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Don't destroy the Cypress Swamp experience! (E)

A story on the good and dark side of photo-tourism and our own photography background in the Cypress Swamps.
Don't destroy the Cypress Swamp experience! (E)

A personal note up ahead:

This story had its origin in a somewhat angry Facebook entry I made in late 2019, after seeing workshops 

being advertised on Social Media, which would guide clients around the swamps in motorboats, promising the “ultimate experience”. My posting was then read by photographer/editor/publisher Tim Parkin and lead to an invitation to turn my thoughts into an article for his ON LANDSCAPE (UK) photography magazine*. It ran in March 2020 and we received quite some feedback. (not all but mostly positive).  It later even led to a personal presentation at the Trinity College (class of environmental studies) in Hartford, Connectiticut (USA), as the teacher is an avid photographer himself and a reader of ON LANDSCAPE magazine also. So, posting on Facebook can actually be useful every once in a while! And it (again) showed us, while your photography is a great tool to make personal statements on a subject, thoughful writing can definitely help to make them being noticed…

This is a little overworked version of a posting I made on Facebook this past November. It grew kinda long, I confess, for a relatively simple concern I had and still have. A tiny simple thing, which currently worries me, maybe even scares me a bit. And it had to be fairly long – not only because I needed to practice my English – but because on Social Media everything tends to be ripped apart and turned upside down until the initial point is completely lost. Plus, let’s face it, it was lockdown in Austria – everyone had a lot of time to worry about a lot of things but had a little extra time check points off the list, that usually get lost in the daily merciless hamsterwheel. I was stuck in between working on my Cypress Swamp book, thinking about things, things I need to write in the book, thoughts I wanted to express, stories I would like to tell. 

Instead I decided to write this text:


Where to start…maybe here: When in 2015 I managed to win a category in the world’s most prestigious nature photography awards, the WPY, with one of my cypress swamp images, it did ring a bell in the head of a number of photographers, who run photo tours. In 2016 the first commercial photography tour, purely dedicated to nature photography was taking place in the swamps. Not long after that, there were more.


The cypress swamps are such a fairytale forest, yet they were fairly unknown to the wider nature photography community. At the time of revealing the WPY winning images, in fall 2015, it was just one of many images I had taken during a time span of roughly five years of exploring the swamps on a regular basis. Every year in autumn I would fly over and spend several weeks, paddling in the swamps from before dusk until way past dawn, trying to get some good imagery. By no means an easy task, as I was strictly shooting 4x5” large format in the first few years. Only with the arrival of the Nikon D 800, I started to mix digital with analog. Mostly because there were so many great views to be seen but were in such deep water, that setting up a tripod was not an option. In fact, I have probably marked more than 100 or so photographic (mostly fitting for sunrises) spots on my handheld Garmin GPS, which would allow you to get out of the boat and shoot with a tripod. In order to be there at sunrise, you have to paddle out in the dark - sometimes as early as three hours ahead - and it would be impossible to find a specific spot in the labyrinth of trees in the darkness. You paddle blindfolded, with GPS giving you directions. To collect all these 100 plus spots, I worked all the previous five years. 


I was introduced to this magical landscape by a local photographer, named David Chauvin, who had taken the most astonishing images there. Yet, he didn’t care much about publishing them to a wider audience. I was introduced mentally, by seeing his images on the web and later I was introduced by him in person, while paddling together in the swamps, camping and eating Cajun food on the campfire, which he always pre-prepared. So many times. Lucky, lucky me. In all the years prior to 2016, we almost never saw another guy out in the swamp, not to mention another photographer. Exceptions were the rule – it seemed almost like a miracle. Wading through waiste deep murky water, holding on to the kayaks, we often joked about how it felt. Like exploring new terrain. Being photography pioneers of some sort. Being dirty, bitten by moskitos and out in the swamps from before dawn until way past dusk. Sleeping in the tent was almost the only time, when we had firm ground underneath us. I loved every minute of it. Of course this would change, a fairytale place like this would not go unnoticed for much longer. 

