Leave No Trace

I think most landscape and nature photographers who are passionate about their subjects (ie., not just the number of social media followers…) easily align with causes like Leave No Trace and Nature First, and readily embrace their principles — most likely without even thinking about it. Caring for the places, creatures and things that we photograph is simply the right thing to do.

And it’s not enough. Not anymore. With each passing day of more heatwaves, fires, droughts, storms, and floods, it is becoming clearer that we need a message of stewardship for Earth itself, and all life on it. If we photographers embrace the principles of caring for the land and the flora & fauna, it would seem natural to me to extend these principles and look, no pun intended, at… the bigger picture. Earth.

“We shall be known for the tracks we leave behind.”
(Native American Proverb)

Every time I browse a landscape photographer’s workshop offerings, I have extremely mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s great that there’s the demand for it, that there are people who are eager to see the world and capture it with their cameras. And on the other hand, I see a combined hundred thousand airline miles — that go into ultimately producing more photos from the same “iconic” locations.

Locations that don’t need more “promotion for protection” (in the old, conservational sense of landscape photography) to begin with, of course — on the contrary! Nowadays, many of these places probably need protection from over-visitation. Instead, yet more attention is drawn there, and just one transatlantic flight from New York to Europe (or vice versa) roughly doubles one’s annual CO₂ footprint (depends a little bit on which side of the pond you live).

It’s easy to embrace these principles, but to fully grasp their implications, in the face of climate change, while also trying to find a reasonable balance that allows us to live happy, contempt and productive lives? I find that really, really hard. During the pandemic, it was easy to switch all of my photography-related work “online”, using Zoom and other screen sharing software, but I can’t switch to Zoom when I want to make photos. I need to be there, and I too have places that fill me with longing to see them (again).

But how much am I willing to travel for photos? Where do I even want to go, and which method of travel do I choose? At this point, driving my not-so fuel efficient SUV 100 miles one way to our “local” desert, on an interstate at 70 miles per hour, when I really only need the high clearance for those last 5 miles of dirt road at the end seems just as nonsensical to me as the transatlantic flight to make more of the same images of say, Iceland. (and try to find a truly off-road capable electric or hybrid car.)

Obviously, I don’t have an answer. There is none. I don’t even want to promote the idea to “shoot local” — considering that it is what I mostly do anyway, it would seem just too convenient and self serving (and that 200 mile round-trip thing in our SUV is what I’d consider “local”, too). So, no. How far one desires to travel for photographs is an individual choice, but perhaps we can make it a more conscious, educated one, that takes more of all the tracks and traces that we leave behind into account. And maybe create more original photographs that way, too.

Thank you for reading.

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8 thoughts on “Leave No Trace”

  1. It’s something I struggle with a lot, as far as knowing “leave no trace” seems quite hard to do in daily modern life.

    It ultimately comes down to we really don’t pay for the impacts of the places we go, the things we buy, the waste we make in any great degree. Manufacturers are not responsible for cradle to grave costs. An airline doesn’t pay for the carbon it puts in the air. Heck, people are bitching about gas prices here when they go up 50 cents and Europe has had double if not more than our cost of fuel for ages. And a tour leader and the participants don’t really pay for the true environmental cost of a trip to Iceland.

    I guess I have become quite cynical in many respects and I acknowledge it isn’t healthy either. I am pretty sure unless we assign proportional dollars to pollute and cause harm, we are simply going to pay the consequences. I don’t know how severe that has to be, but I imagine much larger than massive wildfires, floods, etc. Maybe complete destruction of a major coastal city?

    • You’re much further in this thought process than I am for sure, Mark.

      People are already paying for the consequences (ask the inhabitants of former Lytton, BC) but you’re right — it’s not “at scale”, to put it cynically (and yeah, it’s too easy to be cynical)…

  2. As a human being in these times it is almost impossible to not have a negative impact on the environment in some way. There are some folks, my neighbor is one, who do not own cars and ride a bike or use public transportation. But those have their impact as well in manufacturing and pollution…even for electric cars. About the only people not to have a serious impact are the native tribes of remote regions and even that is changing with the times. I do shoot mostly local. The only photographic travel I do is an annual trip to Acadia N.P. but even around here the miles add up. We can only try to do our best and keep our effect down to a minimum.

    • I used to ride my bike to work and walk to do most of my shopping in Germany, but that isn’t really a possibility in the typical sprawled out California suburbs.

      And you’re right, everything we humans do has an impact. We could sit in a cave and meditate… and even then, we’re consuming oxygen! ;)

      Climate change requires collective action.
      It’s about awareness and making better choices, even small ones.

      • At least in most circumstances oxygen is renewable. Europe seems much better set up for bicycles. Some parts of the U.S. are also but with heavy traffic it is a bit risky. Here in our small town we have a car/bicycle fatality every so often.

        Yes, every small step counts and, as they say, every action has a reaction. The frustrating part is when someone like the previous President gets in there and undoes all the progress in a matter of days and a few pen strokes. But hopefully we are recovering from that.

  3. Good food for thought here, Alex. As you said, there likely is no answer to it all, especially since we each have our own opinions on what the right balance would be. But I agree with you that the first step is becoming aware of the issues and making decisions more purposefully. If we’re at least aware of some of the consequences perhaps we’ll find ways to lessen them without completely giving up on everything.

    Your comment about how you used to ride your bike for some transportation in Germany brought back memories of riding the streets of Augsburg with my family. Things seemed closer together there and more suitable for bikes than some of our more spread out areas here. I do recall, though, how nervous I was on my bike on the city streets with traffic moving by me. I was young enough and new enough to riding I didn’t have the confidence yet. Good memories, though. I miss that city, though I’ve no clue how much it might have changed after all this time.

    • Germany as a whole is closer together! ;) 80 million people on land that’s less than the size of California… but Augsburg is also a relatively cozy city, if I remember correctly.

  4. Very well put, Alex, I appreciate your thoughts on leaving no trace. More than that, I appreciate that you end up declining to recommend any one-size-fits-all prescription for a solution. Just being conscious and educating oneself can make a difference, if only that idea could get out to more people.


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