Staying Safe

I’ve been photographing for several decades now, and to this day I am mystified by the lengths some people will go to get a photo. Oh, I’m not talking about the well-trained pro who carefully weighs the risks and operates on the edge to bring home the goods (more on that later). No, I’m talking about regular people who take insane risks in the name of a photograph.

For one thing, I’m thinking about that moron at the Grand Canyon who leaped across a chasm- in flip-flops!- onto a tiny ledge- carrying his equipment!!- to take a stupid picture. If you haven’t seen it yet, here it is:

I know full well the arguments about whether or not there is a ledge just out of view of the camera, but even if there is, it’s about 15 feet lower. I have been to the Grand Canyon many times and know that ledge well. Assuming it is ‘only’ 15 feet below, it is very, very narrow and to slip from that ledge would mean a 2,500-foot fall. My point here is that attempting that crazy maneuver is a very, very dumb thing to do. A man died in 2007 from attempting a similar stupid photography maneuver at the Canyon. Photo injuries happen there every year.

I’m prompted to write this by my visit to Haines, Alaska last month. Hundreds of tourists were there to photograph bears feasting on the annual salmon run. You would not believe the chances some people took, allowing bears to virtually come right up to them. These were ordinary people with no bear spray or other protection. Obviously they also had no education about bears (or higher mental functions for that matter). Ninety-nine people will get away with bad behavior regarding animals and then the 100th will get mauled and then people are shocked. Shocked? The animal is doing what comes naturally. If you are in its path, or waving a camera in its face, or running from it at the last moment, then what on earth do you expect?

People also need to realize that taking chances with animals endangers the rest of us photographers, as well as the bears themselves. Shortly after my visit, a woman was, in fact, mauled there, according to local reports. BTW, do you know what happened to that sow after she mauled that tourist? Her cubs were deemed old enough and she was euthanized. Getting too close to wildlife, feeding them, helping them lose their healthy fear of humans is bad for all involved.

What I’d like to emphasize here is responsible photography. Responsible photography respects the animals we photograph. It forces us to read about them, search the Internet about their behaviors, ask experts, hire a guide, as we steadily gain experience.

Responsible photography also means safe photography. It requires that we take every safety precaution possible, including avoiding direct contact with animals. It means wearing clothing that protects against falls, stings, poisonous plants and the sun. It means wearing appropriate footwear at all times. It means understanding the terrain, the weather and the environmental conditions and then outfitting yourself to manage those conditions.

Due to the Internet, people are more exposed to places that before were left (and I believe best left) to professionals. That has brought tourists far beyond their experience level. In most cases there’s nothing wrong with that, but then it’s incumbent on the person to know his or her limits and act responsibly. Nowhere is that truer than photography, where we tend to be very focused (no pun intended) on the image and may not pay attention to safety issues around us. Last year, for example, a man died from a fall in the Grand Canyon while backing up to take a shot.

I’m not saying everyone should do this, but here is what I did before my Yukon trip. Although I’ve been to the Yukon six times, I still did my research. I also scoured the Internet for Yukon information. I downloaded sunrise and sunset times and topographical information at every site I planned to visit. I called friends to ask about bear sightings. I took along a local expert photographer with years of bear photographing experience. I brought along appropriate clothes, bear spray, and a good first aid kit… the list goes on. I wanted to be confident enough to be able to concentrate on my photography.

So, please, be careful when you are out there. Have fun, but first and foremost, be safe.

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