Editor’s Note: In the past few months, we’ve received quite a bit of feedback (which, for the most part, has been very diplomatic) about running images of specific areas: mostly San Francisco and Southern Australia. So we put it to resident word-guru and Surf Editor Ted Endo to examine the ethics of photo publishing. Here’s what he had to say:
There’s a certain misconception that surrounds running photos of spots that aren’t particularly well known. The thinking goes that once the shot hits the presses, or the internet, untold people will see it and eventually make their way to said spot in order to crowd out the lineup, fill up the parking lot, cover the beach in litter and generally desecrate a once pristine secret shared by a select few. There was a time, when people got more of their pragmatic surfing information from the surf media and most coastlines were still unexplored in surfing terms, that this was more the case. But to claim the same thing now, in a world filled to the brim with more coastal developments springing up every minute, is slightly off base.
Pristine lineups are certainly being “discovered” by more people and crowded out, but this is just as much a function of extreme demographic pressures in well-known surfing areas as it is any effect of spots being revealed in the media through photos or the odd contest. Pretend for a moment that the surf media didn’t exist; pretend you couldn’t even buy a magazine on the stands, but there were just as many people surfing. Do you really think that some of them would not get in their cars and drive up the coast? Do you really think that some intrepid souls would not take a peek at Google Earth or UrtheCast and eventually book a flight to P-Pass, or whatever the last “mysto” wave was that was “ruined” by media exposure?
Now, let’s not excuse the media’s role in this. Running a photo that tens of thousands, or even millions will see will undoubtedly speed up the process of wave colonization. Depending on the context in which you run said photo, you are also promoting a view of surfing that is inherently fantastic and based on certain long-held myths about escaping the madding crowd and entering an aquatic terra nullius that are as disingenuous as they are hackneyed. But all the secrecy in the world won’t keep your spot secret. Not with the way that humans are reproducing and moving to coastal areas. In a world as brimming with people as the one we are stuck on is, you no longer get to have your own secret spot, not unless you want to secure exclusive privileges to an entire island and its reef passes, Dr. No style. Or, the old Tavarua style for that matter. No, our chosen hobby will always take place in mostly public arenas and as this public grows, we have to shift our thinking from protecting our treasures to managing them in sustainable ways.
The effective 21st century local can no longer afford to be a glorified thug. He no longer has the privilege of hording his waves. If he hopes to survive surfing’s demographic explosion, he has to become a steward of his community and his surf spot. You could argue that his position has become less important as communities become more transient and old hereditary claims to certain spots are weakened, but I think it actually makes his position more important. In a community that lacks cohesion and a sense of shared goals, it is the local who can bring people into the fold and help integrate people into a loose unit that promotes a well functioning, well cared for surf spot. He can also be the guy who glares and growls like a jealous child at anyone he doesn’t recognize. He’ll scare a few away, but if there is one constant of our times, it’s that the crowds will always increase. And when they do, the latter type of local will find that not only has he not kept his wave secret, he has helped foster a lineup of fear and mutual distrust at his most cherished spot.
The question of pictures sits slightly parallel to these concerns. Even the most die-hard media pundits understand that creating an image of something is no longer an innocent act. It is the first step to turning reality into a commercial parody of itself. If you really love something, you shouldn’t put a picture of it on Facebook and you certainly shouldn’t splash it all over websites and newspapers. It’s not hard to understand the vexation of long-time surfers who see their most cherished spots suddenly appearing in the media. But it’s equally difficult to follow the logic that one group of people should have more right to use something simply because they live closer to it. Once again, we’re all just playing here. “The rules” such as they are, are no more developed than the average children’s game. What’s more, if we hope to preserve some shred of the game’s integrity for the future, it won’t happen through a system of squatter’s right akin to miners staking a claim in the ground and then defending it with their pick axes.
This doesn’t, however, relieve the media of its responsibility to publicize surf spots in a conscientious manner. In fact, it puts more responsibility than ever on the media to address the issues of fair use and overpopulation that are currently becoming an epidemic in surfing, instead of replaying tired narratives of unspoiled paradises just around the next headland. It’s all fine and good to give readers and viewers what they want, but if you don’t give them what they need there will come a time in the not too distant future in which there won’t be much of either left to give.