My experience this morning truly represented the most extreme ends of the modern nature/travel photography spectrum. I hope sharing this story will remind others that a little bit of respect and humility go a long way, no matter who you are or what you do with your personal or professional life.
I arrived at the Lake Wanaka parking lot just before 5:30am today, which was around the same time a small tour van filled with photographers pulled up. We all made our way to the shore, and a few individuals set up on my left while a few more gathered on my right. Someone’s tripod was in the lower left corner of my frame, but I wasn’t too worried about it — a minute of Photoshop could easily fix that. I’d certainly have preferred it if they weren’t there, but I wasn't about to ask someone to move in that situation.
I was about to pop my camera on my tripod when I heard a woman with a heavy Russian accent yelling, “Excuse me, excuse me!” I wasn’t in anyone’s way, so I didn’t even bother looking up until the voice got louder and I realized she was right in my face waving her hands. “You need to move, you’re blocking my photo!” she screeched. “You can’t stay there! Move, move!” I can be a bitch before I've had my morning coffee, but this woman was taking it to a new level. I shook my head at her and told her I was sorry, but that there were people in my frame as well, and I got there at the same time as everyone else. I glanced over at her setup, and I wasn’t anywhere near her camera, let alone blocking her shot.
I was going to tell her that perhaps if she had asked nicely I might have actually taken a step back, but before I had the chance to do that, she picked up my tripod and slammed it down on the rocks a foot away from me. I lost my cool. I yelled right back in her face that she had no right to touch my stuff, and only after I grabbed my gear and set it down in its original spot did she back off. "You don't own this," I said as I motioned towards the lake with my hand. "This is not YOUR shot." Maybe she realized that getting in the face of someone who was seven inches taller than her and holding an aluminum rod wasn't the best plan. Maybe most people are so shocked by her aggressive approach that they actually give up their spot before they have a chance to speak up for themselves.
I wish I could have experienced sunrise at Lake Wanaka by myself and in total silence, but I figured I’d have to settle for some quiet chatter and the sound of camera shutters going off. Nope. We all snapped away pretty peacefully for 10 minutes after that, but when a young lady in a red dress walked down from the path and made her way into the water's edge, all hell broke loose. She made it about ten steps into the lake and then timidly asked the wall of photographers 20 feet away if her friend could snap a few quick shots. Everyone started screaming at once.
“We’ve all been waiting here all fucking morning for the sun to rise,” one man bellowed. The insufferably rude Russian woman started screaming all kinds of nonsense, and no less than three people chastised the poor girl for “ruining” their shot. One man told her to go, and another told her to hurry. She stood there, unsure of what to do next. I didn’t want her in my photo either, but she deserved a chance to get her own picture from the lake, just like everyone else. Plus, all the shouting was wasting precious morning light. “Stop arguing and give her thirty seconds to get her shot,” I yelled. I’d like to think it was somewhat helpful to the situation, because she then waded out up to her knees, got her photo and started heading back to the shore.
“We’d all be ok with it if you were naked,” someone shouted. Three people laughed. Most of us were mildly horrified that someone would actually say that loud enough for everyone to hear, even if it was reasonably funny. The girl’s friend then started a rather heated dialogue with the man who made the remark, and then the Russian woman chimed in too. The sun had already turned the mountains a pale shade of gold and I was pretty over the struggle to maintain my spot, so I gave it up and approached the girl in the red dress. There was another man over there as well, and around the time I walked up I heard him taking about a crazy Russian woman who picked up his tripod and tried to make him move earlier that morning too. Unbelievable.
What happened to sharing and appreciating something, rather than being combative and disrespectful? What makes someone believe that they are more important than others, and that they deserve to get "their" shot before everyone else? I understand that the girl in the red dress wasn't a professional photographer and she was disrupting what everyone else was shooting, but her plan wasn't to stay out in the middle of the lake for 30 minutes. She had every right to have her photo taken, and in the grand scheme of things, the time she needed to pose for her picture wasn't going to have that much of an impact on anyone there.
I've had some uncomfortable exchanges with people over the years, but I've never had an experience quite like this. The hostility and selfishness displayed at the lake almost ruined the whole morning for me, and I hope that we can all work together to make sure these sorts of things don't continue to happen. With the growth of digital photography and social media, I have a feeling it will only worsen as time passes. We shouldn't have to make rules about these sorts of things, but it seems like we all need a refresher course in some fundamental aspects of human interaction.
Be nice to each other. I'm a firm believer in karma, but I don't offer to do things because I expect something back -- I do it because I want people to pass it on and keep it up. This will make our planet a better place, and it extends far beyond photography.
Give others a chance to get their shots. In most cases, you don’t own the land you’re standing on, so it was never really “your” shot to begin with. It's everyone's shot. Learn how to share.
Be creative and find new ways to shoot the location. Adapt to the challenges you face, because that will make you a better artist. Whether it's getting an alternate perspective on a landscape or learning how to use the clone stamp tool in Photoshop, push yourself to see and do things differently.
If someone is being disrespectful, stand up for yourself, but try to do so as calmly as possible. Being the bigger person isn't about being a pushover -- it's about solving a problem and keeping the peace. If you handle a conflict in a diplomatic manner, odds are it will work out better for everyone involved.
Don't ever touch other people's gear unless they ask you to.
Be present. Put your camera down every once in a while and take in the landscape with your own eyes. Inhale the mountain air, talk to the person next to you. Odds are, you might have something in common.
If someone were to ask why you're really there, make sure you'd be proud of your response. We all want THE shot, but let's not forget why we're doing it. If you're doing it to capture a moment and preserve a memory, or show someone who won't ever be able to make it there, that's a great reason. If you're doing it because you simply want to give your photography portfolio or Instagram account a boost, that's not what it's about.
Despite the drama, I was blown away by the simple beauty of the landmark tree. The colors weren't even that spectacular, but I felt lucky to be in such an amazing place, so far from home, taking in a sunrise I've always dreamed of seeing. The best part of my morning was watching a mother duck and her four tiny ducklings hop off the base of the tree and paddle off across the lake. I wondered whether they actually lived under the most famous tree in New Zealand, or if this was a one time occurrence. This was not something I captured on my camera, but rather a life moment I enjoyed and will remember forever. That's why I do this.