Putting Nature First

by Ann Wheatley


Nature photographers love nature. Many are ardent conservationists and we’re the last people to want to see pristine wilderness locations damaged. But in this new age of smartphones, cheap travel and social media, nature photographers are unwittingly contributing to exactly what we’re trying to prevent. Before saying more about this, I’d like to offer a mini-geography lesson on New Zealand.

Aotearoa/New Zealand is the unsubmerged part of huge landmass, a microcontinent, that broke away from the Gondwanan supercontinent. Over the past 25 million years, ongoing plate tectonic movements and our location on the Pacific Ring of Fire have created the high mountain ranges within the interior of Te Waipounamu, the spectacular South Island, and the beautiful volcanic landscapes of Ruapehu, Taranaki, Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, Taupo, Okataina and Rangitoto in Te Ika-a-Māui, the North Island.


Aotearoa was the was the last large landmass on earth to be settled by humans. Polynesians arrived sometime between 1250 and 1300 CE and developed the distinctive Māori culture. The European, Abel Tasman, sighted New Zealand in 1642 but trading, whaling and colonisation commenced only after James Cook mapped the coastline in 1769. Today just under 5 million people live in a multicultural country about the same size as the United Kingdom. Te Waipounamu, the larger of the two main islands, has a quarter of the population, is dominated by dramatically beautiful mountain ranges, an incredibly scenic coastline, and is home to 9 of our national parks.


A track in the Kahurangi National Park, the second largest of New Zealand’s 13 national parks and one of two remaining locations where the highly endangered takahe, a native bird, is found in the wild. By Ann Wheatley.

Just south of Te Waipounamu, Rakiura aka Stewart Island has a land area of nearly 2000 square kilometres, and 85 percent of it is within the boundaries of Rakiura National Park. The North Island, Te Ika-a-Māui also boasts three national parks so it’s no surprise that many nature lovers aspire to visit New Zealand.


For many, the desire to visit New Zealand has been stoked by the entertainment industry. Touring companies offer trips to many of the locations featured in Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia whether reached by sealed or gravel roads, hiking tracks or helicopter. But films are not the only bait. The stunning photos of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations made by professionals, and increasingly by amateur photographers and tourists, also feed the desire to visit. The result of cameras in every hand plus social media access, is the transfiguration of many locations, once known only to locals, into tourist meccas with Instagram hashtags populated by thousands of georeferenced pictures.


In November 2018 the BBC published an article online about this very phenomenon. Entitled Form an orderly queue: Recreating the perfect Instagram photo in New Zealand, it features an image, first published on Reddit, of people queuing to take photos at the summit of Roy's Peak, in Wanaka, and the reaction of a spokesperson from New Zealand's Department of Conservation. She revealed that visitor numbers to Roy’s Peak had increased by 12% to 73,000 between 2016 and 2018, because the spot had become a "quintessential icon for the Wanaka region through social media.”


It seems the BBC article hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for visiting Roy’s Peak. I checked Reddit and found 239 images posted over the past four years, with the vast majority of them shared during the last 12 months. They included a timelapse video posted just a few days ago titled, Getting 'the shot' at Roy's Peak lookout. Meanwhile, the #royspeak hashtag on Instagram has over 56,000 images.


I’ve had personal experience of a similar situation at the beautiful and remote Wharariki beach. When I first went there 20 years ago, I could drive the three hours from our house to the start of a gravel road ending at the access track to the beach, do the 20-minute walk to the beach, spend the day, and return without seeing a soul. On a recent trip a few months back, the car park at the start of the track was full, we met a long string of people along the track, and even more were roaming the beach, virtually all with phone cameras or DLSRs. An image of Wharariki’s Archway Islands appeared among the wallpapers when Microsoft launched Windows 10 in 2015, contributing to the discovery of the beach by tourists. It’s also become popular as a workshop location for professional photographers, and the count for the #whararikibeach hashtag on Instagram has reached nearly 12,000 images. Other famous beauty spots that attract tourists who want to post “the shot” on social media include the Wanaka tree, the Moeraki boulders and Lake Pukaki. Not surprisingly, all these are featured in a 2019 National Geographic article called Here’s New Zealand’s Most Epic Drive.


An unconventional image of the Archway Islands from the windswept headland above the beach. At high tide much of Wharariki beach, which extends out to the islands, is under water. By Ann Wheatley.

