The Ethics of "Getting the Shot"

Is it worth risking your life, damaging the landscape, or breaking the law all for a photo?

The trail from the top of Snoqualmie Falls to the viewing platform below was a short, steep, climb through moss covered trees. Maples were still turning gold, even though November was ending, and the cool mist from the river filled the crisp, autumn air. I walked hurried, full of excitement, to get the shot I had seen on Instagram of the falls from below.

Photo: Julie Boyd

Have you seen the shot? A quick search #snoqualminefalls will take you there. A rocky riverbed serves as a stunning foreground, as the water tumbles over the craggy face of the falls and continues down into the frame of the image. Sometimes a human is there for scale. A lone adventurer staring up at the enormity of the scene, or perhaps into the distance as they contemplate the meaning of life, or more likely what they will have for lunch.

When I reached the end of the platform, my heart sinks. We are still about 30 feet above the river. There are stairs, which are gated, and locked, with a bold “NO TRESPASSING” sign. I look over the rail. There are a few of those adventurers below, creating that very same image. No doubt they climbed over the fence to reach their spot. The climb is dangerous, and illegal.

Photo: Julie Boyd

For a moment, I considered joining them. I had come all this way. I knew the best perspective of the falls would be from below, but what was the cost of getting the shot?

Is it worth risking your life, damaging the landscape, or breaking the law all for a photo?

I thought back to my adventures over the last few months. A similar scene in Oregon, at Toketee Falls, where photographers had to climb through a hole cut into a chain-link fence, and scale a rocky cliffside all to get the shot. I decided it was too dangerous. Another in Point Reyes, along a crowded trail, where photographers would have to ignore signs telling them to stay on the path and to not go to the cliff’s edge. I decided not to set a bad example because I knew others would follow.

Photo: Julie Boyd

I am guilty of chasing “the shot.” I am guilty of climbing over a fence to get a different perspective of a waterfall in Yosemite, and going off trail to find the secret hidden cave in Johnston Canyon. I am proud of those images because I captured a beautiful place using my skills and artistry. I want to create more images like them. I wanted to on that day at Snoqualmie Falls.

However, for some reason, in this moment, standing on the viewing platform, I had enough.

In the age of social media, it is hard to be unique. It is hard to create images that people haven’t seen before. It is hard to resist wanting to go to the same places and recreate the same images that have scrolled across your feed. After all, these places are usually pretty incredible. The Wanaka Tree, Horseshoe Bend, Moraine Lake; they are all breathtakingly beautiful.

Photo: Julie Boyd

Maybe it was hearing about the impact of tourism at Horseshoe Bend, and having a viewing platform installed. Maybe it was all of the images I have seen of people standing on the edge of a slippery rock above Sunwapta Falls on Instagram. Maybe it was hearing about the young college student who fell to his death at Crater Lake while taking sunrise photos. I am not sure, but it had an impact one me.

I am not saying don’t push yourself to create beautiful images, or to stop visiting destinations that you see on Instagram. I will probably continue to be influenced by social media as well. I enjoy seeing the beautiful places that are on this planet, dreaming about seeing them with my own eyes, and then bringing those dreams to fruition. However, I do think it is important that we consider the impact we are having when we visit and post about these beautiful places.

Photo: Julie Boyd

What is the solution? How do we enjoy and share our experiences outdoors without causing harm? I wish I knew the exact answer.

For me, for now, I will continue to be mindful and ask myself what impact will my actions have? If they can potentially harm myself, other people, or the ecosystem, then the shot simply isn’t worth the risk. I want to set a precedent for how people should behave when they interact with Earth’s natural landscapes, so that others can continue to enjoy them for the years to come. In the end, that means sometimes I will just have to pass on getting the shot.

Published: December 14, 2017

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations.

Julie & BrianExplorer

San Francisco Bay Area

Bay Area based couple making travel work with full-time jobs. Follow us on our adventures as we make the most of our time off by exploring our beautiful planet.