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Confronting Our Egos through Travel

With a little extra thoughtfulness, travel can make us much better people.

By: Ryan Longnecker + Save to a List

I want to talk about something that I kind of suck at for a little bit.

In early October I was honored to go on a trip with two amazing photographers and great people, Jude Allen, and Jordan Herschel. I had pitched an idea of documenting the amazing fall colors and highlighting ethical and responsible tourism to three DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations) that mean a lot to me: Visit BishopVisit Mammoth, and Mono County Tourism. I grew up in Bishop. Beyond just it's appeal for photography, I have a passion for that town because of how solidly it set me up for a life that seeks out and appreciates beauty, as well as pursues and values strong relationships. I also grew up with an understanding of the tension between wanting/needing more tourism and the damage more tourism can mean to a community and an environment. It was that passion that caused me to pursue this trip. Jordan and Jude had both already displayed a care for these places before I asked them if they would be interested in joining me, so I knew they would be the perfect guys on this trip, and their photography is also undeniably top class.

This trip, like many others I've had, gave me an opportunity to confront myself. Travel can do that if you infuse it with intentionality. So often my photography can, unintentionally, lend a hand to some selfishness or short-sidedness just by virtue that I do so much of my work alone. I am not at all taking the position of some arbiter of travel ethics at all, in fact a few of the points I'm making here I'll be clear to explain how I learned more about myself and how I contribute to the problem by my failure.

Travel with Others

This first idea has no other strategy to it other than placing yourself around others during your travel. Of course, you could find a group of people as selfish and irresponsible as you want to be and it will result the opposite of what I'm talking about...but get yourself out with some good folks who care about the environments and cultures they visit and it immediately infuses what you do with a sort of accountability that doesn't exist otherwise. Travel with others that aren't like you or might even call you out on your stuff. This added set of eyes and opinions will allow for some consideration as to how you've always done things. It may not be as innocent as you've always thought.

It's obnoxious, but good.

On this trip we were going back into the national forests and getting amazingly beautiful content of some more off-the-road locations and one of the things I specifically wanted to do was take my drone up for some photo and video content. I'm very aware of the attention a drone gets and I make myself very familiar of what is and is not legal before I take my drone up. Even so, as I was taking it up in one location I could tell it was bugging Jordan even though he wasn't making a big deal about it at all. This was an opportunity to have a "Screw you, I know what I'm doing" moment, or to hear him out. I chose to hear him out, because I respected him and knew he wouldn't have an opinion about it without purpose. His position was one I totally agreed with; that a lot of people come to these remote places to escape all of that noise. Even though it's not against the rules, it still might ruin someone's experience and asking myself, "is that worth it?", which I typically do, is a much better posture to have.

Our culture rewards people who are hardened and calloused. Malleability isn't seen as a strength, but I think if you can allow others' viewpoints in to challenge and refine yours, we all improve because of it. Traveling with others will be a great, intensive way to learn a lot about the different viewpoints and approaches toward travel, adventure, photography, and life.

Educate Yourself

Don't simply trust your intuition.

Don't roll on the advice of your friends only.

There are so many ways that you might be impacting the environment or the culture you are visiting without even knowing it. Start here: take this Leave No Trace Online Awareness Course.

As we were out shooting at the Bristlecone Pine Forest there was a composition I saw that would have required me to go up on this well-treaded area that was in a clearly marked off spot. I had seen that most of whatever damage could be done to this one particular spot had already been done, so, "why not?" I thought. But with that 'travel with others' mindset, it was good to have an extra reason to pause and reconsider. I saw Jude and Jordan setting up further back on the trail for a different shot (and side note, the composition they ended up with was more unique than the obviously well-worn angle I was drawn to). Beyond what, if any, material damage that might have caused, that moment was good for me in remembering that most of the time I'm willing to bend the rules when I don't know why they are there. I didn't have a good working knowledge of what issues that action would cause these trees - some of them the oldest known ones in the world - so trusting my own intuition would have been the worst thing in that moment.

Ignorance unfortunately doesn't tend to draw people to pause. I've found people tend to push on and let someone else deal with the aftermath.

Now, most of the time I am good about following the rules and guidelines and if I deviate it's to bend rather than break, but a bit of education would have allowed me to make a more mature and selfless decision in that moment had I been alone. We've all seen the devastation that can be done when somebody makes a selfish decision because they didn't know it would cause the damage it did. I'm thinking of sad stories where entire forests and landmarks have been destroyed.

Clean Up for Two

Some people have built their entire lives around the idea that the rules don't apply to them and their experience is the only deciding factor on what to do. So, yeah some people aren't even interested in doing better.

So, for those of us that want to, we are going to have to clean up for two.

For Jordan, on this trip that meant picking up cigarette butts that were tossed next to the lake. For one other camper it might mean confronting someone or doing the work for them. Once I was camping and thought I had put out my fire completely, left for a hike, and when I got back one of the other campers told me that wasn't cool and to be more careful. While I was annoyed, I knew he was right. If you're not willing to have those confrontations, but still want to have a positive impact, then pick up trash you find and create less trash yourself. Find ways to undo some of the damage done by someone less thoughtful. 

(This was one of the first texts between us on this trip)

You're not going to be able to undo a lifetime of selfishness in some people, and it is obnoxious to have to clean up after other very capable adults, but if we can keep that disdain-for-adult-babysitting part under control, we can make a better impact for those around us and those that will come after us.

Saturate Yourself in Beauty

These are all small adjustments that might help turn the ship of a culture so self-obsessed, but really the most effective one is just becoming the type of person who regulates the amount you let cynicism win in your mind. Surround yourself with people who are making positive impact. Get good ideas from places like Green Matters or Ocean Conservancy or the various pages of the national parks. When someone does work that matters, be the first to jump on and like, comment, and share it. Make the important stuff famous. All of these are ways of marinating yourself in holistic ways of looking out for the beautiful stories and we will see them more often. I believe we will then make them more often.

 Photos by Ryan LongneckerJude Allen, and Jordan Herschel

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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