My own photography journey has only recently taken me into the world of the hashtag. During the past year I created a social media account and began writing articles about photography. Ironically, of all the images I’ve shared on social media, the most popular was taken at a Lord of the Rings location.


This roche moutonnée, a glacial formation, served as the site for Edoras, the capital of Rohan, and Meduseld, the hall of King Théoden in the Lord of the Rings films. By Ann Wheatley.

I felt so drawn to the beauty of the area that I returned there recently with my family. We found many more people present than on my first visit, all brandishing DSLRs and phone cameras.

Since then, I’ve paid much closer attention to the nexus between tourism, social media, and photography in Te Waipounamou. Accidents caused by tourists stopping wherever they please to take pictures are on the rise and the road authorities are stepping up campaigns to educate visitors about the hazards of driving our narrow windy roads. Designated photography points have started appearing along especially scenic routes. And concern has been growing among kiwis and within the New Zealand tourism industry itself about the negative impacts on society and environment of international and domestic tourism, prompting the launching of a drive called the tiaki promise.


Tiaki is a powerful Māori word, meaning to care and protect, to look after people and place. The tiaki promise is a commitment to care for New Zealand and is meant to instill a sense of responsibility and a commitment to good behaviour. Newzealand.com, our official tourism website introduces the promise in a lovely way:


“In New Zealand, we feel a special connection with the land we come from and a duty of care is instilled in us from a young age. We believe that if you look after the land, it will look after you and future generations. We welcome all who come here to embrace our tiaki promise to guard, protect and preserve our home.”


This sign lets tourists know that the only safe stopping point where they’ll be able to take photos of the dramatic, narrow, winding Buller Gorge is coming up in 5 km. By Ann Wheatley.

The tiaki commitment is far-ranging covering driving and camping responsibly, staying safe in the outdoors, respecting our culture and taking care of yourself, but with tourism such an important part of the economy, it stops short of saying anything direct about the negative impacts.


Nevertheless, negative impacts are getting increasing attention domestically. In 2017 a survey by Tourism New Zealand and Tourism Industry Aotearoa revealed that about a third of respondents felt that tourism puts too much pressure on the environment and on the available infrastructure. When the survey was repeated in 2019, just over half of New Zealanders thought that the predicted growth of tourism was too high. The survey reveals that New Zealanders support tourism generally, but not at the current or forecast levels.


I became curious about what other nature and landscape photographers are thinking and feeling about our role as providers of the beautiful bait that attracts tourists. I wondered whether others were asking themselves whether we are unwittingly complicit in the damage caused when sensitive natural areas are affected by large, rapid increases in tourist traffic. As Hugo Pinho has revealed, exactly the same question is relevant for photographers who focus on cultural subjects in urban areas.


A piece of investigative journalism by Mike White published in August 2019 by New Zealand’s North and South magazine (republished here) revealed that visitor numbers to Aoraki/Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, rose 11% in the past year, reaching one million for the first time. Visitors to the Blue Pools in Mt. Aspiring National Park have skyrocketed from 3,400 to more than 100,000 in just three years. And Mike points out that the issues faced by New Zealand are shared around the world.


“Global tourism has risen from 525 million in 1995 to 1.4 billion in 2018. Central Amsterdam’s 850,000 residents struggle with 20 million visitors a year. France will have 100 million tourists by next year. The Greek island of Santorini saw more than 10,000 cruise-ship tourists a day before capping this at 8,000; Venice has banned cruise ships from its centre; and Boracay, a tiny island in the Philippines, closed for six months to help it recover from the two million tourists it was getting each year. Maya Bay in Thailand, which featured in the movie, The Beach, has been closed until 2021 because of environmental destruction and Game of Thrones hype has seen tourist numbers in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik explode by more than 50%. Cinque Terre, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, Barcelona – there’s a long list of destinations threatened with being ‘killed by admiration.’”