Winning images of the WPY contest are being seen by roughly 100 million people on the internet around the world – and that is just on the day they are released. Later they can be seen on the web, in magazines, in books and exhibitions. Of course, there always have been local photographers in the cypress swamp areas long before me. Definitely not I but also not David were the first ones. This honor might have to go to the great C.C. Lockwood but even that is just a guess. But most were nature enthusiasts with a camera, taking photos mainly for themselves. There was one difference though. By introducing me to the swamps, David introduced an international photographer, who (along with his wife, I need to mention) is making a living by taking and selling his images worldwide. We did speak about this a number of times right at the beginning – that in the days of Social Media, these images will not go unnoticed. It is my own understanding that publishing pretty landscape photographs can lead to changes, which are not automatically always for the better. I have grown to be very resistant in posting detailed location-info on the web, if I post anything at all. For good reasons, as I and many of the more experienced (I am not gonna say “old” here…! J ) photographers are increasingly feeling the change and influence of mass photo-tourism. Especially the ones out there, who shoot for magazine assignments, for book projects and the like. Photographers who tend to travel on their own, trying to tell stories with their cameras. It is definitely a difficult subject among photographers to argue. I am happy for each and every one who is embracing nature photography. I’m just one of many, I’m very well aware of that. I have no bad feelings at all  for all the folks, who make a living in touring other photographers around. It’s just Verena and me are preferring not to do so. Up to this day – I have not come to a clear conclusion, if all that nature-photography tourism circus is heading in a good direction. So far, Verena and I have drawn a line in the sand and took a step back. 


Here is the point of view David had on this specific matter and about this specific place: 

The cypress swamps cover vast areas in the Deep South. Except in a very few places, they are not really protected. They definitely are a playground for duck hunters (or any sort of hunters) and fishermen who stick to the rules and lots who don’t. And they also seem to be heaven for illegal logging. In an economically relatively poor area of the US, the protection of wildlife is not top priority and definitely not top of the list on most politicians minds. If photographers from anywhere would come here, trying to get pretty photos, renting canoes or kayaks, hiring guides, staying in local places, it would be for the better of everyone. Small businesses may pop-up, small scale eco-tourism so to speak. And it did. 

David strongly believed, that it might change the way the locals treat the swamps, the way they see it. For him it was often frustrating to see how indifferent some people, who lived right there on the swamps edge, would be to this amazing habitat. For one who looks closer, it is so striking in beauty and teeming with wildlife of all size, it is nothing short of a North American Amazon basin. And if anybody would dare to look closer, it would be nature photographers. Which is true. It can be the positive side in photo tourism. David sometimes joined group tours or paddle outings himself. Even I made it somewhat of a tradition, that every time I would come over, I would lead a paddle-day through this “sunken forest” with local nature enthusiast, who would sign up for it at a local canoe store. So all this writing is not about the fact, that more and more photo tours spring up, more people with cameras come to the murky swamps. It is about HOW you experience it.

About this I am very convinced: There is no better place to be explored by a kayak, than these swamps. One just glides effortless and silently through a magical wonderland, chooses his own route, his own tempo. There is no possibility to camp in the swamps, other than places that were set up for it. No chances to spoil it, really. And most of all: You do not leave a trace, as you are in the water. It is THE sole reason for me, that had me change my principles of not leading photo-tours. In this one case.  If there are other canoes or kayaks around – you barely perceive them. And there is an endless array of subjects to point you camera at, no danger that somebody will block the view. A ripple in the glassy surface would be the most annoying thing you experience, if there would be others around. I would love to have the swamps all to myself at all times, don’t get me wrong. But it is great to see others seeing this place for the first time. I have witnessed the reaction of people, who drifted into an ancient cypress pond for the first time in their lives. It can change you. If you are one of them – you’d know. 

I speak of experience, as this experience has changed me, too. And to not let others grant this feeling – how arrogant would that be?  So I do lead a group of photographers around every now and then, introduce them to places, that were somewhat sacred to me before. I surely never would have done it by myself but was asked one day by my friend Marcel to help him out on one of his Squiver tours. And by doing so, I saw that it indeed can work. Yes, on some days we also met other (small) groups, led by other photographers. There is a number of them out there. Ben from New Orleans, Joshua, Christian H., David T, CC, Steve and Kerry and so on. If I met them, we just silently shared the place, sometimes we chatted about how incredibly lucky we were to see this. For me, there is no envy – I am just a happy guy as long as I can come here. 


