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Crime, punishment & ethics, Fatali & fires at Delicate Arch affect all nature photographers


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As has been reported by various news media, noted nature photographer

Michael Fatali allegedly set fires around the base of Delicate Arch

in Utah. He apparently did it while teaching a nature photography

workshop. Per current news reports he is in danger of criminal

prosecution for various yet to be determined charges.

So, now when you go into Canyonlands and other U.S. National Park

areas, how will this one effect your access and the Parks attitude in

general towards photographers?

Right, wrong or indifferent, it happened. We don't know all the facts

yet. But from what we do know, both from news reports and statements

supposedly from Michael Fatali, the photographer, is that fire scars

are now around Delicate Arch, the PR symbol of the State of Utah.

No matter what happens to the photographer we will all be paying for

this one for a long time to come.

Ethics in nature photography? Where do they come in and where do we

draw the line in our attempts at getting "the shot"?

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I only heard part of the news reports last night, but I was so angry at what I heard that I had a hard time sleeping. I had planned a trip to Arches for this week. Now I don't know whether to go or not.


I strongly believe that all nature photography should leave the environment in its natural condition. And I believe that it's best to portray nature in its natural condition. Fires on the slickrock around Delicate Arch are not natural.


Last night as I was trying to sleep, I kept imagining similar stupid things photographers might do. For example, a shot of a wildfire in a natural forest would be impressive. How about starting one that I hope to control, but oops, it gets out of control and burns down the forest. (Kind of like what happened in New Mexico and Grand Canyon earlier this year; I also had planned a trip to Grand Canyon the week that fire started.)


Or, there are just too many trees blocking the perfect view of the landscape I want to take, so how about taking out my chain saw and clearing out a few trees. After all, the park service clears trees from the scenic spots it chooses. Why shouldn�t I be able to create my own scenic spot as well? And besides, the trees I�m cutting weren�t this big 50 years ago when Ansel Adams shot from this same location. I�m just returning the my viewpoint to the way it was 50 years ago before these trees grew this big.


Or, I�d really like a photograph from the summit of this mountain, but it�s so hard to get there. How about I just plow up the mountainside in my jeep. After all, it�s an off-road vehicle. That means I shouldn�t need to follow the roads to get to where I�d like to go.


I also wonder about other less damaging, but perhaps more contrived things a photographer might do. For example, I�ve seen a shot of Delicate Arch illuminated at dusk, not with fires, but with artificial lighting. It�s impressive, but far from natural. Would I do this? I might, but I've never tried. It�s not natural, but it leaves the environment in a natural state. Just last week I watched a photographer drop and carefully arrange a bunch of maple leaves in a small eddy of a stream, creating a situation that could have been natural, but wasn�t. It didn�t hurt anything. At the time I remember thinking that it was something I had never done, but it didn�t look like an interesting shot, so I headed up stream and discovered a spot that seemed far better without any manipulation.


Or, I�d really like a good photo of a wild predator, but they�re so hard to find. So I�ll just provide some bait (a live animal tied up, or a carcass � whatever works) and hide in my blind until my subject shows up. Then I�ll blast away and get some good photos. And of course I�ll use my flash extender so that I get the light I want. No harm done � right? Except now one particular subject has learned that some food might be easier to get from humans � and maybe learns the food is associated with flashing lights.


I guess I�m rambling. It helps me to think about what I consider to be good nature photography.


Regarding what should happen with Fatali�s blunder, I'm not sure. My knee jerk reaction is that Fatali should be permanently banned from all park service lands (all public lands if possible). Of course, that may be impractical to implement, but I just can't imagine any just punishment for such an irresponsible act. How can one provide a just compensation for the value he�s taken from me, or from other photographers? I�ve been traveling to Delicate Arch for years, trying different seasons, different viewpoints, different weather, etc. It�s not so much that I�ve been trying for the perfect photograph, it�s more that I�ve been trying to explore and as much of the character and personality of Delicate Arch as I can. I suppose I can still continue this quest, only recognizing that my subject now has blemishes that weren�t there before.

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Dan or Tom,


Could you post the web locations of media that are reporting what is known at present? What you've described is very disturbing, but it is hard to think about without knowing more. I searched several online newspapers (NY and LA Times, Salt Lake Tribune) and news services (CNN, ABC), but found nothing. Thanks.

