Musings on Photography


Posted in ethics, landscape by Paul Butzi on January 25, 2007


This post is a little extension and clarification on the trespassing issues raised in The Photos Not to Take.  Judging from the comments and email I’ve received, I’m guessing most readers are pegging my views on trespassing as falling somewhere between ‘sanctimonious prig’ and ‘quaintly naive’.  Maybe it’s more of a bimodal distribution, really, with not a lot of gradation in between.

First, let me observe (and several folks have pointed out) that I’m aware that, in some places and in some cultures, the entire concept of trespass is either nonexistent or else so weak as to be meaningless.  In the US, where I live, and in particular in the rural US, however, trespassing is strongly supported by both the law and by tradition. 

One of the big arguments that seems to have cropped up is what I’ll call the ‘I only do it if I’m not harming anything’ argument.  I don’t think it holds water, and here’s why: in my experience, people’s ability to judge whether there’s harm is pretty limited.

Here’s an example that cropped up just a few months ago.  I had stopped by a spot where a stream runs into the river; it’s a spot that was once cleared and under cultivation but is now undergoing habitat restoration – mostly planting trees and other vegetation which will grow taller, and eventually shade the stream and river, and help keep water temperatures low to improve the habitat for fish.  The same trees and shrubs will provide cover for small wildlife, etc.  You get the idea.

I arrived at the site, and started to walk down the marked path; along the river the actual restoration area was marked off with survey tape and signs that read “Habitat restoration in progress, please do not enter”.  And I came across a photographer who had jumped the tape, walked past the signs, and was setting up on the bank of the river.  He wanted a clear view upstream, so he was pulling up what he thought were just sticks, stuck in the ground at regular intervals.  When I asked him to stop, that’s actually what he said: “They’re just sticks.”

What he didn’t understand was that these “just sticks” were not just sticks; they were actually hybrid poplar stems that had been treated with a rooting agent.  The planters take these “sticks”, jam them into the ground in a promising spot, and the “stick” grows roots, then branches, and turns into a nice, big, fast growing tree with lush foliage.  So his “I’m not harming anything” actually turned out to be quite harmful – monumentally destructive, actually.  His ability to judge harm was hopelessly inadequate simply because he had no understanding of what he was looking at.

Not everyone who jumps a fence or walks past a “don’t go past this point” sign is quite so consciously destructive, of course.  Some just don’t notice their surroundings.  I’ve seen a photographer step off a trail (past a warning sign) and set up their tripod, and in the process tread directly on top of a trillium bloom – a beautiful, fairly rare flower that’s actually a protected species in Washington State.  When I pointed it out, her response was “Chill out.  It’s just a flower.  There are others.” which rather neatly demonstrated her complete lack of understanding.

And that’s what makes it hard to judge.  You come across a fence, or warning sign, and unless you really understand why the barrier to your entry is there, you can’t possibly judge whether you’ll cause damage, or suffer some harm.  To you, it looks like field full of crops, but what you don’t notice is that the field has just been sprayed with some hazardous chemical.  Or, perhaps, it looks like a tranquil field of clover, but you don’t notice the bee hives placed there this morning, filled with stressed out bees.  You step off the path in a cultivated garden, careful not to step on any plants, but your footprint compresses the roots of a delicate plant.  There’s no way to enumerate the risks, and that’s why it’s unwise to second guess the the person who placed the barrier, who almost certainly understands why it was placed better than you do.

Finally, there’s the very real harm inflicted on the psyche of the owner, who has a not unreasonable expectation of privacy and control over his/her property.  I think Walter Baron sums this up nicely in this comment.  It’s easy to dismiss the discomfort of others, but I think it’s very wrong to do so. 

The argument’s been raised that it’s not possible to practice photography without being invasive and destructive, both in the physical and cultural sense.  While that might be true in the most nit-picky sense (everything we do causes damage somewhere) I think that if we go around justifying our destruction by claiming it’s all in the service of Art, our disregard for things will show in our art.  And I don’t think that’s good.

5 Responses

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  1. sjconnor said, on January 25, 2007 at 10:18 am

    Any chance you dumped the idiot in the stream? “Relax – it’s just water!”

  2. Jonathan Greenwald said, on January 25, 2007 at 10:51 am

    Very well put. In the end, you are left with the individualistic interpretation of harmful and obstructive. Yes, we should all use common sense, even if that is uncommon for most, but we should also be able to think and act freely (within some limits). I wouldn’t condone parking on someone’s private property to take a photo because that may be too presumptuous, but I would step over a line in the sand when I was asked not to.

    I think the problem with this discussion is we want and expect people to use common sense. I do quite often and I am careful where I step even if it means crossing a line; however, for every one person that is careful, there are two that just don’t care. Would it be easier if I walked over the line, but watched where I walk as to guarantee none of the “sticks” are harmed in the process?

  3. Nick Wright said, on January 25, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    Very well said. In a day of ever-increasing erosion of rights (property rights included) it’s nice to see someone take a stand for them.

    And while I appreciate the thoughts on harm, etc., ultimately I think it really ought to boil down to “I own this, you don’t. Stay the heck off!”

  4. Rosie Perera said, on January 25, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Paul, you wrote: “You step off the path in a cultivated garden, careful not to step on any plants, but your footprint compresses the roots of a delicate plant.”

    Ouch! Mea culpa. I hadn’t ever thought of that possible effect of my stepping on the soil. I won’t do THAT again!

  5. […] remember reading a post by Paul Butzi about trespassing. It amazed me that some photographers think that the no trespassing sign does not apply to them. […]

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