Picture: No trespassing signs and fence along the shore of Lake Tahoe, South Lake Tahoe, California
Have you ever broken a law or ignored a warning to get a photograph?
The things some photographers do leave me raising an eyebrow, rolling my eyes, or worse, feeling like the words, “I’m a photographer,” is becoming more and more a dirty phrase.
Now mind you, I’m not as pure as fresh-fallen virgin snow, but fortunately I can say most of my tainted snowflakes fell during my teenage years, which I thankfully survived. However, this post isn’t about stupid teenager mentalities, but rather us adult photographers and the lengths we’ll go to get a photograph.
A spate of images which I’ve seen over the last few months seems to point out that some photographers don’t mind bending or breaking an occasional rule or law in order to get a photo.
It started earlier this year with a brutally wrenching photo posted by the National Park Service of footprints trampled into the mud at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Now this something I personally know to be well-signed at the parking lot. The park service clearly says driving on the playa is prohibited, but it’s unclear if these *idiots* broke an actual law by ignoring a posted request to not walk in the muddy portions of the playa. (Photo: Neal Nurmi / NPS)
I know for the National Parks, many things are posted as advisory warnings, but you won’t necessarily be breaking a law if you ignore them. Examples common in my local park, Yosemite, include things like “Stay back – Waterfall”, “Stay off – slippery rocks”, “Don’t hike in Tenaya Canyon”, “Don’t climb Half Dome if a storm is forecast”, etc.
But those warnings are clearly different from something like where there is a law saying “No Entry” or “Prohibited.” In the above cases, you may have to pay for your rescue if you ignored a warning, but I’m not sure you’d get a fine just for being an idiot who wants to climb Half Dome during a summer thunderstorm.
So what about where there are signs clearly posted for laws prohibiting something?
Before I go further; it’s confession time: my personal infraction level seems to be entirely weighted to sleeping in my truck where it may not have been allowed. (Some cities or entire counties may have ordinances against sleeping in vehicles.) I may have also broken a speed limit on dirt road once or thrice. But I can’t think of any time over the last many years of doing photography where I’ve specifically trespassed or broken any other laws to get a photo. I suppose you could chalk it up to being too scared, too chicken, or too respectful.
However, I’ve recently seen a bunch of photos posted by photographers who clearly seem to think it’s OK to go where they’re not supposed to go, or do something they’re not supposed to do, just to get a photograph. Whether it’s photographing a bridge from a certain location, entering an abandoned building, climbing on tufa at Mono Lake, standing on a branch of a Bristlecone Pine, or shooting a waterfall; I’m curious at what point does the desire for an image cause us to risk bending the rules or breaking a law?
Picture: Teenagers playing in the Sacramento River below Mossbae Falls, near Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County, California
Two of California’s most-scenic waterfalls cannot be reached because of no trespassing or prohibited entry, both of which are posted for safety reasons. Fortunately you can still photograph one of those waterfalls (in Big Sur) from a distance via a popular lookout trail. The other is Mossbrae Falls in Siskiyou County, near Mount Shasta. For over 100 years, people have been walking along the railroad tracks to reach this secluded waterfall. But until the age of digital photography and the internet, this location was not well known, and pretty much ‘off-the-radar’. Access along the tracks was pretty much a given access easement. But as word and the number of photos of this location spread, so did the number of people trying to reach or photograph this beautiful location.
But as I wrote in my book, Photographing California; vol. 1 – North, a few years ago, the crowds causing parking problems in the small town of Dunsmuir, and erosion along the banks of the railroad tracks caused enough of a problem that the town closed the parking area, and the railroad posted clear No Trespassing signs. The local Sheriff office now routinely cites people it catches walking on the tracks. (FYI: My images were shot a number of years before the access along the tracks was ‘officially’ terminated or the start of citations being handed out.)
Unfortunately, there is no access from the opposite side of the river, which crosses private property. This has rendered the falls inaccessible, except by traveling up or down the Sacramento River. Although there is a current plan to put in a public trail, that option doesn’t exist yet. So what’s a photographer to do if they want a photo of this waterfall? Trespass, or wait until the path is built.
Does the urgency or desire to get a photo warrant taking the chance of getting caught trespassing. or perhaps, even worse, risking serious injury or even death if a train should come by at exactly the wrong moment, and you’re stuck in a place with no chance of safe retreat? (In Big Sur, the beach at the base of the falls is closed due to the risk of falling off the steep, fragile, and eroding cliffs.)
Now let’s say you choose to go and take pictures of said waterfall, regardless of the rules or posted signs. You then post your beautiful images of the falls online to the ohhs and ahhs of admiring fans, followers, and fellow photographers. I’m just curious what message you’re sending? Look at this beautiful photo; I broke the law to get it, so you should, too? What about the more contradictory, “It’s OK if I do it, but you shouldn’t”?
So… where’s your line? Are there absolutes? Are there exceptions, and if so, when and why? Have you seen any photos taken by someone doing something or of someplace they shouldn’t have been? Anyone else feel like confessing? I hear it’s good for the soul, but don’t take my word for it.
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Image ID#: ssku-2020 (Mossbrae Falls)
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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.