Fields of Indian paintbrush fill the foreground. Mount St. Helens, pockets of snow still visible in the soft glow of a summer sunset, anchors the entire scene. Clouds stretch into the distance drawing the viewer fully into the photo.
It’s a beautifully composed and executed landscape. And it won first place in the trailscape category in the Washington Trails Association’s annual photo contest. The photo will appear in the WTA’s January and February magazine and on its 2019 calendar.
The only problem?
The photographer, who did not respond to a request for comment, may have jumped a wall, ignored a sign and trekked into a field of protected wildflowers.
“Unfortunately, this one didn’t flag for us,” said Kindra Ramos, WTA’s director of communication and outreach. “Our goal here is not to throw a photographer to the wolves. We saw a beautiful picture and we did what we thought was due diligence. … We’re exploring what other precautions we could take.”
The issue was first noticed, and flagged by Spokane photographer Craig Goodwin (see his essay). Goodwin is confident the photo was taken from a closed area of Mount St. Helens, one that’s visibly marked by signs and a small wall. He first explained his reasoning in a blog post.
Chelsea Muise, the recreation program manager for Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, has seen the winning photo but can’t be sure from where it was taken. She said it’s not uncommon for people to ignore trail signs and area closures.
“Going off trail can impact some of the major research projects going on, plus it ruins the experience for other visitors,” she said.
Goodwin entered his photography into this year’s WTA contest and has won in the past. He recognizes his complaint may be seen as the mumblings of a sore loser.
“I could care less about the photo contest,” he said. “It’s more about my experience of seeing all those people out in the middle of the wildflowers at Saint Helens.”
It touches on a much larger issue. With social media and photography driving people into the outdoors in record numbers, amateur and professional photographers often tromp through sensitive ecological areas looking for “The Shot.”
“I think overall technology has moved much faster than rules and regulations,” said Tony Bynum, a Montana-based photographer and board president of the Professorial Outdoor Media Association. “We can’t respond fast enough. Ten years ago, there was no iPhone. You literally had to be in the business of shooting photos and videos to afford the equipment it took.”
Organizers of photo contests have no obligation to ensure the photos are being taken legally, said Michael Van Tubergen, an attorney who works for POMA and other outdoor media clients.
“I would say that the organization doesn’t have any legal obligations, but there are probably some ethical obligations,” he said.
Photography is generally protected by First Amendment rights, even if the creator of the image trespassed to take the photo.
That principle was upheld in 2018 when a federal appeals court ruled that Idaho’s so-called “ag-gag” law, which banned spying at farms, violated free speech rights.
Still, Bynum believes organizations that host photo contests have an ethical obligation.
“I firmly believe they have the ultimate responsibility,” he said. “They are the platform. Right? The driver behind extraordinary imagery is almost always connected directly to some sort of feedback.”
Ramos points out that WTA receives roughly 8,000 photos in each contest. They flag and disqualify ones that are clearly taken unethically or illegally. Per their photo contest rules, all photographers are expected to follow Leave No Trace guidelines. The only other contest rule is that the photo must be taken in Washington.
“We catch a lot of tents in meadows and too close to animals,” she said.
But there is no good system for vetting photos that aren’t clearly violating Leave No Trace principals.
“There is an element of taking photographers at their word,” she said.
That’s understandable, Bynum said, especially for an organization such as WTA which is largely volunteer-driven and relatively small. Still, he thinks a higher standard must be upheld.
“They’re sort of punting. In a sense, they’re saying you’re responsible to make sure whatever you’re submitting is legit,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I think it’s the responsibility of anyone who is running the contest.”
He said one way of dealing with the issue would be to carefully vet any photos that make it into the final round of judging. That could include calling the photographer and asking them questions about where and how the photo was taken.
The issues aren’t limited only to photo contests. Instagram-obsessed photographers have trespassed on private property, tromped through delicate areas of Yellowstone National Park and fallen to their death from a Yosemite National Park cliff.
Locally, people have allowed mountain goats on Scotchman Peak to lick the salt off their skin, said Kiira Siitari, the Coeur d’Alene-based spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Last summer, a selfie of a goat licking the face of a Post Falls man went viral on a local Facebook page. Although no one has been seriously hurt on Scotchman Peak, Siitari points to other deadly incidents in which goats have gored and killed hikers.
“Approaching wildlife is super dangerous,” she said.
That photo-driven disregard isn’t dangerous just for people. In 2017, Outside Magazine reported on how Instagram, and social media in general, have driven overuse of particular spots leading to damaged ecosystems and disrupted habitats.
In an interview from last summer, Carly Reed, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest wilderness manager, said Instagram has fueled overuse in the Alpine Lakes area.
“You don’t have to go the place that your 15 friends put on Instagram,” Reed said.
Just this week, the popular climbing and yoga brand Prana published a photo in its seasonal catalog of professional climber Chris Sharma climbing a fragile cave formation. The National Speleological Society decried the photo, noting the ecological richness of caves and the delicate nature of that habitat, reported Outside Magazine.
Chris Celentano is a Coeur d’Alene-based photographer focusing on outdoor photography.
He’s made a habit of not saying where his photos are taken. He believes outdoor photography is an important tool for highlighting natural beauty and encouraging conservation. The nature of social media, however, makes it vital to protect places from “the hoards.”
“The vast majority of the new-age outdoorsmen/women are merely out for the ‘super-cool selfie’ and do not have the same level of respect for their surroundings that a more traditional outdoor enthusiast has,” he said in a message. “Their motivation is getting that double-tap on Instagram.”
Plus, he said, he’s seen too many places wrecked by inconsiderate recreationists.
“I have grown tired of seeing some of my favorite ‘secret’ spots get discovered and then quickly ruined by people that do not recognize or care about the damage they may be causing,” he said.
As for the WTA contest, Ramos said no changes have been made, but each year WTA staff debrief the previous year’s contest. This issue will be high on their agenda.
“I think as more people are discovering the outdoors, we have to really continue to evaluate how we can help hikers protect the places they love,” she said.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.