Risk, Bias, and Wilderness Photography

Photographers who work in wilderness areas accept a certain amount of risk. But like all people, we are not good at evaluating risk and often fear the things that are unlikely to harm us, while ignoring real risks in the environment.

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…we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do.
Thinking, Fast and Slow—Daniel Kahneman

Everyone is pointing a camera at me; I'm pretty sure they think I'm about to die. No doubt the last-known photo of Mark Meyer before he did something truly foolish would be a valuable souvenir from their trip to Alaska. As part of a photography project for the Tongass National Forest I had hitched a ride with the Adventure Bound tour boat from Juneau. It runs trips up the Tracy Arm Fjord to visit the Sawyer Glacier, about sixty miles away. The captain agreed to drop me and my kayak off in the ice around the glacier for an overnight trip. He lowered my kayak into the water with ropes, followed by a ladder which I, watched by the wedged mass of downturned faces, descended; and descending took a low seat, alone, surrounded by ice and the curious glances of harbor seals.

From the outset, I knew this trip was a little out of my safety comfort zone. To borrow a term from John Adams, my risk thermostat was running high. I'm an experienced kayaker and in good conditions I'm confident I can perform a self rescue if I need to. Whether I could do this surrounded by ice or how my body would react to cold shock if an accident happened were unknowns. On top of this, Tracy Arm has almost no place where a paddler can get out of the water—it's a long, narrow fjord surrounded by steep vertical walls that drop straight into the sea. The few places where you can get out are small, slippery, and change dramatically with the tide. As the Adventure Bound powered back toward Juneau, I took a moment among the popping and snapping of the glacier behind me to evaluate the situation and think about the ways we deal with risk.

Photographers who work in wilderness areas inevitably increase their risk factors. They frequently travel alone and are often out well into dusk. On top of this, photographers must constantly struggle to maintain situational awareness. The work mandates an intense concentration on a small part of the environment, which can lead to neglecting risks in the larger environment around you. This is how you accidentally step backward off a cliff (or bridge) while framing the perfect shot. And if you deal with wildlife, there is always pressure to get closer to a potentially dangerous subject. Managing risk is a basic requirement of the job that does not get enough attention.

Sawyer Glacier, Alaska
Looking back at the Sawyer Glacier

People are bad at evaluating risk and statistical data. Consider the news this week of the first bear-related fatality in Denali National Park. It was picked up by most national news outlets, blogs, and it lit up social media. Many of the comments suggested how foolish a person must be to travel in bear country without a gun. But up to this point there had been no bear fatalities in Denali, while firearm injury is a leading cause of death in Alaska. Are you safer with or without a gun? It's a hard call to make. And it's probably statistically irrelevant when compared to the risks of driving the highway to Denali. The media always over-report rare, dramatic events and under-report the common, everyday accidents and risks. It's only natural that concrete, visceral images of unlikely events dominate our thoughts, while mundane statistics about common risks lull us into complacency about the very hazards for which we should be most prepared.

Many of our misjudgments about risk are caused by our predisposition to use availability heuristics when calculating odds. An availability heuristic is a method of judging the frequency or likelihood of something based on how easily we can image instances of it. For instance, we overestimate occurrences of sexual dalliance among politicians, not because we have an objective measure, but because they often make the news. It's something we do naturally and unconsciously, and it can be an effective way to quickly make decisions in complex situations. But because the likelihood of an event is not necessarily related to how easily it comes to mind, we end up with a bias. As Daniel Kahneman, who first studied availability heuristics with Amos Tversky, points out in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow this bias "…leads to gross exaggeration of minor threats, sometimes with important consequences."

Remember, everyone else is seeking to manage risk too. They are all guessing; if they knew for certain, they would not be dealing with risk.
Risk—John Adams

The danger this causes for us is obvious. We focus on guns, bear spray, noisemaking devices because bear attacks are among the first things you think of when considering dangers in the Alaska backcountry—the idea is easily available. But then we head out with inappropriate footwear even though falls are a leading cause of death in the backcountry. Or we are a little too cavalier crossing a creek despite the much more significant risk of drowning and hypothermia. An interesting fact to consider when contemplating the meaning of a single bear-related fatality in Denali is that pigs kill about 40 people each year in the U.S. and Canada. (This is a statistic often used by those defending the honor of sharks and seems to have originated from a museum exhibit on sharks. I'm not sure where one finds original data on swine gone bad so I would take it with a grain of salt—and maybe a little syrup.)

Tracy Arm, Alaska
The "shore" of Tracy Arm offers little to a kayaker looking for a break

Sitting among the crackling glacier ice thinking about this, it was obvious that my single greatest risk factor, and probably the largest risk most photographers face, was the fact that I was traveling alone. Solo travel in the backcountry, especially remote areas like those in Alaska, can turn simple injuries, like a broken ankle, into a life-threatening disaster. The sensible course is to stop dwelling on the sensational but rare risks and plan for the mundane, more probable risks. Carry a communication device that works in the area you'll be in (In the Tongass I never went anywhere without a marine radio); make sure somebody knows your location and itinerary; dress appropriately; be able to determine and communicate your location. Not as sexy as packing heat, but it's more likely to get you out of a bind.

I spent that evening camped (somewhat) comfortably on Sawyer Island a few miles from the glacier. The next afternoon the Adventure Bound picked me up and I stepped into a new group of gawking passengers feeling a little proud to still be among the breathing. Which leads to one more bias—hindsight bias. It's very tempting to conclude that because I was uninjured that I made good decisions. But this ignores the part that luck plays. Had circumstances been different—perhaps and wave from a rolling iceberg had sent me into the water or I twisted a knee dealing with a full kayak on steep, slippery rocks—the same decisions would not be a source of pride, they would seem foolish. Again from Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Hindsight bias has pernicious effects on the evaluations of decision makers. It leads observers to asses the quality of a decision not by whether the process was sound but by whether its outcome was good or bad. Consider a low-risk surgical intervention in which an unpredictable accident occurred that caused a patient's death. The jury will be prone to believe, after the fact, that the operation was actually risky and that the doctor who ordered it should have known better. This outcome bias makes it almost impossible to evaluate a decision properly—in terms of beliefs that were reasonable when the decision was made.

This same bias also "brings underserved rewards to irresponsible risk seekers, such as a general or an entrepreneur who took a crazy gamble and won. Leaders who have been lucky are never punished for having taken too much risk." This is something to take to heart before castigating the victim in Denali's first bear death or taking too much pride in our own successful adventures in the wilderness. Our perception of risk should be viewed with suspicion and subject to constant revision. We understand less than we think we do.