Petroglyph Thefts - Ethical Questions for Photographers
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Phrasikleia
Registered: Aug 08, 2012
Total Posts: 327
Country: United States

Thanks for the reply, Dan. So we agree about icons, then: whether or not to photograph them is really a separate issue. The ethics of disclosing locations becomes most critical with sites that are not already highly publicized.

At any rate, you've raised some important questions with this thread and your blog post. I habitually photograph locations that are relatively obscure. I find them by scouring topo maps and by doing lots of exploring and scouting, and then I usually share information about the locations quite freely. I will now think a lot more carefully about how I describe and tag my photos. Perhaps I should be more cagey about them in the future, at least when sharing on the internet. What a pity, though.

CamperJim, I have to agree with the others: you've just posted a photo of a lesser known, fragile location and have disclosed which park it's in. That kind of promotion and disclosure completely undermines your points about prudence and preservation.



gdanmitchell
Registered: Jun 28, 2009
Total Posts: 8434
Country: United States

This is a complex issue, and the all-too-common strategy of critiquing another's response because it isn't "black and white" enough is more about the fun of argument than about getting at truth, which can be a bit complex and often is more about the gray areas than the black and white.

(This argumentative strategy might be described as "I claim that you are not perfectly consistent in absolutely everything you say and do, therefore your points are not worth considering." It is closely related to the "arguing the absurd" strategy that begins by claiming that your opponent holds to some absurd position that you constructed merely to make him/her look silly.)

For my part, with one small caveat, I never said that it is wrong in all cases to share photographs of things that are sensitive or fragile or subject to damage. (Again, please read my actual article rather than relying on your impression of what you imagine I might think.) Frankly, I don't see the harm in camperjim's post of a photograph of a place that almost no one will locate, and even fewer will seek to find. In fact, I posted a photo of petroglyphs as part of my article about this issue.

I did so precisely to address* the complexity of this issue. Frankly, posting a photograph of a fairly generic desert landscape and disclosing "which park its in" hardly causes a real risk to the place. Yes, I'm sure that some among you might actually be able to guess where his photograph was made - but we're not really worried about you, and this place isn't likely to be overrun or become iconic. So there is virtually no risk to it on account of this photograph.

If I post a photograph and limit my identification of the location to, say, "Death Valley National Park," anyone who has an ounce of familiarity with that place will understand that it is really, really big and that only the very most serious and persistent researchers will likely have a clue of even where to look. Oh, and if you happen to know where the place is or can figure it out on the basis of what you see and you disclose more specific information, that is hardly the fault of the person who concealed it. You, too, perhaps have a responsibility to let the vague description stand. :-)

The photograph I posted was described as being of "petroglyphs on a rock face overlooking desert terrain." Now, unless you want to believe that petroglyphs don't exist in the desert terrain - thus rendering your participation in a discussion that began in response to the protection of petroglyphs in desert terrain - this caption discloses nothing of use to a person wondering where this is. A second point that I hoped to illustrate with that photograph was that it is possible to contrive to show the thing in ways that avoid giving away its precise location. If anyone reading this is familiar with my photography, they might recall that many of my landscape and similar photographs tend to hold everything in relatively sharp focus. At the time I made this photograph I chose to shoot at an aperture that would blur out the background terrain, and I chose to include only a fairly nondescript and generic portion of that terrain.

So, I'm not saying that one cannot photograph places that are precious and sensitive and fragile - not at all. What I am saying is that somewhere between the absurd extremes of "Don't photograph anything" and "Photograph it and then lead others there too!" an ethical balance is to be found that isn't all that hard to understand or act upon.

(Oh, and I'm positive that there have been and will be inconsistencies in my own presentation of photographs and text. I'm human, and my sensitivity to and understanding of these issues has evolved over the past few years - as I wrote. Just this morning I found and retitled a photograph of mine that gets some attention here and there - it now has a title that doesn't refer to the geographical location of the subject, and I have made my text description more generic. It wasn't that hard... and I'm sure there will be more to fix.