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If true, Fatali is a class jerk, worthy of maximum penalties. There can be NO good enough reason for the wanton damage to any natural treasure. It's fairly certain the motive was money. Hopefully his reputation will be blemished, as apparently is the Delicate Arch, so that he will get no more money from his "patients." Perhaps winter rains and snows can partially erase his trail marks.


My line-drawing for what is proper is fairly clear, at least to me. If I need to move a blade of tall grass to photograph a flower, I will. Unless I get in a hurry for no good reason, I put it back where I found it. I won't even pull the grass or a weed, under the theory that something might ultimately depend on it for survival. I realize that connectiveness can only be carried so far, but that is the principle under which I photograph.


I admit I photograph only for the sheer joy and pleasure of it, certainly not for money. It's possible, I suppose, that greed would cause me to alter my views- perhaps some lack of confidence in my own moral structure is even why I remain an amateur. Well, that and lack of talent.

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<META NAME="GENERATOR" CONTENT="Adobe PageMill 3.0 Win">

<TITLE>Untitled Document</TITLE>




<P>Much of the information has been coming from Salt Lake City's

local TV station KSL. Here is a link to one of the stories.</P>


<P><A HREF="http://www.ksl.com/dump/news/cc/special/enviro/archfrx.htm">http://www.ksl.com/dump/news/cc/special/enviro/archfrx.htm</A></P>


<P>Yesterday they had a RealVideo, in which, you could see the

damage that was done even with the poor internet video quality.</P>


<P>Mr. Fatali has not only crossed the line of ethics, but he

has broken multiple federal statutes. I believe he should be prosecuted

to the full extent of the law. Unfortunately, he has possibly

given all photographers a "black eye" by his inexcusable

actions. Can we as a photography community do anything to remedy

this, besides make it perfectly clear that we, in no way, support

or condone this type of behavior? Trust is earned. And I, along

with Dan, feel that Mr. Fatali may have done a lot of damage to

the trust that many of us have worked hard to earn day after day.</P>


<P>I would urge any that are part of this community to contact

all of their aquaintances within the national and local parks

and forest agencies to tell them how upset and angry the nature

photography community is regarding Mr. Fatali's transgressions.

The managers, administrators and legisltors of our public lands

need to be assured that we are on their side when it comes to

matters such as this.<!--SELECTION--><!--/SELECTION-->




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What kind of a moron would do something like this? It is unbelievable to me. We need to set fire to him!!


Anyway, I suspect that this will get more press coverage. So, what about some members of NANPA or other nature photography organizations making their presence known and their views known during the sentencing procedures or other "press-friendly" occasions. It may go a long way to mend any "burnt" bridges.

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I'll give Mr. Fatali the benefit of innocence until guilt is proven, but it sounds like that won't be a big problem for law enforcement. If he indeed did this then he is a first class idiot and in no way deserves to be called a nature photographer - I might suggest selfish, opportunistic mercenary as being a more appropriate label.

He certainly should be fully prosecuted and IMHO, a wise judge would consider 3 punishments - first, a stiff fine (not less than $100,000), second, 1000 hours of community service (picking up roadside litter, etc.), third, a permanent ban from all national (and state if the judge has jurisdiction)parks as someone mentioned above.

Hopefully, all possible nature photography forums will come out in strong opposition to this behavior and hopefully all REAL nature photographers will be that much more careful to protect the environment while enjoying there hobby/job.

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Thanks to Dan Smith for bringing this to our attention and Curt Casteel and Scott Bacon for providing links to some of the news stories. That someone did this is appalling, that it might affect photographic access to nature sites is frightening.


It is hard to believe that an experienced nature photographer would do a thing like this. What would he do subsequently -- proudly explain to visitors to his gallery that he set four fires so that he and his students could get their photographs? Consequently, I want to plead with everyone to wait until the facts are in. From my reading of the stories, even the authorities were reluctant to name a suspect publicly, but some reporters were able to learn who was apparently being investigated. The authorities, and the press, sometimes get things wrong. Suggestions that violence should be done are understandable but inappropriate.


I agree wholeheartedly that whoever did this deserves to be condemned. If it was Fatali, or any photographer, our condemnation has to be a lot louder. There is nothing that we can do at present to fix the damage which has been done at Delicate Arch. If there is anyone in the photographic community who is an expert on restoration of natural sites it would be great if they could help. But before we condemn Fatali we need to wait to learn what happened.