In the course of my research, I found messages in the Instagram bios of several internationally famous New Zealand photographers admonishing people to look after places they visit and clean up after themselves. I discovered photographers like Hami Tangiora, who make it clear in their photo comments that they don’t disclose the locations of sensitive places. But Hami’s protective attitude is by no means universal. I interacted on Instagram with a member of a New Zealand adventure photography collective who had just posted an image of Roy’s Peak. He wrote off my concerns, saying: “I don’t really see the problem to be honest. I personally wouldn’t stand in a line waiting for a photo, but if other people want to, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Even if there was no Instagram, people would still try and imitate images taken in magazines. People like iconic landscapes. It’s bound to happen. We live in a beautiful country and tourism is one of our biggest incomes.”


A gorgeous image by Hami Tangiora (@hami.tangiora.nz), from a Te Waipounamou location that he won’t divulge.

I felt delighted to discover that trendsetting Dutch photographer Max Rive, who features many images of New Zealand on his Instagram account and website, doesn’t use geotags. He identifies his images only to the level of country. In his website FAQ, in response to requests for the exact location of particular images, he explains the motivation behind this choice: “I do invest a lot of time trying to find something good and unique and want to keep them secret to offer something more unique to the photographers who come with me on a tour.” Unfortunately, Max doesn’t explicitly mention the importance of protecting the identity of the natural locations he visits.


I also found disturbing reports specifically about the harm caused by taking selfies with wildlife. In 2017 Amy Schellenbaum and Erika Owen published an open letter in Travel + Leisure magazine begging people to stop taking selfies with wild animals. They gave several disturbing examples of tourists harming or inadvertently killing dolphins, sea turtles, swans and other animals while making selfies. On 3 September, 2019, journalist Eleanor Ainge Roy revealed in an article published in The Guardian, that penguin researchers were worried about the harm caused by people taking wildlife selfies. The issue surfaced at the recent International Penguin Conference held in Dunedin, adding a new peril to already sobering discussions about the impact on penguins of climate crisis and habitat loss. Researchers expressed increasing concern that the celebrity-fuelled search for “the perfect shot” is affecting penguins. Professor Philip Seddon, the director of Otago University’s wildlife management programme, told the global convention that the normalisation of wildlife selfies was “scary” and was harming animals by causing physical and emotional stress, interrupting feeding and breeding habits, and even potentially lowering birth rates.


My research also included efforts to discover examples of organised advocacy on these issues, and I discovered two heartening examples. In 2017, World Animal Protection launched a wild animal selfie code after discovering a huge increase in the number of images posted to Instagram, with more than 40% of wildlife selfies showing someone hugging, holding or otherwise interacting inappropriately with a wild animal. Disturbingly, they also found evidence of irresponsible tour operators in Brazil and Peru who inflicted cruelty on wild animals used to provide photo opportunities for tourists who pay for the experience (full article here).


In 2019 the Nature Photographer’s Network launched the Nature First Alliance. The Alliance points out that historically, photography has been a vital tool in environmental protection, promoting the conservation of wild places, encouraging positive stewardship practices across the world, leaving a legacy that makes it possible for photographers today, and many others, to enjoy protected wild places. Despite this, several converging factors are having an increasingly negative impact on public and protected lands. These include the rise of social media, making it easy to share photos and location information online, a significant increase in the popularity of photography, a steep increase in visits to public lands and wild places, and lack of widespread knowledge of basic stewardship practices and outdoor ethics.


The Alliance is concerned that visitors, including photographers, are causing tangible, extensive, and progressively worsening negative impacts on nature, trampling wild lands, ignoring regulations, damaging sensitive areas, harming wildlife, and interrupting and diminishing the experiences of other users. They point out that while these developments may seem separate from photography, many of these pressures on wild lands stem from people being drawn to such places because of inspiring photographs. They conclude that while most individual photographers have not intentionally contributed to these negative impacts, we can acknowledge our contribution to these issues and take responsibility for addressing them in a proactive and positive way.


The Alliance promotes seven Nature First principles:

· Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.

· Educate yourself about the places you photograph.

· Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.

· Use discretion if sharing locations.

· Know and follow rules and regulations.

· Follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.

· Actively promote and educate others about these principles


These principles, and the World Animal Protection Selfie Code, are relevant not just for professional nature photographers, but for amateurs and tourists. And if we replace the word “nature” in the first sentence with “cultural treasures,” the principles apply just as well to photography in cities and towns. To learn more about each of these principles visit Nature First Photography and please consider joining the Alliance.


Find more of Ann's work on albums.excio.io/ann wheatley

Read another article by Ann "Photography is My Meditation"

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