Many nature photographers are already making incredible contributions and positive impact on the natural landscape. Simon Baxter, a UK based woodlands and nature photographer, has partnered with Trees for Life to create Meg’s Grove - conserving the native Scots Pine in the Caledonian Forests of Scotland.
Soon after we launched the Nature First movement, we started hearing stories about the irresponsible behavior of some nature photographers. Of course, these stories and their impact were the genesis of Nature First and the 7 Principles. But then, members started asking, “What will the Nature First organization do when they learn about irresponsible behavior?” And more importantly, “What can I do when I see irresponsible behavior, first hand?” So let’s take a look at each of these questions individually, because the answer to each is quite different…
What will the Nature First organization do when they learn about irresponsible behavior? This question can be broken down into two parts; official partners not upholding the 7 Principles, and individuals (perhaps even Nature First members) demonstrating irresponsible behavior.
Nature First is developing a formal agreement for official partners. This partnership will be extended to organizations and companies - from large corporations to small business workshop leaders, education providers, and gallery consortiums. Partner organizations usually contact us because they believe in the Nature First ideals and would like to help spread the word of the 7 Principles. The partner agreement simply outlines those expectations. And if a partner organization stops meeting those expectations, the partnership will be revoked. Pretty simple.
Responding to reports of irresponsible behavior by an individual, even one of our 900+ Nature First members, is not so simple… The primary goal of Nature First is to be an advocate for the 7 Principles and educate nature photographers, and all visitors to nature, about responsible behavior. Nature first does not have a formal agreement with each individual member, like we do with our partner organizations. When individuals sign up with Nature First they declare their commitment to the 7 Principles. We consider that a pledge towards good behavior, and we hope that everyone will do their best to honor that pledge. But each individual is different. They are at different points in their journey, learning how to be a responsible nature photographer. Each individual may interpret various situations in a different ways. They will have different levels of knowledge about their natural surroundings and the impact they are making. Everyone has made mistakes and behaved irresponsibly in the past, likely unintentionally, through lack of knowledge. Even the best of us can be careless in the excitement of the moment, or simply not know about the sensitivity of the area. The 7 Principles should serve as our reminders.
The primary goal of Nature First is to be an advocate for the 7 Principles and educate nature photographers, and all visitors to nature, about responsible behavior.
Nature First believes that these incidents of irresponsible behavior are an opportunity to educate and help individuals learn more about responsible nature photography. We want everyone included in the Nature First movement! Calling out, embarrassing or ostracizing individuals seen demonstrating bad behavior, and removing them from the Nature First member list would only serve to shut them out - possibly forever. We’d prefer that they learn from their mistakes and act on that knowledge next time they are in the field.
Nature First will not, and can not, police the irresponsible actions of individuals. That is not our goal. The 7 Principles are self evident guidelines meant to apply to all situations, and allow for each individual to interpret responsible behavior in the moment. They are intentionally not written as specific rules. Every country, park and preserve has defined those details in their laws and regulations. Knowing and following them is Principle #5. But we can not act as enforcement. We simply do not have the resources to investigate and corroborate reports of infractions. And we don’t believe we’re qualified to serve judgement - how could we possibly ensure fairness and lack of bias in every situation? No, enforcement and judgement are not our goals, especially when such actions would likely alienate those individuals from our movement - forever. We’d rather, they learn and grow to use better judgement, and be included in the Nature First movement.
Nature First will not police the irresponsible actions of individuals. That is not our goal.
So… What can you do when you see irresponsible behavior, first hand? If the behavior is clearly in violation of the law or rules and regulations, we encourage you to document the incident (you’ve got a camera with you, right?) and report it to officials. Let the professionals handle the enforcement. Beyond that, your response is very much up to you. But we have some recommendations…
If you feel safe confronting the individual(s) in the moment, we recommend a helpful, educational approach, instead of sounding authoritarian or enforcing. In other words, give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are simply unaware of the impact of their irresponsible behavior. “Hey, did you know that the area beyond the rope has plants that are really sensitive to foot traffic? Walking around over there is likely having a really negative impact.” This kind of approach is more likely to be successful than being authoritarian. No one likes being told what to do. We know this will not always be successful, and many are not comfortable confronting others. So you can always document and report irresponsible behavior.