Take care,

Dan

* I chose to post the photo rather than explicitly comment - no doubt at length - about how an image of a fragile thing might be shared ethically. In the back of my mind, I might have been thinking of the first sentence of something Ansel Adams purportedly said/wrote: "When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence."



D. von Briesen
Registered: Jan 17, 2007
Total Posts: 1011
Country: United States

The first rule of "Fight Club" is . . . ? ? ?



Phrasikleia
Registered: Aug 08, 2012
Total Posts: 327
Country: United States

Is all of that a reply to me, Dan? I haven't argued with any of your points; as far as I can tell, we're in complete agreement about all of them. I did suggest that your discussion of icons was a digression, and you agreed with me. My fear was that your thread would veer off into a discussion of icons and we wouldn't get anywhere with the real issue of discretion in identifying locations.

As for CamperJim's photo and location information: it does undermine his point a bit, no? That's all I said, and I was just agreeing with others who had posted before me.

I've apparently put you on the defensive for some reason, Dan, but I haven't disagreed with any of your points. I think this is an important issue you've raised (as I've said already), and I'm being completely genuine about my reconsideration of photo descriptions and tagging.



gdanmitchell
Registered: Jun 28, 2009
Total Posts: 8434
Country: United States

Phrasikleia wrote:
Is all of that a reply to me, Dan? ...


No, it is a general continuation of the topic, based on various responses and on further thoughts about this issue.

Dan



Camperjim
Registered: Oct 17, 2011
Total Posts: 1710
Country: United States

Dan wrote: "Frankly, I don't see the harm in camperjim's post of a photograph of a place that almost no one will locate, and even fewer will seek to find." I hope you are right and my description of 20-200 miles from Badwater was vague enough.

Anyway, thanks, but there is little reason to support my discussion. I hope I did not take away from the points you posted about. I merely wanted to point out that it is not easy to decide what is appropriate when we post images. I will return to my usual position of enjoying the more positive aspects of the Landscape Forum, in silence.



jstephens62
Registered: Feb 09, 2006
Total Posts: 1099
Country: United States

In addition to photography, I am also an avid birder.

In my local birding group, I attempted to establish a discussion regarding birding ethics. The issues are similar to the ones that the OP brings up with photography. When rare birds appear, they can attract so much attention that the birders can stress the bird. So should information about rarities be shared? If so, with who? Should their be any limits? How to balance access with preservation?

I found that as a group, we were unable to have this conversation. Even though people's opinions were not that far apart, it was so devisive and quickly became so negative that the issue was dropped, and we moved on to other things.

I wished at the time that I had the skills to allow people to discuss ethical issues respecfully and constructively. I still have that wish.



gdanmitchell
Registered: Jun 28, 2009
Total Posts: 8434
Country: United States

jstephens62 wrote:
I found that as a group, we were unable to have this conversation. Even though people's opinions were not that far apart, it was so devisive and quickly became so negative that the issue was dropped, and we moved on to other things.

I wished at the time that I had the skills to allow people to discuss ethical issues respecfully and constructively. I still have that wish.


I'm often a bit surprised by the defensive tone when this sort of topic comes up in the forum. Though I suppose, in a way, I shouldn't be, given that my own initial reaction when my friends Charlie, Mike, and Karl took be to task over my own sharing was somewhat defensive - though because of our friendship and mutual respect, I think I tempered my response long enough to better understand their point, their rationale... and ultimately to agree with them.

I think that virtually all of us who go to great lengths to be in these places - because "great lengths" are what it takes - and who treasure them can see, if we think about it even a bit, that access is a two-edged sword. It is the old story of "loving something to death" if we aren't careful.

