Take Only Photos and Leave Nothing behind

It was Earth Day a little while ago and while I am no environmentalist, I do have a strong background in the outdoors which basically means that I used to spend a lot of time outside. I was an avid hiker to the point where one of my degrees is in Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism. This love for the outdoors is also why I got into landscape photography.

However, a recent Facebook post by Sean Bagshaw of Outdoor Exposure Photography where he shared a post from David Cobb that talks about the complicated subject of sharing locations got me thinking about this issue. While I love the idea of finding a new place to shoot after seeing what happened to a very beautiful spot in Gyeongju, I have second thoughts.

In his post, David grapples with the idea about sharing locations and the damage that we inflict on these natural spots. He mentioned about “feeling guilty for not sharing [the locations]” and that is something that I feel too. I often felt that by sharing my locations, that I was doing the photographic community a favour. That being said, I now feel part of the problem.

In an article by the New York Times, they explain in detail some of the issues of geotagging pictures. It’s not just flowers and grass that is in danger but wildlife as well. Poachers are using the geotagged images to locate Rhinos and kill them.


October 2017 – Got Kicked off the grass this time

If you are wondering how all of this ties into a park in Gyeongju, South Korea then you have to take a look at the above image. The trees and the surrounding royal tombs are now the main attraction of the Daereungwon Park. This is a beautiful and unique place is the final resting place for the Kings and Queens of the Silla Dynasty. Of the 23 burial mounds, the tree between these two mounds is the most popular to instagrammers.

Fall 2018

It used to be a secret location that you could only get to at certain times of the year. They had staff to kick you out, if you were caught on the grass. Now, it is THE spot for instagram shots. In recent years, line ups have been forming during the spring and fall particularly on the weekends.

These are royal tombs are of particular importance to the nation. What was once manicured grass is now brown, dead and dusty along the ever-widening path to the Selfie Spot” as I will call it. The dusty path and the obvious impact does not stop people from lining up to take their picture in front of the trees.

May 2019 – The affected area (dead grass) has expanded quite a bit in just a few months.

Now, before you start casting shade on instagramers, I have seen lots of photographers here as well. Actually during sunset, it is the photographers that outnumber the couples. So many came during the blossom season that some chose to bring a ladder to shoot overtop of the crowds.

I also think that the numerous shots of the lone tree are what brought so many people here. This is/was a go-to spot for many photographers coming to Gyeongju. However, the growing crowds brought in by the popularity of the surrounding cafes are causing a massive impact.

To Share or Not To Share

So the big question big question is if it is still ok to share your location or not. I have often felt that photographers who did not share the locations of their photos were protecting their images in some selfish way. I felt that it was just petty. However, thinking about this again, I can see that it maybe better to NOT to share the location for reasons of simply protecting the site, not necessarily the image.

Spring 2019

While it is good for SEO to hashtag the location and add the location/GPS data to the image before you upload, when you look at the popularity of some sites, you can easily see the impact that it has on the environment.

In just a few short years, the trees in Daereungwon went from a location only local photographers knew about to an “it place” for instagram shots. Now, this place is not too hard to find but for other areas, you can only image the level of impact large amounts of photographers can have.

Expanding this out to protected lands and eco-sensitive areas, you can see that this is becoming a serious issue. These areas have been protected for years and can’t handle the hordes of influencers coming into take pictures and hold bottles of essential oils up to their faces or middle-aged semi-pro photographers humping in more gear than an Everest expedition to use a single lens to get the same shot as everyone else.

What Can You Do?

A pet peeve of mine are articles that simply point out the bad things people do and then leave it at that. It’s easy to complain about people but more difficult to figure out a possible solution. It’s like the guy that tells you that your photo sucks but then has a difficult time explaining how you could make it better. I don’t want to be that guy.

The best thing in my mind is to stay on the path and stick to the designated areas. Much of the wear and tear in places like this comes from people venturing off the designated paths to get their shots or worse lining up for them. Parks officials and staff are trained to monitor and handle wear and tear in these areas and that is why they build boardwalks and paths to keep the damage to a central location. However, they can’t always monitor areas in remote parts of National Parks. So please practice Leave No Trace photography in these cases.

If you feel that you are not getting close enough, I am pretty sure there is a lens out there than can help. Either rent one or buy one, it is that simple. Just don’t start romping through places that you know you shouldn’t just to get a shot for instagram.

Education, I feel is the next step. As we all seem to be online and a part of photography clubs and groups, start telling fellow photographers to be careful in sensitive areas. If you run workshops or classes, don’t take people to these spot or do so in a way that doesn’t harm the natural landscape.

You could even go so far as to start publicly shaming them on Instagram as one guy does in the states but I feel that is going a bit too far. The account PUBLICLANDSHATEYOU is an extreme example of a person fed up with the destruction caused by photographers trampling the natural landscape to get shots. He particularly targets influencers on his account but nobody is safe, not even drone users.

The bottom line here is that we need to protect the areas that we love to photograph. Sometimes, it means not actually photographing them at all. I am not going to tell you that I have never gone to a location that I have seen on instagram because I wanted to get the shot. However, what I am going to be more careful about is geotagging the areas that I feel are ecologically sensitive.

Sometimes we just have to appreciate the images that we see and that is it. While I do think that we all can benefit from sharing and exchanging locations, tips and tricks, we should also help to protect the places that we go as well.


  1. steve robinson Reply

    Very good article Jason. I went to Gyeongju twice during the blossom season, but chose not to go anywhere near that tree. I knew that any level of possible enjoyment of being there would be immediately extinguished by the sight of a queue for selfies, with it. I hadn’t so much considered the environmental impact of this behaviour so much, so kudos to you for bringing it up. I’m currently reading Trey’s book about Instagrammers shenanigans and my jaw is almost permanently dropped whilst I do so.

    • Jason Teale Reply

      Steve, Trey’s book is what sort of got me thinking about this topic and the PublicLandsHatesYou Instagram account as well. I think that we have to see the level of destruction that we are causing simply to get a shot. It is insane the lengths that people will go to in order to get a selfie or a landscape pic that seemingly everyone else has shot.

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