Take more than pictures and mind your footprints

In the ‘Age of Instagram’, it’s time for environmentally conscious photographers to update the old mantra

Photo by Joanes Andueza on Unsplash
“Take nothing but pictures.
Leave nothing but footprints.
Kill nothing but time.”

You’ll find some version of this saying scrawled on hand-painted wooden signs in parks all over the world. It’s been repeated ad nauseam as sacred gospel by almost everyone who has ever stepped foot in nature: hiker, traveller and photographer alike.

Today, it suddenly rings hollow.

The social of nature

I first began to understand the role Instagram, and social media in general, could play in the destruction of our natural spaces a couple of years ago, when I discovered the story of the Broccoli Tree. I read of its rise to fame on the platform, as well as its subsequent destruction at the hands of vandals. (If you’re not aware of the story, here’s a quick video to catch you up.)

The Broccoli Tree stayed with me. I couldn’t understand the ‘why’ of the whole thing. What drives people to destroy something that not only brings joy to others, but also plays such a vital role in the survival of our blue dot.

From early childhood on, I spent a lot of time in nature: I’ve breathed in the earthy scent of Poland’s dense woods while mushroom hunting with my grandmother; gotten lost, both on purpose and by accident, in the depths of a vibrant autumnal forest; dodged bears in Haliburton County a time or two; hiked through rushing streams and the tops of roaring waterfalls; explored hidden inlets under sail and oar; slept under the stars; gone skinny dipping in an icy lake in the deafening silence of night, and sat around a crackling camp fire, shivering at tales of fantastical ghosts; felt the rain pelt my face as I watched storms slash violently across the water; fought, with quiet desperation, for my life in a clear summer lake; heard the rustling of deer gracefully blending into the foliage; slid my skis smoothly across powdery snow in Albion Hills; run on narrow forest trails in Muskoka, Haliburton and Peterborough County; stood reverently in awe of ancient carvings in Petroglyphs Provincial Park; and logged hundreds of kilometres exploring green spaces near and far, often with camera in hand. It’s safe to assume I have a favourite tree, or two, in various places here and abroad.

These experiences, and many others, taught me to both love the beauty, and respect the power, of nature. But it’s becoming glaringly obvious that there are many who do not share those views.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

Even a quick Google search brings up an increasingly large number of examples of the negative impact we can have on our natural spaces if we’re not mindful of how we interact with our surroundings. This is especially true when it comes to the pursuit of creating highly Instagrammable images. Check out some of the examples below:

  1. Lake Wanaka Tree
  2. Trash in Yellowstone Geyser
  3. Yellowstone Thermal Springs Damaged for Selfies
  4. Sunflower Field Trampled in Ontario
  5. Helensburgh Tunnel Glow Worms
  6. Miley Cyrus Posing in a Joshua Tree
  7. Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve Super Bloom
  8. And more.

Seeing these locations wantonly damaged or destroyed for a few extra likes or follows hit me pretty hard. Part of the problem is the nature of Instagram culture itself.* Rather than shooting and posting images that speak to their creative goals, many — though certainly not all — IG users make high like/follower counts their main goal. So when they see that photographs of a certain place or type of subject are doing well, they want to replicate this in order to raise their own stats as well. This is part of the reason why you get such large crowds at IG Spots like the poppy reserve — everyone wants in on the social profile-raising action.

Once at the location, their focus is usually on chasing the perfect shot or selfie. Some IGers aren’t there to spend quality time appreciating the natural setting in which they’ve found themselves. And this often leads to simple disregard for their environment. When you’re just “doing it for the ‘Gram”, everything that doesn’t directly support that objective tends to fall away.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Trash the Earth (don’t do this)

Often, the more visitors an environmentally sensitive area receives, the more garbage gets left behind at that location, compounding the damage already caused by people wandering off the designated paths in search of that perfectly-framed shot.

Participating in The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup showed me how serious this problem really is. When you’re out using the trails or taking photographs, your attention is divided and you may not realize just how much litter you’re actually surrounded by.

Cleaning up a small section of Lake Ontario’s shoreline was an eye-opening experience for me, to say the least. From plastic bottles, to golf balls and sanitary products, to hundreds and hundreds of shards of plastic that had, unfortunately become a part of the landscape, the problem of plastic pollution is becoming impossible to ignore.

And if we can’t ignore it, we should try to do something about it.

Photo by Charles Black on Unsplash

Take more than pictures

The inspiration for this comes from one of my favourite IG accounts, The 11th Essential. Add work or gardening gloves to your photography kit, take along a few garbage bags, and spend five or ten minutes after your shoot cleaning up the area around you. It doesn’t have to be a day-long project and you don’t even have to cover a lot of ground; every little bit helps. Just get into the habit and always take some litter out of the environment each time you’re out there.

Mind your footprints

Whatever your favourite photo destination, be mindful of your surroundings. Do your homework before you get there, so you understand how to interact with that environment in a way that does not cause harm. Take care to avoid damage to flowers, moss or other delicate eco systems. And make sure you stay on designated trails, boardwalks and paths.

Kill nothing but time

I still stand by this one. Carry on.

A note on safety

Remember that you’re bound to find many different types of waste, including medical and hazardous material. Get informed about disposal protocols ahead of time and make sure you always keep safety top of mind.

These guidelines are for Toronto, but you can access your city’s non-emergency information line, typically at 311, to find out what the hazardous waste disposal protocols are for your area.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

Be the change

I recently attended a talk given by (now former) Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Dianne Saxe, and one takeaway from that presentation that really stayed with me was that we are the first generation to experience the effects of climate change, and the last to be able to do something about it.

Talking about the issues is important; it’s the first step to bringing them out into the light so we can examine the problem more closely and learn more about what’s driving the behaviour.

Often, artists tend to be the first to see and react to issues that plague society, and have considerable power to drive change. Consider using your images to put a spotlight on the threat to our environment, rather than just as a way to get more likes. Get people talking, as these photographers did.

And I hope you also go a little further beyond talking and learning. Make it personal to your photography. If you want to shoot images of pristine landscapes, make sure they stay that way. Take care when interacting with nature, and take some time to contribute to ‘leaving it better than you found it’. Take action in any way you can. Every little bit helps.

We’ve done a lot of damage to our environment up to this point. And, as Patrik Svedberg, the photographer of the Broccoli Tree, put it, “You cannot un-saw a tree.”

But you can plant a new one. 🌱