Photographer's code of conduct

I’ve been thinking for a while now, that things are going to change with regards to the level of freedom that we photographers have in the landscape. 

El Arbol de Piedra, Siloli Desert, Bolivia 2016 Image © Bruce Percy 2016

El Arbol de Piedra, Siloli Desert, Bolivia 2016
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Since I started running tours and workshops in 2007, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of general tourists visiting places of interest, which has also meant that there has been a corresponding increase in the number of photographers visiting places. Indeed, my income and business is in a growth sector of the tourism industry: photography workshops and tours are on the increase each year and there is currently no letup in terms of the demand for tours centred around photography. Whether you and I like the badge or not, we are tourists with cameras and although we might feel our aims are different from general tourist, we are still tourists.

In certain countries I have begun to witness levels of strict policing where it comes to what one can do in or around national parks. Chile for instance is becoming increasingly restrictive upon what one can do and they are not alone. Nor do I feel that their approach is wrong: they are simply trying to protect their areas of interest as best they can, because of the increased levels of foot fall.

This protection comes at a cost to the amount of freedom that one has as a photographer.

I can fully appreciate the concerns of the national park services and of other places where no clear demarcation line currently exists. Iceland for example has many wonderful landscapes that do not fall under the jurisdiction of national park protection and are currently wide open to the threats of increased traffic through tourism. Indeed Iceland is having a battle with general tourists who are not ‘outdoor-savvy’. Each year there are deaths at the black beach at Vík because general tourists who have little experience with the raw power of nature are found to be in a place where extreme spring tides are a real threat and have claimed lives. Iceland is in the infant stages of trying to manage the landscape to a degree where it is reasonably safe for tourists to visit, yet allow people the appropriate level of access so that their enjoyment of such a place is not severely impacted.

As it already stands, I am often left feeling that access to many wonderful areas of a landscape have already gone through severe restrictions to the detriment of what I wish to do with my photography. Indeed, even before such restrictions were put in place, I've often been left feeling that most national parks seldom catered for photographer's needs. Most lookout points are 'vista' shots that might satisfy the general tourist but leave a lot to be desired for most photographers. Indeed, I've found that these restrictions can often lead some to breach the limits of what many national parks deem as appropriate behaviour.

This brings me to an issue with the limited design of most access areas for photographers: we tend to over-step these demarcation points in an attempt to gain the photographs we seek. In doing so, we place ourselves and our fellow enthusiasts under the scrutiny of park authorities and tempt the introduction of further restrictions. Can landscape photographers be trusted to abide by the park rules when it is clear that they will leave certain trail areas in the pursuit of an image? This is my contention: many areas of national parks do not give us the freedom to explore, and at the same time, by exploring, we are in breach of park rules. What is to be done?

In the initial days of hiking trails and networks, nature lovers have had to walk a thin line between access and conservation. This should be no different for us photographers. We have a responsibility towards these special landscapes, and if we abuse this responsibility in the pursuit of an image, we risk ourselves and our community in getting a bad name, with further restrictions being put in place. In short: any unlawful behaviour by us hurts us.

Borax field, Laguna Colorada, Bolivia Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Borax field, Laguna Colorada, Bolivia
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

I foresee a time where photographer’s footprints will have increased so much, that we will be under scrutiny for our behaviour and it is only a matter of time. So I feel that the only way to manage this escalation of park rules, is to start to develop some of our own: if hill walkers have codes of conduct such as ‘leave only footprints’, and ‘take out the rubbish you carried in’, then so too must we adopt respectful laws.

Photography has reached an all-time high level of interest. There has never been more people making photographs in nature than ever before. Many of us have come to photography from a passion for the outdoors but some of us have arrived at landscape photography with little in the way of practical outdoor skills or awareness. To these new disciples, they have still to go through a learning curve of beginning to understand that landscapes need to be cared for and that nature is unruly and stops for no one. Respect is the key word here. The pursuit of an image although the intentions may be honest can sometimes lead to the landscape being abused through a lack of outdoor experience and as such it is perhaps time that we assemble a ‘photographer’s code of conduct’, a guide that sets out how one must conduct themselves in the landscape.

I am really writing this an an open-letter. I feel that at some point, in order to maintain our right to access these wonderful places, we need to begin right now to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for our community.

But perhaps it goes much further than this. Rather than waiting for someone to dictate rules and regulations as to what we photographers can and cannot do, perhaps we should be working out these terms before someone else - someone who has little understanding of our passion, does.

Times are changing. Tourism is increasing, special places of interest are seeing increasing levels of traffic, and it is only a matter of time before authorities start to place further restrictions on what we photographers can and cannot do. Our current and future behaviour will have an effect on those rules, and whether we have a good name as a community. 

Go wisely and with great respect around the landscapes you love. Until such time as photography has an accepted code of conduct; a bible of how one should treat the landscape and the others we encounter within it, we have everything to lose.