Where is your strategic iconic photography?

Part of the work I do in visitor experience planning involves defining essence of place—those heritage values, tangible and intangible, that define your site. It’s a fun exercise but it can be a little bit abstract at first: what exactly is a tangible heritage value, anyway? A great place to start is simply by asking workshop participants to find six iconic images of their heritage place—six still shots that say this! This is us—this is our site, this is who we are and what sets us apart from anywhere else in the world.

And so the participants bring their six photos, and we throw them on the table, and it’s my job as interpretive planner to help them narrow those images down: “Ok that’s gorgeous but it could really be taken anywhere…” and by the end, we have narrowed say, thirty shots down to four or five.

In the tourism world, we think of those few shots as a destination’s strategic iconic photography.

Prague. When you have a minute, head to Instagram and search the hashtag #charlesbridge. You’ll get about 535,000 images returned with the search.

What do we mean by strategic and iconic? Well, strategic is just that: it’s photography that is useful to you and helps you meet your goals. Those goals might be increasing awareness, increasing visitation, changing patterns of visitation, increasing enjoyment and engagement, or attracting people toward an educational experience.

Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

Iconic refers to the idea that this photograph couldn’t be taken anywhere else; it is emblematic of your heritage destination, and has the potential to be strongly associated with your site, its essence, and its brand in the eyes (and hearts) of your audiences.

Stanley Park, Vancouver. But you probably knew that. (Photo: Thom Quine, Creative Commons)

It’s not iconic if it could have been taken anywhere.

Here’s the thing: beautiful does not equal iconic or emblematic. Six people sitting around a lovely campfire is not an iconic destination photograph. Sure, there may be a place for that photo in your image bank. Just don’t consider it emblematic of your site. Campfires are a dime a dozen. So are people on paddle boards, people at picnic tables, and gorgeous young hikers with perfect teeth having more fun in 1/60th of a second than you’ve had in your entire life. Strategic? Yes, sometimes. Iconic? Hmm, sure, but not of your site.

Now, take those campfires and those hikers and place them against a vista that is unique, unforgettable, and emblematically yours, and you may have a strategic iconic photograph.

Mountains are common; chalets are common. But that hotel against those mountains can only be Waterton Lakes National Park. (Photo: Gord McKenna, Creative Commons)

Iconic photography as potential visitor experience

There are iconic photos that can really only be taken by professional photographers, or people with specialized gear (like helicopters, say.) But there are innumerable others that are accessible and fun to visit, and make beautiful cell-phone photographs and highly shareable selfies. Do you know where yours are in your park or historic site? And what are you doing to promote them? Is there a “selfie guide” to your park? is there a brochure or map that helps the visitor find the good spots, plan the visit, know what time of day makes the best photo? Could an interpreter/photographer lead people on a quick tour of those spots at the right time of day, and give them some meaningful back story to what’s in the image?

What on earth is in that background?

Mind you: can you promote it sustainably?

The idea of promoting your great photo ops as a visitor experience—a place to have fun while you take great photos and share them—is based on the idea that promoting those spots is a good thing. It ain’t always the case.

If your destination is becoming famous—like thousands of visitors a day famous—you need to give serious thought about how you promote it. Sending hundreds of people a day to the same viewpoint isn’t going to help anyone. You’ll compromise the ecology of the place, and you’ll ruin the visitor experience for those who go. Overtourism is toxic—environmentally, socially, experientially—and it’s getting worse around the world.

It’s your responsibility to monitor visitation to your iconic spots, and to make a plan to take pressure off them. And you need have that plan in place as policy before your managers and marketing directors become giddy with all the free promotions they’re getting.

One of the most iconic harbour fronts in the world.

Part of that plan might be discovering new corners of your heritage destination—photogenic places where you can direct traffic to siphon pressure off your over-used spots. Your Instagrammers would be delighted to be among the first to discover the next iconic photo op. Just make sure it’s a sustainable one.

I could tell you where this is… but I won’t.


  1. I’m always on the lookout for better ways to collectively generate a better understanding or definition of a place’s essence or genius loci. I like this idea but a couple of questions come to mind. First, how best to use the photographic approach to at intangible and hence invisible values? And what happens if a site does not have good photography? In the US and Canada that seems unlikely but I think of some sites overseas which will of course generate images on Google but might not still get at what the collective wants to express.

    • Hi Jon-
      In a workshop, I usually start with the photography to give a tangible, visible foundation to essence of place. The images don’t have to be magazine quality- they just need to allow the participant to show the feature and talk about it. So yes, it’s a largely visual exercise- from there, we move toward intangibles. “Without XX, this place is no longer this place.” I find it’s easier to approach intangibles once you’ve used the visual exercise to get people thinking about what is emblematic or essential about a place- it’s easier to go from concrete to abstract once they’ve worked with the concrete a bit.

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