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Here, here, Hector.


The media is notorious for stretching the facts, or jumping to conclusions, to foment anger to attract readers/viewers. It's very easy to incite vociferous reactions when a beloved symbol is desecrated. To be sure, such a desecration should be dealt with severely. While Mr. Fatali's alleged actions are a great affront to ethical photographers, a greater affront to photographers will be done by the media by trying and convicting Mr. Fatali in the court of it's bandwidth.


Follow the story and make a judgment when the facts are documented.

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I have read the Salt Lake Tribune report and my initial concern

mirrors that of all the comments above. What really bothers me

is the fact that one of the fires was started using a waxy

substance (firelighter log?) which has almost certainly melted

into the underlying sandstone. Sandstone is porous which

means that the damage that has been done will likely be there

for a long long time. Likewise any smoke damage to the surface

skin (geologically the skin of a rock is weathered) will not be

easily erased nor will it easily fade with time. Time for geological

processes is measured on a different scale from those humans

are accustomed to - in this case 10,000 years instead of say 10



Thanks, Dan, for the information. Perhaps the culprit should be

delicately arched over a similar conflagration til he understands

the meaning of the word vandalism.

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Below is the media release as sent out by Arizona Highways Magazine. I spoke with the publisher about it and he is not a happy camper. They are taking a lot of flack over the incident. It is clear that the action was NOT sanctioned by the magazine. He also said the person who was with the photo tour representing the magazine had been dismissed immediately when they found out what happened.


With a one year ban on Fatali, his images and products, from the magazine publication and gifts, at least a message has been sent. I have heard off the list from others who are writing to the magazine to say that if Fatali EVER has anything to do with the magazine they will cancel their subscriptions and lobby advertisers with boycott threats as well as making sure they won't ever do business with them again.


Read the press release below. It is short & simple. Arizona Highways magazine does not agree with Fatali's actions and is trying to do what it can to make things right.











For further information contact:

Arizona Highways Publisher, Win Holden

Office: 602-712-2023




PHOENIX, ARIZ. (OCTOBER 23, 2000) - -


Michael Fatali, who is under investigation for setting fires that scarred an arch in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks near Moab, Utah, on September 18, has been suspended for one year from conducting photo workshops for the Friends of Arizona Highways, a nonprofit support group of the magazine.


In addition, said Arizona Highways Publisher Win Holden, Fatali�s posters of slot canyons have been removed from the magazine�s gift shop. "We are exceedingly disappointed in Fatali�s completely careless action. Arizona Highways always has been a powerful voice for protection of the environment and preservation of our natural landscapes."


Fatali set the fires in small aluminum pans to light Delicate Arch during an unauthorized nighttime photo session while conducting a workshop sponsored by the Friends of Arizona Highways. The magazine itself was not involved in the workshops.


"This was a totally unsanctioned activity by Fatali," said Barbara Hornor, executive director of the Friends. "We obtained permits to go into the park to photograph as part of a 11-day photo workshop through northern Arizona and southern Utah national parks and other scenic locations. We did not know he planned on setting fires. The permits specifically prohibit the use of fires."


The Friends have conducted photo workshop in Arizona and surrounding areas for 16 years, Hornor said, and nothing like this has ever occurred. "We have always worked to promote appreciation of the environment, and this incident is offensive to us."




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I don't know the man. I don't condone what he did. But why did he do it? Of course maybe he's just a complete fool who casually tossed away a career, years of work, a reputation and did irreparable damage to a natural wonder on a whim, out of ignorance, poor planning, etc.


As we rush to tar, feather, and crucify Fatali (studiously and ethically avoiding using a cross of old-growth redwood, feathers from spotted owls, and/or paleontologically/archaeologically valuable tar from La Brea in our haste) I think it's worthwhile to find out just what was he thinking or trying to do. Was he working towards a specific and rather spectacular photographic objective? (And trying to maintain artistic purity by not producing the effects in Photoshop?) And things went spectacularly wrong? Some klutz kicked over a firepot and spilled hot burning liquid? A flammable liquid blew up instead of burned? Wind gusts? We just don't know from what is written/linked here. Was this just a colossal really dumb-ass idea that went horribly wrong? (Would we have found the resulting photos spectacular and artistic if nothing had gone wrong?) As tragic as it is, nobody got killed or even injured. Although the name of the movie escapes me, remember a couple of years back an accident on a movie set involving an explosion and fireball brought down a helicopter and killed a child on the set.


