Keep it Secret. Keep it Safe.

These days it seems that nothing is without controversy, in virtually all aspects of our lives. Even something as innocuous landscape photography sees it’s fair share of controversial subjects, perhaps none more so than the topic of geotagging and location sharing. Those memorable words, “keep it secret, keep it safe” whispered by Gandalf to Frodo may have been referencing the One Ring but they’ve now become a rallying cry for many nature photographers as well. 

Yes, this topic has been debated ad nauseum in a myriad of online spaces so I won’t bother to break it down any further than it needs to be: some people feel entitled to know where everything is and some people recognize that some areas are special and sensitive and can’t afford to have an influx of people, many of whom don’t respect or understand leave no trace principles, descend on them. Those who want locations to be shared accuse the opposite side of gatekeeping and those who wish to protect them accuse the others of entitlement or selfishness. 

Where do I stand? Suffice it to say, I’m firmly on the side of protecting the landscape.  

To help combat the problem, I’ve all but stopped even mentioning a location by name unless it’s already very, very well-known. But these days it feels like a losing battle. We’re seeing more and more images online of areas that have been ruined due to the undue influence of “influencers” and while those images may fill us with anger, nothing hits harder than when it’s an area close to home that we love that bears the brunt of social media’s irresponsibility. 

Over the past couple of years one of my favourite, somewhat remote areas in Alberta has gone from being quiet, unknown and reasonably unspoiled to completely overrun and ruined by people thanks, in large part, to geotagging and location outing online. Sure, litter was always a problem in the area but now it’s increased a hundredfold. Garbage, human feces, and more can be found at every turn. The area does not have adequate resources to handle the volume of people now exploring it and it’s not only the landscape but the visitors themselves who are paying the price. 

Rescues of inexperienced and ill-equipped hikers have increased dramatically, taxing resources, and in the summer of 2020, a specific waterfall in this area (one very popular with photographers) was the scene of a horrific tragedy where three people lost their lives. In response, the authorities have now gone to great lengths to ensure the “safety” of visitors by spoiling the landscape even further with cautionary measures. What was once an area with only a handful of parking spots and an overlook now is covered in gaudy fencing and a disproportionate amount of signs attempting to prevent access to this view, transforming the once raw and rugged landscape into a complete eyesore. I was actually livid at what I saw on my recent visit here, not just because an area I love has been altered but because I know that it’s just the start of the changes to come. 

It worries me that as the pandemic continues to draw on that more and more people will continue to overwhelm our wild spaces putting the landscape, the wildlife and themselves at risk. But there are ways for us to mitigate the impact we have while enjoying the outdoors. Here are a few things I’d like you to consider the next time you’re out, no matter your hobby or experience level. 

1: Practice Leave No Trace Principles. 

Our wild spaces are not theme parks. They’re wild. They’re dangerous. And there aren’t janitors who come by later on to clean up after you. Pack in what you pack out. Leave no trace. Pack out any litter you find. Leave it better. For more information on Leave No Trace guidelines for photographers (or other outdoor enthusiasts), please visit the Nature First website and take the pledge. 

2: Stick to your experience level. 

If you’re new to exploring the outdoors make sure you’re not engaging in activities outside your skill set such as exploring glaciers for ice caves, engaging in “wild skating” without understanding ice conditions or even hiking advanced mountain trails. Start small. Gain experience. Work your way up to bigger challenges instead of trying to do it all at once. No one gains any experience by trying to do too much, too fast. 

3: Be prepared. 

When you’re outdoors your circumstances can change at any moment. You need to be prepared for any eventuality. Wear or pack proper footwear and clothing for changing weather and emergencies. In areas with little or no cell phone coverage, carry devices such as a Garmin InReach and don’t rely on your phone for everything. Learn how to use and carry compasses and maps and take courses on outdoor preparedness. Have a first-aid kit with you. 

4: Accept personal responsibility for your actions.

Please, don’t be stupid trying to get selfies for your lame internet popularity. It’s tragic when someone is injured or dies in an area. But it’s even more tragic when it’s so entirely preventable and the result of it means an area is totally transformed and ruined for everyone else because of selfish actions. Willfully putting yourself in danger creates situations where rescue resources become strained and puts the lives of professional responders at risk if something happens to you. It’s not worth the photo. 

5: Please, stop geotagging.

Or even saying where a location is if it isn’t somewhere that isn’t already well known, especially if it’s an area special to you or that you know to have a sensitive ecology. 

There are a handful of us who have been raging about this for a few years now and we’ve always been met by naysayers who never see the harm. Well, now you see it, first hand. This article clearly outlines the harm that comes when you broadcast the exact coordinates of a location to the hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of followers you have. The effect of even a handful of people doing this becomes exponentially cumulative and soon an area that has long been quiet and that doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to handle throngs of people becomes overwhelmed and ruined. 

I firmly believe that as nature photographers we have a responsibility to protect the areas that we photograph. By engaging in actions that put those areas at risk simply to play for likes or game our Internet popularity just isn’t worth the potential long term damage we’re creating by sharing locations. Let’s help keep things wild and beautiful.