August 1998. It was a nervous morning as my old mate Mark Hamblin and I sat in my kitchen drinking coffee, awaiting the arrival of our very first guests on our very first photo tour in our very first year of collaboration. We had no track record, no model on which to base the tour content and no idea how we would be received. It was all very wing-and-a-prayer. By late afternoon the guests had arrived and we nervously struck up conversations about anything that came into our heads. Seven days later with a sigh of relief, it seemed like we’d got away with it.
When I think back to those pioneering days, nerve-wracking days, long and energy-sapping days, I wonder what it would be like starting all over today. It was tough then but in many ways it’s much tougher now. At the turn of the millennium when Mark and I got into full stride, you could count the number of specialist photo tour operators on half of one hand. Now, the industry – and it has become an industry – is populated by pretty much every working nature photographer I know.
The turning point, the key that locked one door and opened another, was undoubtedly the advent of digital capture and viewing platforms. Back then, there were very few full-time nature photographers and most could make a living from image licensing. That’s all but gone. Book, print and merchandise sales are all but gone. In fact it’s fair to say that any nature photographer able to scrape a living today by selling images alone, is very rare, very talented or just very lucky. The demand for images hasn’t necessarily diminished but the supply has mushroomed. More and more photographers taking top class images with top class gear means the picture business is massively over-supplied and in most cases, that means impossibly low returns.
Nature photography hasn’t died however; it’s simply changed. Rather than selling ‘product’ most pro photographers are now selling ‘knowledge. In some cases this manifests in video tutorials or how-to or where-to eBooks but by far the biggest growth has been in the supply of tours and workshops. Today there is a photography tour running to almost every corner of the planet.
Whilst digital was perhaps the catalyst for an unprecedented growth in recreational photography, it coincided with more subtle changes across society. The so-called baby boomers – now in their fifties and sixties – found themselves with health, wealth and opportunity. For the first time, disposable income allowed this age group in particular, the ability to invest heavily in their chosen leisure pursuit. For those that didn’t fancy golf, a decent camera, a tripod and a guided photo tour was all of a sudden affordable and accessible. Month-long African safaris or arctic photo cruises quickly became the norm.
This of course was back in film days. When I started leading photo-tours, the images captured by guests were sent off to a lab, came back in a little green box and were shown to family, friends and local camera clubs. The ‘secrets’ of where you’d been, what you had seen and who you’d travelled with remained within a small cohort. The photo traveller back then belonged to a small, exclusive community. Today the speed with which information is digitally disseminated makes those ‘secrets’ impossible to keep. Take Iceland and its meteoric rise in popularity. I first visited this enchanting island no more than ten years ago and was convinced that my tour business could focus on its undoubted attractions for many years. It would be our calling card, our specialism. Anyone who has been to Iceland in recent years will know how wrong I was. Places like Iceland, Utah, Yellowstone and closer to home, the Isle of Skye, have become photographic meccas and if we’re all honest, they are less attractive because of it. And, whilst the baby boomers of western Europe might have brought us to where we are today, the emerging markets of Eastern Europe and Asia are set to provide the next wave of photographers, all keen to shoot Utah’s slot canyons and Scotland’s Old Man of Storr.
And there’s something else that has changed. We’re all bombarded with so much imagery today, our senses are dulled, our ability to be impressed by a charging lion, a fishing bear or a spectacular sunrise is dampened. Without realising it we’ve come to expect the natural world to serve up ever more astonishing visual fodder for our cameras. I’ve been around long enough to remember when any shot of a sea eagle in flight was a major scoop. Now, unless it’s doing cartwheels in splintering light, it doesn’t quite cut it. The same principle applies to iconic landscapes. I’ve noticed my tour guests being less easily “impressed” with what I put in front of them, probably because they’re no longer surprised – they’ve seen the images before they arrive.
With more photographers producing more images and those expectations creeping towards the unrealistic, it’s easy to see where this might lead and at many iconic locations, the cracks – physical and metaphorical – are already appearing. I’ve become increasingly sensitive to these changes in recent years. I’ve grown a bit paranoid about what I fear is a diminishing experience for my guests, as well as my contribution to the environmental impact on the places that millions of us now visit.
So what of the future for this rather quirky industry? What does it look like? Is it time to rethink? I’ve been pondering these questions of late but in a world where seemingly the only certainty is uncertainty, I’m at a loss to predict what’s coming next; I’m struggling to chart a defined course through such turbulent waters. Whilst many operators are responding to the growing competition by ramping up the experiences on offer – helicopters now seem to be the transport of choice on many photo tours – there are undoubtedly opportunities for a more subtle approach aimed at a discerning audience that is environmentally and socially conscientious.
Many times in the past, visiting a location overseas for a short time, I’ve felt like an armed robber on a smash-and-grab raid. I arrive with my group, we plunder and then run for the hills with our booty of images. Yes we might make a token contribution to the local economy but really, do we engage with the place? Do we really get under its skin either photographically or spiritually? Does the location itself, the people who live and work there or the wildlife that exists there, really benefit from our presence?
Many tour operators – myself included – bang on about their green credentials or their social policy. But are we really serious? I don’t doubt that the intent is sincere but do we really make a positive difference? I would argue that the tour operator of the future needs to think beyond profit margins and consider their role and responsibilities both within the industry, but also within wider society. We need to be the environmental and social investors not the photographic armed robbers. I’m the first to admit that being “sustainable” isn’t easy but that’s certainly where I see the future for my own company: working locally, offering rich experiences that reach beyond photographic trophy hunting and setting tangible sustainability targets covering everything from the procurement of food to employing local people.
I won’t be the first to do this of course and I have no idea if it will work but I fear that unless tour operators start thinking to the long term and taking sustainability seriously, we’re heading for a reputation not a million miles removed from the boom-and-bust package holiday operators of the 70s.
Guests often ask me where we’re planning future tours. There was a time when I felt the need to respond with far-flung locations packed with iconic landmarks or wildlife: Alaska, Africa or South America. For me, those days are done as I focus much closer to home delivering what I hope is a deeper, richer experience. I don’t know whether this approach is the right one; I don’t know whether my guests – present or future – will buy into it. But I do believe that the present level of growth in photographic tourism, the no-holds-barred model that seems to be increasingly prevalent, isn’t sustainable.
I’m a passionate advocate for nature-based tourism and its myriad benefits but I do fear for the Golden Goose that has so generously laid for the photographic community this last two decades or so. If we look at the industry’s direction of travel, that Goose is probably doomed. Cracks will turn to fractures. For the benefit of both guests and operators, the future needs to be less about location and more about experience; less about short-term gain and more about an ethos that governs how we interact with the places we visit and the people who live there.
1998 feels like just yesterday. I still sit in my kitchen drinking coffee and fretting. It is inevitable that the business of photography tours will continue to change but in my view, so too must the philosophy of those providing the service.
This article originally appeared in Landscape Photography Magazine.