And I can report, from my own experience, that it isn't that hard to be a bit more circumspect, to think about how to name and describe photographs, to give up the self-aggrandizement that can come (as I know all too well) from being the source of information about special places. Been there. Done that. But it is really just fine to say a lot less, or to talk/write about other aspects of your photographs than the where and when aspects - and in the process help protect these places and encourage people to think more deeply about what a photograph can portray and say.

Take care,

Dan



gdanmitchell
Registered: Jun 28, 2009
Total Posts: 8434
Country: United States

There is a bit more information from the local Bishop News sources here: http://www.inyoregister.com/node/4134 (A bit different than the LA Times story that many have seen.)

There may also be an effort to raise a larger reward for the solution of this crime than the few thousand dollars already raised locally. Friend and fellow landscape photographer Jean Day has shared the following:

"I'll be sending a check to help add to the reward for finding these guys. Here's the address:

Bernadette Lovato, Field Manager
Bureau of Land Management
Bishop Field Office
351 Pacu Lane, Suite 100
Bishop, CA 93514
Phone: (760) 872-5000
Fax: (760) 872-5050
Office Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., M-F"


Dan



gdanmitchell
Registered: Jun 28, 2009
Total Posts: 8434
Country: United States

An archeologist whose work gives him responsibility for antiquities and sites in the area of the theft has left a short but very interesting post in a follow-up discussion at my blog: http://www.gdanmitchell.com/2012/11/19/petroglyphs-stolen-a-lesson-for-photographers/comment-page-1#comment-49807

Dan



alatoo60
Registered: May 05, 2010
Total Posts: 2997
Country: United States

So very sad...
I was right there in April, taking pictures. The place is very desolate and not very well known, which made the work of the vandals pretty easy. I really, really want the thieves to be found and properly punished, although it will not restore the loss.



Mark Metternich
Registered: Aug 01, 2005
Total Posts: 6925
Country: United States

It is sad, but seems to be the way the world is going. Extreme ease of accessing information, population explosion... One thing I notice when I go out to the SW is that some of the areas maybe only 5 years ago that few knew of or could find are now becoming sort of tourist traps. One of the best books that helped me immensely find some of these lessor know gems, also has done tremendous damage in increasing traffic there. Honestly, I don't know what the answer is. I believe creation is for us, but we need to take care of it as well.



gdanmitchell
Registered: Jun 28, 2009
Total Posts: 8434
Country: United States

Mark Metternich wrote:
It is sad, but seems to be the way the world is going. Extreme ease of accessing information, population explosion... One thing I notice when I go out to the SW is that some of the areas maybe only 5 years ago that few knew of or could find are now becoming sort of tourist traps. One of the best books that helped me immensely find some of these lessor know gems, also has done tremendous damage in increasing traffic there. Honestly, I don't know what the answer is. I believe creation is for us, but we need to take care of it as well.


+1, Mark.

Among people I shoot with, there is a usually unspoken (but occasionally clearly articulated) agreement that even we don't tell one another about certain very special places that are not yet overly known and over-run... and that we don't press one another for information when it isn't offered.

Eventually, as we prove our worthiness to one another, we do share things. But some things are special enough - and some of us have watched a few things get ruined by the crowds - that it is worth keeping secrets and even worth giving up the potential of acquiring the knowledge yourself.

Dan



chez
Registered: Nov 26, 2003
Total Posts: 7249
Country: Canada

Education and strict management of these historically significant sites is what is required. Keeping them a secret only works for a while...but sooner or later the secret is out as can been seen from places like Antelope canyon and the Wave. It wasn’t long ago these were just secret places…no look at them. We are all naïve to think that without some level of government control, these “secret” places will remain secret and untouched.
In the Canadian Rockies there are some most beautiful locations that are overrun by people on a daily basis, basically killing the fragile ecosystem that evolve there. There are other sites like Lake Ohara that have strict access control which remain for the large part pristine, yet allow people to access and enjoy this beauty. If it wasn’t for this intervention by the Park Rangers, places like Lake Ohara would be no different than the overrun Lake Louise.
Education and access control is what is required.



camerausername
Registered: May 15, 2010
Total Posts: 240
Country: United States

I've been so several photographer's galleries where they try to hide the location for fairly iconic places. I feel like they did this to encourage the tourists to buy his/her prints rather than go there and take their own shots and not out of any concern to preserve the location. I can't help but feel that many photographers feel the same way. They would prefer to keep locations secret to make their shot more exclusive.

