect to cultural issues. The Foundation for Sustainable Development also offers a series of tips on how to respect cultures when taking photos - and equally importantly, when not to post them online. It does seem the message is proving hard to get out, however.
One recent video, Instravel, illustrates the appeal of selfie-shots taken at recognisable or appealing destinations. Some warn that the damage - be it cultural, ecological or social - seems to be growing larger. As Futrill puts it, at one location he published on social media, the attraction itself is now simply gone.
"There's just literally tracks that are just now mudslides. All of the ferns, the foliage, the moss — everything that used to be in there — has just been torn out because people just don't respect the area, with the foot traffic that we've caused," he told the ABC. “Unfortunately, what we've done to it now from sharing that location is [that] it will never recover.”
But NRM South’s Laurance is more upbeat. She says the interest in the guide has been very good, with many news outlets picking up on it. “We put the guide together tailored mainly with Tasmania in mind, as a collaboration with our internal staff and some outside experts,” she said.
“But the basic message [of ethical photography] would transfer well to anywhere in the world. Of course you would need to mention particular local risks and issues like crocodiles or tigers, “ she laughed, “but we think it would be one of the first guides of its kind worldwide.
We are really happy with the results.”