We destroy the very thing we love

I admit: this blog post is way overdue. The more I thought about the topic I wanted to write about, the more questions arose instead of answers. And, the more I knew I had to write about it anyway. Read it as an exploration, the beginning of a dialogue.

Only when I am in nature, do I feel at peace and connected to all that lives and all that makes up this amazing Earth. This intense love I have of the natural world inspires me as an artist and a photographer. I want to share the beauty of nature with others, to open their eyes to wonder.

At the same time, I become increasingly aware of the dangers that sharing images of nature bring to the very thing I love. Recently NPR called attention to the effect of Instagram feeds showing gorgeous photos of stunning locations. Everyone sees the photos on Instagram and thinks, I want to go there! The result is crowds of tourists trampling the vegetation, starting fires, leaving toilet paper, etc.

In my previous post on Iceland, I commented on hordes of tourists only interested in getting a selfie in front of the most spectacular scenes. Dutch photographer Theo Bosboom recently won the Fred Hazelhoff Award for the photo series Iceland is Hot, showing tourists in Iceland taking pictures of themselves and of each other, oblivious to the natural beauty surrounding them. He wanted to call attention to how Iceland has changed from a destination for serious nature lovers to a country with mass tourism, high on the bucket list of millions of people.

Last summer, a friend and I visited a location where we knew we could find the elusive and (in The Netherlands) rare tree frog. As far as we knew, the location was a well-kept secret. But, when we arrived, we found that most of the vegetation had been trampled by groups of photographers, all hunting for the same ‘unique’ shot of a tiny tree frog on a leaf. Ultimately, this will destroy the tree frog’s habitat.

Ultimately, we destroy the very thing we love. The cruel practices of game farms pitting captive wolves against captive bears so that photographers can post their sensational ‘wilderness shots’ on Instagram and Facebook have been exposed and commented upon by many indignant readers. But the practice of faking the shot is much more pervasive and embedded in the world of nature documentaries and photography than we would like to believe, as this Audubon article shows. If you think it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

An ethical approach is essential. And, as wildlife photographer Melissa Groo argues, an ethical approach cannot be found simply in rules and guidelines. It needs to be grounded in the empathy a photographer feels for her/his subject.

Fortunately, organizations and individuals are starting to take a stand for ethical nature photography. The International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) held a conference last weekend on how photographers can make a difference for our planet. This is taking the matter of ethics one step further. How can the effect of nature photography bring good to the planet instead of destruction?

As I continue along this path of discovery, I find myself torn between the desire to photograph the rare and the wonderful and the desire to focus on the miracle of small, ordinary things we often pass by without noticing. I’m sure I will continue to visit faraway places to record the beauty (and the tragedy) I witness there. But my photography focuses more and more on the beauty that’s all around us, if we would stop and look.

I have also stopped revealing my specific locations. I, who hates secrets, am starting to realize that sharing locations does more harm than good.

The most important ethical principle of all, I think, is to never lie or fake a shot. If you took that stunning Goshawk photo from a photography hide, simply say so. Photography hides are a good way to get close to your subject without disturbing them, so there’s no reason to dissemble. If your subject was baited or captive, be honest about it. Don’t let people think you got that fabulous shot by stalking the animal or bird in the wilderness unless you really did.

These five guiding principles:
Approach your subject with empathy;
Find a way to make a positive difference;
Photograph the small and ordinary;
Don’t reveal your locations; and
Never lie or fake a shot
are, for me, a way out of the conundrum that nature photography and my love of and responsibility towards nature presents.


  1. Excellent, thought provoking, comments, Maddi. I just posted a beautiful video on facebook of Iceland, and one of the thoughts I had as I watched a scene where the drone was flying over a herd of reindeer, was that I thought the photographer was driving the herd and, perhaps, scaring them, and that was not good. You are so right about the crowds in Iceland, and the detrimental effects the masses have on the flora and fauna. I found some of the locations we went to far too crowded, and saw first hand the oblivious and bad behavior of many tourists. I’m reading more and more articles about these issues, and feeling as you do about not disclosing locations, especially in cases where the wildlife’s safety and survival is at stake, and about the importance of ethical behavior in photography. A perfect example is a recent article, posted by my local Audubon, about the Painted Buntings that migrate to my area for the winter. It was a warning not to disclose locations due to poaching for the pet trade. Another pet peeve. I always enjoy reading your blog and thank you for your insight. It’s spot on.

  2. Thank you, Jeanne! And the example of the Painted Buntings is shocking but true. I’m glad this struck a chord, and I hope you will inspire many to follow your example.

  3. Mary-Lou Gillette

    Dear Maddi,
    The informative links you have provided in your blog are shocking and discouraging. It is so hard not to be in constant despair over the questionable choices humans will make for fame and fortune.
    I have so enjoyed following this amazing journey into professional photography that you and several other beloved friends have chosen to pursue. Because of all of you, I have learned about the ethical sensitivity and respect for nature photography inspired by such folks as Christopher Rowe, Melissa Groo and Tin Man Lee. It is reassuring to know their voices are being heard .
    I loved your comment about focusing on the ‘small, ordinary things we often pass by without noticing’ , for that is where my world exists at this point in my life. I see so many things in nature each day that give me so much joy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Maddi. I will view nature photographs in a more cautious way from now on.

  4. Very timely post, Madeleine. I have just returned from a visit to amazing Angkor and am about o embark on writing a post and probably an eBook. I don’t think for one moment that I will have any effect on the millions of tourists who pour into Siem Reap every year. It’s too late and I’m sure people who cause the kind of destructive behaviour we all witness in these places don’t read posts like yours. But, of course, I agree with your sentiments particularly “Don’t reveal your locations..” I will reblog and give you a boost if you agree.

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