Ironically it's possible that if this spot were more well known it would have been better protected. Delicate Arch is a junk show at sunset, but with all the people there it's kept safe from vandalism. Newspaper rock has surprisingly little damage done to it despite being 40ft from a road to a national park.

I see Texas and Utah as dichotomies for how to protect landmarks. Almost everything is public land in Utah and it enjoys the protection of rangers and enough traffic to discourage vandalism. Texas has a wide range of natural beauty but much of it is on private land, which keeps those treasures safe from the unwashed masses. I'd rather put my trust others to enjoy the world responsibly than have it stored away and preserved, but without ever getting to experience it.



gdanmitchell
Registered: Jun 28, 2009
Total Posts: 8434
Country: United States

camerausername, I'm afraid that evidence doesn't support a number of your hunches.

"Ironically it's possible that if this spot were more well known it would have been better protected."

It is true that a kind of protection can be afforded to places that are frequently visited. However, there are two major problems with that notion. First, there are far too many of these places to protect them once their locations are revealed - as in the case of the story reported here. Second, I can tell you from visiting accessible sites and sites that are not well-known that the prevalence of damage is worse in the former than the latter - accessibility is far from a guarantee of protection. I saw plenty of evidence of this in national parks in Utah last month.

"I've been so several photographer's galleries where they try to hide the location for fairly iconic places. I feel like they did this to encourage the tourists to buy his/her prints rather than go there and take their own shots..."

I've heard a very small number of stories of photographers who think that protecting "their places" or "their views" from others will guarantee the specialness of their photographs. Most talented photographers disagree, emphatically. In fact, a common point of discussion is to acknowledge that if Great Photographer A stands next to Great Photographer B at some location, the two of them will likely create rather different photographs, and if Great Photographer A or B stands next to Duffer X, Duffer X's work will still not look at all like the work of the better photographer. In fact, most photographers who are hesitant to be specific about their locations are this way because a) they genuinely want to protect the places, and b) the specific location isn't important, the photograph itself is. Speaking for myself, the idea of keeping a location exclusive so that others won't photograph it never even crosses my mind. I can find plenty of my own subjects and ways of seeing them, even in places where others shoot, sometimes alongside me.

"Almost everything is public land in Utah and it enjoys the protection of rangers and enough traffic to discourage vandalism."

I'm afraid that you are a bit optimistic about the situation in Utah. Head down Capitol Gorge sometime and see the wall of pioneer engravings now adorned with contemporary scribblings by vacuous tourists - in an area in which there are plenty of signs about this and even requests to report violators. Or head away from the main roads into slightly less civilized areas and note the plethora of similar scribblings close to the trailhead... which diminish to almost none a bit further out.

"I'd rather put my trust others to enjoy the world responsibly than have it stored away and preserved, but without ever getting to experience it."

And no one is trying to create the world you describe here. It is certainly quite possible to experience this world on a number of levels. The newbie can easily find and experience these things in more public locations such as national parks. Hiking guides will get you to more of them with just a bit of reading. Dig more deeply into the experience of these places and you will expand your knowledge of and appreciation for them... and probably see more damage and perhaps begin to understand why it doesn't help to encourage everyone to go to everything.

