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Digital Media

Patagonia photo flap raises larger issues on user-generated content

After spotting a photo in a Patagonia catalog, the National Park Service fined several climbers for illegal activity in Capitol Reef National Park.

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

For a trio of climbers, two of whom were photographed in a 2011 Patagonia catalog making a “first ascent” in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, the photo has turned out to be worth a $4,000 fine.

The National Park Service fined the group in a settlement announced earlier this month after officials ran across the three-year-old photo and later discovered that the climbers allegedly had set new bolts and “trundled” (moved) rocks to create the illegal route in the park.

While Patagonia wasn’t implicated or fined in the case (the Associated Press initially incorrectly stated the company paid the fine), the brand well known for its environmental conscious is facing criticism in social media circles for using the photo, for which it paid a freelance photographer.

Patagonia Spokesman Adam Fetcher told SNEWS that the company was “not previously aware of any issues with this particular photograph, since climbing is allowed in other areas of Capitol Reef National Park.”

He continued: “We work very hard to make sure every photo we publish depicts responsible climbing practices that align with Patagonia’s broad environmental mission by asking vigilant questions and requiring locations always be identified.”

It’s a growing issue for many outdoor brands and retailers — large and small — that increasingly are relying on user-generated content, especially photos in marketing pieces. For all the benefit that a striking photo going viral brings a brand, it’s success also comes with wider scrutiny. Companies find themselves not only needing to employ environmental sensitivity when considering photos, but also question the image’s message of safety (for example, this 1995 Patagonia catalog photo), model consent, credit and — in this age of Photoshop — reality. Was that sunset really that colorful?

It’s a fine line, Fetcher said.

“We also value a policy that allows talented, sometimes unknown photographers from all over the world to participate in our catalog. This is an important balance, and by and large we get it right. When we make a mistake, we always look hard at our process and see if any improvements can be made, and we’ll do that in this case as well.”

Taking Fetcher’s point a step further, imagine if brands had to bring in attorneys for every photo shoot or review to inspect every angle and pixel. We’d likely end up with some pretty bland photos. Plus, do we really want to cheer park rangers rifling through every catalog, marketing campaign and social media account looking for violations — “OMG, that dog in the photo clearly is off leash in Wilderness Area!” Fine! Fine! Fine!”

On the flip side, to end things as we started with a cliché: If brands are going to talk the talk, then perhaps they should be prepared to walk the walk.

–David Clucas

What’s your opinion? Should Patagonia face flack in the case? Should park rangers be scouring outdoor photos for violations? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.