SALT LAKE CITY — There’s more to landscape photography than beautiful images.
Whether pursuing photography as a hobby or profession, many of Utah’s landscape photographers aim to educate others about the land that they capture — art, it seems, is one way to make an impact.
“I got into photography because I was hoping that I could capture the beauty and value of the little wilderness that we have left, and share that with people so they could also have a love for nature, so that it can be protected and preserved, not changed or altered or destroyed,” said Eric Bennett, a landscape photographer and videographer with an affection for southern Utah.
Like other conservationist photographers, Bennett uses his workshops and Instagram following to promote the protection of wildlife and natural lands. While social media can be used to inform followers about the sensitivities of different landscapes, Bennett also incorporates his photographs into established wildlife initiatives to promote change.
“(In Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument), you can ride ATVs, you can go off-roading on all these places that are really delicate and fragile, so I gave my images to several different organizations … because they were working on protecting those places," he said. "They could use my photographs to accompany their movement, to really share what the place is. … Putting a face to a name makes it much harder to go and destroy it because it becomes more familiar, more personal at that point.”
Regardless of the landscape a photographer — amateur or professional — is capturing, Bennett said, there’s some way to “tie the photo” back to an environmental issue going on in the area.
“I'll go and I'll take pictures of the ocean and I'll share a photo and in the caption, I'll explain that the temperatures of the ocean are rising, so that's causing certain toxic algae to flourish, and it's killing off a lot of species, or the coral reef is dying because of the temperature getting warmer,” said Bennett, who has traveled around the world for photography projects.
When human 'likes' become nature's 'dislikes'
Unfortunately, social media’s impact has not been entirely positive. By sharing images of obscure and beautiful sites, landscape photographers may unknowingly encourage high levels of traffic to certain areas. Additionally, the drive among Instagrammers and photographers to capture the “perfect image” can lead some to break established park rules, no matter the cost to the environment that they are in.
“There’s all this, as they say, ‘doing it for the 'gram,'” Phillip Monson, a Utah-based photographer and conservationist, said in a recent interview with the Deseret News.
“Social media is a double-edged sword, right? On one hand, it's caused a lot of these issues that we're experiencing," Monson said. "But on the other hand, it can be used for good and to reach a lot of people in a fairly simple and easy way. … I know a lot of people that do have a pretty substantial following that are of the same mindset as myself, that we can, through photography, share the beauty of these places and that they are worth protecting and worth taking care of.”
Monson is one who puts his time where his beliefs are, using social media to make changes in Utah's wild spaces. With the help of his Instagram account, he coordinates groups of volunteers who pick up trash left in local canyons — sometimes as much as dozens of “50 gallon bags of trash” that he and other volunteers carry out within an hour and a half — that are left in easily accessible sites such as Cottonwood Canyon. He also reminds his Instagram followers to stay out of restricted areas and lands with sensitive vegetation, and to not put graffiti on trees and rocks.
“Nobody else really cares about what your Instagram handle is, or about your undying love for your boyfriend or girlfriend," Monson said. " … It takes away from another person’s experience in the wild when you're leaving garbage and carving your name. Animals, too, can be damaged by garbage.”
Then, what should we keep in mind when crossing through a wild area? Monson’s advice seemed to come down to two basic ideas. First, follow the Center for Outdoor Ethics' Leave No Trace seven principles — such as "travel and camp on durable surfaces" — and second, “be prepared," Monson said. "It’s that simple, old-fashioned Boy Scout motto: … Educate yourself about the place you’re going to.
"Leave no trace … but I like to say, leave it better than you found it,” Monson added.
Take the shot, but nothing else
And what can photographers do to protect the lands that they photograph? Not sharing the location of that great shot, Bennett said, is a good first step to decreasing traffic.
“I try not to share like anything too specific because another problem is, since people are sharing these locations, we're getting a lot more traffic in them,” he said. “… I try to keep my locations — not necessarily secret — but I just don't share the names of them. … That's going to hopefully thin out the crowd so it doesn't get damaged.”
Another step that photographers can take, said Sarah Marino, a photographer and activist based in Colorado, is to demonstrate good behavior on social media for other photographers and visitors to follow.
“If you place a tent on the side of a lake, and you post that photo on Instagram, you're encouraging other people to do the same thing, maybe without knowing that that's a really bad practice in terms of the ecological damage that people could be causing to riparian areas and sensitive wetlands,” Marino said.
Because of the damage caused by unaware or careless photographers in our national parks, Marino helped initiate the formation of a group of like-minded photographers, including Bennett and Monson, to develop a set of “Leave No Trace” principles for photographers in the wild. The group’s website, naturefirstphotography.org, launched on Earth Day 2019 and aims to reach photographers and nature-goers across the U.S.
“It’s not really about us,” Bennett said. “It's just about this movement we're trying to create that will become the standard for people. So they're a bit more mindful of what they're doing. And the whole idea is just to prioritize nature before photography. Nature shouldn't be a means to an end for your photographs. Instead, nature should be the most important thing, and then photographs would come secondary.”