One question lingers in the back of Abbi Hearne’s mind: Am I destroying national parks by making them trendy?
By Courtney Runn, Photos courtesy of the Hearnes
Delicate sketches of Half Dome and Castle Valley nestled in flowers mark Abbi Hearne’s arms, so when she looks down, she’ll always be home.
After living and working as adventure wedding photographers on the road since 2016 with their dog, Hearne and her husband, Callen, traded their apartment in Texas for national parks.
“Now, as we arrive in the valley of Yosemite or into town at Moab, [Utah,] we kind of feel like a breath of fresh air, like we’re coming home,” Hearne says. “[Yosemite] is one of those places that there’s no way a photograph could do it justice.”
Her pictures get pretty close. The couple’s Instagram is a gallery of majestic vistas, each picture more stunning than the last. The more likes and followers they accumulate, the more sessions get booked. In 2018, they shot 40 elopements and intimate weddings and 20 adventure sessions with couples.
Because of the high demand, the couple now has full control of their travel schedule, making clients come to them instead of the other way around. This year, they’ll be in Zion National Park, Utah, Yosemite and Alaska. Hearne is the head photographer, communicating with couples ahead of time, planning the elopements and directing the shoots; her husband gets the secondary shots, capturing all the nonessential, fun pictures Hearne says often end up being couples’ favorites; their dog, Charlie, is moral support.
While it might seem like they’ve made it, Hearne is quick to remind fans their story is not one of overnight success. Their rig is outfitted with running water, a stove, an oven and a refrigerator, luxuries they did not experience when they started out in a van. They didn’t crisscross the country and climb cliffs and shower in community centers for likes on Instagram; a deep passion for nature and preserving national parks fuels them.
“I love Moab way more than I love my job,” Hearne says. “If I had a moment of thinking what I’m doing here is hurting the place more than it’s helping it, then it’s 100 percent not worth it to me.”
As the adventure-photography community has grown, Hearne fears the consequences of photographers determined to get the perfect Instagram photo, regardless of the cost. It weighs on her, one question always lingering in the back of her mind: Am I destroying these places by making them trendy?
The rise of social media has made national parks more popular, but often at the expense of their preservation. A video by Vox about the effects of geotagging shows the significant jump in Google search terms related to national parks in the past few years. Once obscure gems of nature, sites like Horseshoe Bend are reduced to squares, littering Instagram feeds and fueling a growing obsession with parks that aren’t equipped for the increase in visitors.
“Digital popularity is physically changing the landscape,” the Vox narrator says.
From additional security concerns to waste left behind to visitors unknowingly hurting the local ecosystems, social media is taking its toll on the parks. Wandering off the trail in search of the perfect picture can leave a permanent trace. Cryptobiotic crust lines the desert surfaces found in many parks, protecting the soil and retaining nutrients of the land. According to the National Park Service, it only takes the weight of a hiker or vehicle to crush the fragile soil crust, which can take as long as seven years to regrow.
Hearne often challenges fellow photographers to consider these risks before booking shoots in locations they’ve never visited.
“If the only reason you’d go somewhere is because you’ve booked a gig there, it’s time to step back and ask yourself why you want that booking,” she wrote in a recent Instagram caption. “Is it because adventure elopements are trendy right now? Is it for Instagram likes? So you feel like you’ve reached a certain status in the photography industry? All of these motivations are empty. If you actually feel drawn to adventure, just go for it. Stop saying you need someone to elope somewhere so you have a reason to go.”
Hearne regularly levies her digital platform to defend the parks and keep their safety at the forefront of her followers’ minds. In 2017, when President Donald Trump announced the reduction of two national monuments, she took to social media. More recently, she addressed the government shutdown numerous times via posts and stories.
Unlike the Obama administration, which kept parks closed during the government shutdown, the Trump administration chose to leave them open. While both decisions were met with controversy, leaving the parks open without supervision might have more dangerous long-term effects. Human waste and trash accumulated quickly in the under-regulated sites as visitors poured in during the 35-day shutdown, taking advantage of no park fees. Joshua Tree National Park was the subject of online outrage when articles circulated that damage done to the Joshua trees could take centuries to heal.
While the government reopened, Hearne’s dilemma remains. What is her role in protecting the parks?
“It’s an interesting time in the outdoors where we’re figuring out how to handle the amount of people coming out to see them and let them be loved without being destroyed,” Hearne says.
Besides promoting perseveration and education on Instagram, Hearne supports organizations that advocate for the parks and fellow adventure photographers who are just as passionate about protecting their adoptive homes. She hopes a guide on how to visit national parks and practice sustainability will be in the works soon.
“I love what we do and I love having a rad portfolio, but that is not my No. 1 priority,” she says.
Her heart—and portfolio—will always follow the parks first and social media second. While she enjoys working with all her clients, Hearne says she connects best with couples that “deeply desire adventure on their wedding day.”
Among her most memorable shoots of 2018 was a 4 a.m. hike in 20-degree weather to capture sunrise pictures for an elopement.
“If the couple is down, we’re down,” Hearne says of herself and her photographer husband, even when that means freezing temperatures, early mornings and intense hikes. True to her Instagram bio, she’s always “sharing the good, the bad, and doing [her]best to keep it real.”
Hearne says they don’t plan to live on the road forever, but for now, she’s soaking it in.
“One day, there’s going to come a time when we’re going to have the things we miss and we’re going to miss the things we have,” she says.
As for the question that haunts her—Is she destroying the very thing she loves most?—her answer cuts through the noise of online outrage and social-media trends and spurs her to action.
“Having power to influence people to do good,” she says, “is more effective than stepping back and doing nothing.”