If you see bad behavior on the internet (you don’t have to look very hard), we encourage you to reach out to individuals privately, if possible, and use the resources on the Nature First website to spread the word about responsible nature photography. People are much more likely to respond positively to private criticism (even if you never see or realize the change in their behavior). Publicly calling out an individual on social media will likely result in denial, deflection, rebuttal, and/or retaliation. We’ve all seen it. And it generally does not lead to a positive outcome. Education is one of the primary reasons for the Nature First website. You are always encouraged to reference it!
What if you learn about irresponsible behavior from a Nature First member? As disappointing/infuriating as it may be, try not to have a negative, knee-jerk reaction. Take the high road and think of it as an opportunity for that individual to learn and grow. Think about contacting the individual to ask them about their behavior. But first ask yourself:
“Did you witness the behavior, or did you hear about it 2nd or 3rd hand, or on the internet?“ Ensure you know the facts. Be wary of internet claims and squabbles.
Was the incident in the past, the far past?” We have all made mistakes in the past (that might just be our next blog post). And we’ve all learned some hard lessons on the negative impact we can make. Hopefully, that growth has led to better behavior today.
“Was the behavior intentional and/or a repeated habit, or a one-time mistake?” Again, we all make mistakes, especially “in the moment.” Mistakes that are unintentional or due to lack of knowledge are great opportunities to learn and grow. The vast majority of nature photographers are not purposefully damaging the environment. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
Leverage the nature photography community! We have a forum just for that! You can make a difference by discussing bad behavior, and doing it constructively. Venting frustration is easy, and can be seen all over the internet. But let’s discuss how we can bring about change. That is how Nature First started.
The vast majority of nature photographers are not purposefully damaging the environment. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Bad behavior that is unintentional or stems from lack of knowledge can be opportunities to learn and grow.
So what it really comes down to, is you - all of you. Let’s work together to help spread the word and include more people in the Nature First movement, instead of judging, ostracizing and excluding. The Nature First movement - with all it’s individuals dedicated to the 7 Principles - can set the example, help others grow and learn, and turn the tide of negative impact on our natural treasures.
From the very beginning, we wanted this movement to be international and not overly biased towards the USA. We’re thrilled and humbled that we have members joining from more than 38 countries around the world in just the first 2 weeks. So here’s a personal shout-out to all our members outside the USA. Thank you!
Lars Gesing reached out to me last week for an interview about Nature First, how it started and why. It was great to meet him in person at a local coffee shop and chat about Nature First’s goals of advocating for responsible nature photography. Here’s his article on Nature First.
Ben Horne is a talented photographer, YouTube vlogger, and Nature First member. He recently published a video discussing Nature First and a great overview of the 7 principles.
This area six miles back from the trailhead had been trampled by far too many feet. But why had they been to this remote location? How did they even know about it? It then dawned on me, causing me to feel almost ill: I had published numerous photos of this area, shared the location online, and then told everyone who asked where this area could be found. The flowers were gone because of me. Unwittingly I had helped to destroy one of the most beautiful fields of flowers to be found in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Here’s a perfect (bad) example from Los Angeles Magazine reporting how crowds behaved badly during the 2019 California superbloom. Visitors, many of them photographers, stomped into fields of delicate wildflowers without thinking of the impact they are making on both the wildflowers themselves and on the behavior of others.
The Colorado Tourism Office and Leave No Trace are partnering to promote and provide guidance to visitors for enjoying nature responsibly. I’m proud to live in a state that is innovating and leading the way for other states in the region.
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