I don't condone or excuse what happened. I'm equally sure we can all think of individuals or organizations that have defaced nature for art, public convenience, etc. Even a massive brain-fade may need to be punished to help reinforce for others that this is simply not the kind of action that should even be considered.


I think we need to hear his side to see what might be necessary to avoid this kind of occurrence in the future.

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Knee jerk reactions to date are dangerous if not slanderous.


I tend to side with Craig. Media reporting is flakey at the best of times, the Guy must have had a vision in mind when setting up the shoot, there are some clues in the reports that the fires were contained in pans. Now I don't know the guy from Adam, but it seems that some thought was put into the photo shoot to minimise environmental damage, but something obviously went horribly wrong.


He must have built up some form of reputation before hand to be allowed to lead the photoshoot in the first place, so give the guy some benefit of the doubt that he did not set out to vandelise the site by lighting uncontained fires. Smoke damage may not have been considered, which may be niaivety on his part.


Before you hang draw and quarter the guy, at least wait and see what actually happened.


A view from the wrong side of the pond.... probably worth zip.

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I haven't seen (has anybody?) the images created during this

workshop, but it sounds to me from all the reports I've read is

that he did this to create a lighting effect for an image. He

obviously thought he knew what he was doing so I infer from that

that he might have done this before. Or maybe not. Obviously

something went wrong.<P>

At any rate, what I am at a loss to understand is why he did this

when there was a safer and better technique easily accessible;

he could have used a high powered battery driven portable flash

like the Hensel Porty , Broncolor Mobile, Profoto 7b, or Comet

PMT (all 1200 w/s max. power) or the Balcar Concept (from 1600

w/s to 6400 w/s, max power depending on the number of heads

you are using) and gelled the flash with Rosco "Flame" or some

other combination of lighting gels.<P>

It is a shame I'll never be able to see Delicate Arch the way it was

before the desecration. Sure I can photograph it and then use

Photoshop to correct the damage, but that isn't the same thing is

it.<P>To answer Dan's question: ethics usually involve being

inconvienced in some way. We all like cheap gas (I know I do, I

drive a Ford Explorer) but what will be the long term cost of

continuing our quest for really cheap energy from

petrochemicals? I'm not knocking the energy companies but I

live in Houston and have heard for years from refining company

PR departments about how much it would cost to clean up (but

pollution control devices) on some of the old heavy contributors

to the really horrible air we have in the Houston area that have

been "grandfathered' under current Texas laws. (yes I know it

has getting bad for a long time. Does that mean it never can get


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"...Or, there are just too many trees blocking the perfect view of the landscape I want to take, so how about taking out my chain saw and clearing out a few trees..."


I recall reading about Fred Pickering of Zone VI fame describing how he did this, and how the those who were upset about it had no right to be since getting a better landscape picture was more important than a few trees. Probably in an old issue of View Camera.

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I've been to Fatali's gallery in Zion, and have really admired his work. His prints are absolutely stunning. Ironically with every print, as well as the captions on his website, he makes a point to describe how long he waited for the light to get his image-sometimes days. I've always respected that. If, and this is a big IF, this is true, I'll always have to wonder how many of the other images were made with the flick of a Bic. I agree we should wait until we hear the whole story first before conducting an e-trial here, but thanks Dan for pointing out the story to us.
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As others have said, lets wait to hear what really happened (innocent until proven otherwise). I personally hope that the reports are'nt true and at worst some well laid plans went awry. But if the reports are correct then this will negatively affect us all. Fatali is a brilliant photographer, why would he get caught up in a stupid and selfish (career ruining act)? Lets give Mr Fatali the benefit of the doubt everyone until we all have a better and official understanding of the true facts and circumstances. David Crossley/Crossley Photography.
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I agree that we should not try and sentence Mr. Fatali on the internet, but really, what are the chances that this story isn't largely accurate. Did he have a photographic objective? - sure. Did something go horribly wrong? - of course. But it really doesn't matter - setting any kind of fire was lame brained and ILLEGAL. There is nothing that can justify it. If he would do this in front of a bunch of witnesses, has he probably done it in private? - most likely. I have little doubt that one and probably many of his images have had contrived light and some probably from fires. I have also previously admired his images, but I would never trust one, buy one or recommend one in the future.
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