Back to Light on the Landscape Photoblog

Protecting Place

July 14th, 2019

Eroded Navajo sandstone slot canyon, Antelope Canyon Tribal Park, Arizona 2002
Wista 4×5 Metal Field Camera

NOTE: The original version of this essay was written and published in Outdoor Photographer Magazine in 2002 after a recent visit.

I first visited Antelope Canyon in 1982, when only a very few photographers had discovered the remarkably-carved sandstone slot canyon. I happened to have seen some of the first published photos of slot canyons ever published, which intrigued me greatly. Some years later, and without planning to seek them out, I saw photographs in a nearby visitor center, I asked for directions and was drawn a simple map. I parked my car along the highway as directed. No signs or markers were to be found. Hoping that I was heading in the right direction, I shouldered my heavy pack and hiked up the wash. I had no clear idea of how far the slot was or how I would get into it when I got there. After a few miles, I could see the sides narrow down to a sandstone cliff with a slot in it. I entered this unknown space with a sense of mystery and discovery.

I spent hours within the sculpted walls, completely in awe, and completely alone. Well, except for a raven cawing eerily from somewhere above my head. The few images I had previously seen did not prepare me for what I saw and felt. Here was the Sistine Chapel of natural sculpture. The profound art of Creation.

At the end of that extraordinary day in Antelope, I heard a truck driving up the sandy wash. I was a bit worried. I didn’t know if I belonged there. The people from the truck seemed surprised to see me, with my 4×5 camera, recording the slot canyon. Worried and protective, they asked me what I planned to do with my images. I told them I would label my photographs vaguely if they were published, in hopes of protecting the canyon from becoming well known. In a fine bit of irony, these were the folks who had led me to the site with their published photographs!
NOTE: A new book “Searching for Tao Canyon” chronicles their explorations starting in the early 1970s.
Searching for Tao Canyon By: Pat MorrowJeremy SchmidtArt Twomey

I returned home with a few decent images, two of which are included here. Some were published, some I printed for display in galleries or were shown to workshop students, but I never labeled the location specifically, only “Slot Canyon, Arizona” or something. I was often pressed for more specific directions, and I gave as few hints as possible. I was torn between the desire to share such a treasure, and the same territorial feelings felt by those early photographic explorers of Antelope. At the same time, other photographers were discovering, and publishing images of the slot canyons. The secret was getting out.

We must all think carefully about the impact of our images.  Does publishing our work outweigh the possible impact the exposure might bring?  Can we depend on resource managers to protect delicate or overused landscapes?  Is nurturing the love of nature’s treasures through our photographs more critical, and worth the risk? These are important questions, for which I have no definitive answers.

Just the other day, I received my copy of a travel magazine that reaches several million readers.  On the cover was a beautiful image of a very sensitive area, which had already been a subject of vandalism, with its location clearly defined.  I cringed and could only pray more damage would not result from the added attention.  In spite of this quandary, I am hopeful that when images are published of delicate places, others that follow will tread lightly and become involved in its protection.

NOTE: Here are two nature photography organizations involved in protecting nature and encouraging safe and ethical standards for nature photographers.
Nature First
North American Nature Photography Association


Side Canyon, Arizona 1982
Wista 4×5 Metal Field Camera

Slot Canyon, Arizona 1982
Wista 4×5 Metal Field Camera

Tags: , , , , ,

9 Responses to “Protecting Place”

  1. Nicely expressed. I’ve stopped telling people where most of my photos were taken after learning these lessons firsthand. It’s a narrow balance we have to attempt.

  2. Thanks for your poignant comments.. Excellent photos.. I’ve also been to Antelope Canyon and have taken some wonderful photos…

  3. James Stephen says:

    Beautiful Photos! One word of caution; You don’t want to go to slot canyons if there is a possiblilty of a rain storm within 50 miles. Don’t forget how these beautiful canyons were created; millions of gallons of water suddenly rushing through.

  4. A Dixon says:

    Record images of sensitive places for yourself without publication or profit in mind.
    You experienced that viewpoint with all your senses.
    Share it privately with those you trust.



  5. This is always a difficult question to answer. It would be much simpler if we could simply rely on our fellow human beings to walk and live with respect of the land, but that is too frequently proved not to be the case. The recent California superbloom is an example where thousands of people stomped all over the incredible (defined: beyond belief) landscape they were purportedly there to photograph.

    There are two corollaries to this, and no simple answers. One, at what point does a photographer make a choice to forego a certain location in order to reduce the impact of a visit, even by one? Cities and other locations around the world are trimming or even closing themselves off from burgeoning tourism because they lack the infrastructure to deal with all of the people, what they bring, how they act, and especially what they leave behind. Second, in the age of digital photography, too often our images themselves leave traces of where we’ve been. For example, there have been cases in Africa where poachers have used encoded GPS data from images made by those on photo safari to know exactly where to hunt their prey. It is possible to circumvent purposely or inadvertantly sharing such information, but it requires forethought.

    Respect: literally re-spect, to look twice. It means to live with awareness, to be conscious of one’s choices and outcomes. It’s the least we owe each other.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.