Few issues divide outdoor communities as deeply as locations. Do we share valuable beta with others, or not?
We are photographers. We are explorers. We are hikers. We are canyoneers. We are climbers. We are travelers. Immersing ourselves in our surroundings is what inspires us, what drives us.
Others who join us in this experience are themselves part of the experience. There can be nothing more inspiring than sharing special conditions at a wild location with a few people we hold dear. And there is nothing less inspiring than standing in a line of 50 tripods in a place we once held dear.
Whether or not to reveal our beta is one of the most difficult choices we face. Do we want to risk ruining a sensitive place? To some: of course. Locations are locations, just places for creativity. Let people come see them, just as others have done for us.
But what if the location is...
- ...closed to the public, or closed at the time of day the image was made, and photographers there must not attract attention?
- ...fragile, and susceptible to trampling, garbage, and vandalism?
- ...sacred to native people?
- ...dangerous and potentially life-threatening to access or photograph from?
- ...too small to fit more than one or two photographers?
- ...on private property, and you had permission, but others might not seek it?
- ...a place you simply enjoy solitude and just want to keep it that way?
If you discovered one of these places, and most of us have -- would you STILL share it with the world?
We all draw our line in a different place -- but I believe we all have a line somewhere. Where the problems arise is how we present our beta to the public in the context of our images. This is where social media brings out the worst in us.
The simple answer is, if you discover a new or little-known location, or come up with a new concept for an image, you have three choices:
- Share it with the world. Post it to social media, tell people where it is and how it's done.
- Keep it to yourself. You must not share images of the location, even if untagged.
- An "unhappy medium" between (1) and (2). Perhaps share an image but exclude specific location and technique information, and refuse or obfuscate this information to most viewers who inquire.
The problem with (1), sharing, is... it rapidly destroys the place. Large crowds quickly appear. And you caused it. Issues with landowners may arise. You might return next year and find no space for your tripod, or have your images ruined by light painters or model shoots. There may be a new permit system in place, or the location may become closed due to the actions of others -- you might not be able to visit at all. And your image will quickly become lost in a sea of similar-looking images from others.
The problem with (2), keeping completely to yourself, is... you miss out on the joy of sharing your work with the world. Others inspired you, and you will surely inspire others... but you can't do that if you don't share your work. And there is little joy in creating if we have no one to share it with.
The problem with (3), the "unhappy medium", is... it destroys the place AND makes you a jerk. Others helped you discover little-known locations. You claimed the fame but gave nothing back. You have contributed nothing to the art. If you were inspired by someone else, you took their idea and gave nothing back... well, that's stealing. AND, worse yet... it doesn't even work. Intrepid explorers will still quietly use your images to reverse engineer the locations and concepts. And you'll have no control over how they handle the information. They'll tell a few friends. Who will tell a few friends. And it's over. Same outcome. Just delayed. Location destroyed. AND you were a jerk.
So... what does that leave us with? We can't win, can we?
Social media, of course, is the primary driver, and makes the problem worse than ever. Most photographers chase images that perform well online, or sell well. If you achieve these, there will be people knocking on your door for information, so they, too, can get in on the social media action. The information will get out, whether you provide it or not. Crowd growth is exponential. Social media photography is a disease. It must die. If I think you're gonna post your image to Instagram, I'm sorry, but I won't be sharing my beta with you.
I can understand both sides. I go back and forth between them myself. I enjoy sharing beta for the happiness it brings others, and to give back to a community that has helped me so much. However, I have experienced firsthand the pain of publishing unique work from unique locations, and soon returning to find dozens of tripods chasing my creative success. I have tried to find the unhappy medium, but always failed. And that unhappy medium, of course, comes with being a jerk.
If the image appears on social media, even without information, it will not be unique for long, and its location will no longer provide solitude. It may never be the same again. And you have to live with the fact that... well, you are responsible for that. Despite your best efforts, you let it out. And you were a jerk by refusing to give back to others who were interested. What a mess.
In the end, what it all comes down to is, if you have a secret location that you want to preserve, do not share it, and do not share images of it. Posting landscape images for "preservation" but withholding beta on them is a snake's tactic, not a happy medium. If you truly want to "preserve", or just want to enjoy it for yourself, there is nothing wrong with that -- but do exactly that. By sharing the image, you are now enjoying it with others, who will want to see it for themselves. You can't have fame and recognition for your discovery without also making it popular. You can't have your cake and eat it too. It's just a choice we have to make.
I find this choice is best made on a case-by-case basis. With each new image you produce, consider this: Is this an image you would like to establish your name with, or is this a place you would like to return and have it to yourself?
Because you can't have both.