Finally, some words from an archaeologist whose responsibilities include the area of the eastern Sierra where the gross destruction and theft occurred. (He has asked that I point out that his opinions are his and he is not speaking for anyone else, and that his opinions come from extensive experience with this subject.):

"Dan I fully agree with your ethical position on this matter. Your experience based perspective is more sage and persuasive than that of the more naive comments posted here. I am the archaeologist responsible for protecting literally thousands of archaeological sites on public lands in the Eastern Sierra. The balance between 1st Amendment rights and resource protection is a difficult one to establish. Too often ego driven publications by short sighted individuals result in the degradation of these finite resources. Your guidelines should be adopted by all professional photographers and webmasters. It is true that we can only control our own behavior, but we should not allow the lowest common denominator to undermine our moral footings."

Dan



camerausername
Registered: May 15, 2010
Total Posts: 240
Country: United States

I'm not trying to say that everyone should go everywhere, I'm saying that if the secrets are recognized and properly protected, they would be better off than trying to rely on people to not share the secrets. Your post mentioned how easy it is for information to spread now. Once it does inevitably spread then the "secret spots" are more vulnerable without protections in place.



M.P.R.
Registered: Oct 16, 2012
Total Posts: 199
Country: United States

I hope the person or people responsible get caught and are locked away for a very long time, to serve as a warning to others who would contemplate such an act.

However I'm not a fan of hiding art to "keep it safe". Problem with that is where do you draw the line? Do we not show photos online, in fear criminals will search for and find the location? I really don't think that is the answer, as a motivated criminal will still easily find these locations. The information is already out there, posted in everything from books to blogs, easy to find. Also these days its easy to narrow down locations, by just seeing a photo and using mapping software like google earth.

I believe art should be shared and enjoyed, not hidden away. Sure some will get stolen and vandalized, but we should not live in fear of thieves. They should fear us. Art thieves have been around since the beginning of time. Only real answer I believe is to make penalties very harsh, and make public examples out of people when caught, to discourage others.

Hiding art is like having a fast great handling sports car and not driving it. Or having a sexy girl and not sleeping with her. I just don't understand the point. Such a waste.

Does anyone have photos of the art stolen? So we can keep an eye out for it. The news stories only show cut pieces of rock. Photos of the actual artwork would be helpful in catching the thieves, so we can bring them to justice.



Fo Tollery
Registered: Mar 23, 2004
Total Posts: 3060
Country: United States

Dan...., while I agree with all your points, I also have to say I think the battle is already lost. As an example.......

- There is a site in Utah not too dissimilar in nature from the petroglyph site that was destroyed. I.e., it's not too well known, but enough so that I've seen maybe half a dozen shots of it posted on this site over the time I've been a member.

- Within 15" of reading the discussion here and your blog post, I was able to...
* Find a YouTube vid of the hike to the site.
* A site dedicated to selling to photographers maps/directions to a gaggle of 'found' locations.
* Find, dl & install an Android 'map' app with a detailed description of the site and maps (your choice of satellite or terrain) of the hike along with waypoints and pics.

The above should in no way be interpreted to suggest photographers shouldn't follow the guidelines you've put forth. I just have little confidence that photographers keeping mum on the subject is likely to prevent the sort of destructive activity that occurred at the petroglyphs.



joe C.
Registered: Feb 01, 2008
Total Posts: 319
Country: United States

It is sad and upsetting to here that someone would destroy art/history like that.

I must say though. I think some of us need to get off our high horse. I just cant believe that because of your images of secret locations is causing vandals to go and destroy your precious spot. We need to give more credit to photographers in general. The ones here looking at your photography are just like you. they want to photograph mother nature/others at her best. You being there is "destroying" the location just as much as another photographer being there. the more people going there will degrade that location but, I dont think they are going to make a national park out of the location because you took a picture there. would you have known about half dome if "they" kept it a secret? have you contributed to the degradation of any national park by walking the trails? if you ever walked a man made trail to a location for a photo shoot then you have done your part in "destroying" the landscape. Like i said, I just think we need to get off your high horse and get back to being mortal.

Joe C.



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