There is one tiny but very, very fragile thing: As vast as the swamps are, there are only a few extremely attractive spots, that can be reached without going on long paddle-expeditions as David and I did sometimes. It’s the reason, why photo tours will take you there. And for each spot there is a rather narrow time window, in which autumn colors and light conditions (and this is what people come for!) is at its best. Noticed? Few great, relatively easy to reach places – a narrow time window… 


And this gets me to the one concern I really have, the one and lone point, I am trying to make: There are ideas “floating” around on the web and in people’s minds, to lead photography tours to these places in the swamps by motorboat. Honestly, there are tons of boats out there, with all sorts of people, I could care less. But if it means, photographers would be carried to these few fragile spots at the most photogenic times of the day – or to any spot that is reachable by kayak within an hour or two – this might be the end of the attraction. Of course it sounds alluring: You wouldn’t need to waste time and energy with paddling, when you can race from one spot to the next. Get all the shots in a minimum time, in minimum effort. Get to the computer faster, get to posting your results faster, have more time to chat about post processing or gather for dinner. In a loud and fast motorboat, you stay out of reach of all the creepy critters. You don’t have to break no sweat. And if it works for one company, it will work for more. 

It would be the equivalent of participating in a wildflower photo tour on Mt. Rainier on quads or ATV’s. No walking required. Just blast right into the meadows… Keep this in mind - what it also means here is, by being transported around in a motorboat in the swamps, you would be betrayed of the unique experience. And it has to always be the experience before photography, for your photographs to carry some soul. And if you don’t believe me, at least be assured, you would betray all the others, who were coming there and tried to do it the right way – by kayak or canoe. 


This is where my posting ended.


I received a lot of feedback via comments or personal messages. (Tim Parkin being one of them, inviting me to write this article) Most people were grateful, that I had made this statement. For many it didn’t end with the way some tours are executed but they also expressed concerns about the photo tourism business in general. About the direction it all is heading. 

In my statement here, it is about the motorboats. But I have to confess, for quite some time now, Verena and I join these other, general, concerns too. The competition in photo tours is fierce. It always sounded crazy for Verena and me but nature/travel photographers are rarely able to make their livelihood nowadays by selling their images or landing an assignment. They depend on organizing and guiding group-tours. Photographers go to great lengths to find the ever better, spectacular, unique spots to shoot wildlife or landscapes. Just so they can offer this spots to the paying clientele. It’s not the “how-to” workshops in the local nature park anymore. It’s not the gathering of photo enthusiasts, talking about ethical views or exchanging creative visions. There are a number of reasons, why this is so and here is just one: A vast majority of the (well paying) clients are rather good photographers. They don’t need you to explain much about technique or how to frame a composition. No real necessity to get too philosophical about photography neither. (although this might come in handy at dinnertime) What they need is a clear and fast path to the great photo spots. Let’s be honest, they don’t pay you the big fees for your view on the world. Above anything at all, they pay you, so they can come up with their desired prey, aka photo. And rightfully so, I have to say, because this is what had been advertised and promised to them. 

But in times of social media, a great photo spot is only unique for so long. There is constant pressure on tour operators to find the next place. The next spot. There is no end to this. One time you have it for yourself, the next time you bring your group. The next time, you share the place with five other groups. It’s the way it goes. Nowadays, many, many very similar looking photos are being entered into photo competitions, probably taken by clients standing shoulder to shoulder. The achievements of photographers, who broke the ground for others and put in the initial work, aside from bringing back inspiring photographs, are now often lost to the public. Up to a point, when even the winners of the most prestigious photo contests are also photo tour participants. Think of it what you want, but for me personal, there can simply be no “photographer of the year” of any kind, if it turns out, all she/he did was joining a photo tour. We heard clients of photo tours moaning about overrun places. They complained that they had to share the place with too many others, completely ignoring the fact, that they were part of the crowd themselves. It has gotten out of hand. 

But as mentioned earlier, this is another subject. Way more difficult and sensible, than the motorboat-problem. And this is why - for now - I am just going to leave it at that. 


Our article, as it appeared in the ON LANDSCAPE magazine.

*ON LANDSCAPE is a very insightful and informative online magazine, with highly diversified content, way beyond just technical issues. You should definitely check it out!