Visiting iconic tourist hotspots in Arizona like the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Outside writer Lisa Chase explores our obsession with documenting ourselves in the wild and the evolving art and process of photography in the time of Instagram.

Even when crowds aren’t destroying a place outright, the sight of countless people treating nature as the backdrop of their personal photo shoot is galling. It’s as if the Instagram tourists are performing the experience of being in nature rather than simply being in nature. Like those countless pictures of people jumping joyously in the wild: Why must they jump? Why can’t they let nature steal the show? Or the photo of a woman sitting in solitude at the edge of the cliff, when in reality she’s surrounded by throngs. That solitude and scenery used to be the purview of a club of outdoor purists. Now, it seems, any fool with a smartphone can have it for themselves.

But for as long people have been going into nature and documenting themselves doing so, tension has existed between the outdoors and the story we wish to tell about the journey. Our photos have always been edited, even deceptive, when it comes to ­acknowledging our civilizing tendencies. Ansel Adams, whose career spanned from the late 1920s until his death in 1984, was known to retouch his photos or shoot around evidence of man—logging roads, parking lots—for his primordial hero shots of Yosemite Valley. As art professor and landscape photographer Mark Klett said to writer Rebecca Solnit in a 2003 New York Times piece, it’s like the only legit take in an Adams photo is, “This is nature. And it’s beautiful because you’re not there.”

Klett identifies our messy paradox, the human desire to lose ourselves in the wild and also to extract, despoil, and package it.

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Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.