Uluru and photography restrictions

Uluru, © Rob Walls Photographed on Kodachrome with a Widelux camera

Uluru, © Rob Walls Photographed on Kodachrome with a Widelux camera

Parks Australia has recently released a draft park management plan for Australia’s Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, which places quite onerous restrictions on photography within the park. Part of the problem stems from the all-encompassing definition of commercial photography as defined in the report.  In most international jurisdictions “commercial” photography excludes editorial photography. It is generally used to define filming or photography where props, models, lighting and a production crew are required; photography that would interfere with the normal operation of a park and a visitor’s enjoyment.

Parks Australia for reasons they state, of “protecting the natural and cultural values” of the site chooses to institute regulations where all professional photographers must apply for permits and approval to shoot pictures in the park precincts. There are no exceptions. (I should add that these regulations have, in similar form, been in place for some years. The draft report however, seems to indicate a hardening of stance, for reasons not at first, obvious.)

The justification given for the restrictions is based on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Regulations 2000 which states under the heading Deriving Commercial Gain from Images Captured:

(1)    A person must not use a captured image of a Commonwealth reserve to derive commercial gain.

(2)    For sub-regulation (1): captured images include an image that was not captured for a commercial purpose or in contravention of the Act or these regulations.

What the prevention of ” image capture” (i.e. photography) has to do with environment protection and conservation is beyond my understanding.  It also effectively makes criminals of every photographer who has ever distributed for publication a photograph made of a Commonwealth reserve.

Now, contrast this with the simplicity (and generosity) of the equivalent US regulations on Commercial Filming; Section 1(c) of Public Law 106-206 signed by President Clinton on the 26th of May, of the same year:


“…the Secretary shall not require a permit nor assess a fee for still photography on lands administered by the Secretary if such photography takes place where members of the public are generally allowed…”

If it applies these regulations Parks Australia is choosing to ignore the traditional symbiotic relationship between national parks and landscape photographers, whereby photographers publishing pictures of a park provide free publicity and help generate park attendance. Of course, one could be cynical and suggest that using the EPBC legislation is an effective way of eliminating competition for the parks management’s declared intention of establishing a commercial image library within the park (Section 3.97 6.6.8 of the Uluru Kata-Tjuta Draft Management Plan ).

If these regulations are imposed  they will generate a lot of friction with photographers. They will also create a ill-will from magazine editors, who faced with deadlines, are expected to get approval to use pictures of Uluru. The overall result will basically be counterproductive as there will be a reduction in publicity for the park.

The reality is that there are currently innumerable pictures of Uluru, from every angle and aspect, available from a multitude of sources.  How Parks Australia imagines that it can control how the park is portrayed defies common sense. A search on Google returns 479,000 hits for pictures of the site. The photo sharing site Flickr turns up 82,127. Both of these could be defined as commercial use of photographs of the park. A keyword search of one of the largest UK based picture agencies returns 3,082 photos.  Almost any photo library of reasonable reputation would have anything from 50 to several hundred pictures on file. There are literally millions of pictures out there.

Google image search showing some of the over 400,000 photos of Uluru

Google image search showing some of the over 400,000 photos of Uluru

These are the resources that travel and feature writers, use for publication in magazines, and newspapers throughout the world. They are part of the traditional way in which interest is generated amongst travellers to visit a site. For Parks Australia to come up with ideas that use tax-payer dollars to inhibit tourism promotion, especially in a climate of declining visitor numbers, defies common sense. Asking photographers to apply for permission to take photographs is like asking musicians to apply in writing before they can play music; a process guaranteed to stifle their creativity.

Uluru was handed back to the indigenous community with reassurances that under Aboriginal management it would not be alienated to access by the broader community. That now appears to be happening.   To read the photography guidelines go here. You’ll have to go to page 95, as parks management have, within recent days, taken down the direct link to its image capture guidelines.

Your comment would be most appreciated, as I’d like the opinions of the photographic community before drawing the attention of the relevant ministers to this issue.


Filed under Australian, News, Opinion, Photographer, Photographers' rights, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls, Stock photography, travel

35 responses to “Uluru and photography restrictions

  1. These restrictions seem counter productive. Don’t national park authorities have a responsibility to educate? It appears that if I offer images of Uluru to teachers and children on my website I will be breaking the law. That’s crazy.

    Good luck with publicising this ridiculous situation.

    Ian Murray

    • Crazy is probably the best description, Ian. Kafkaesque springs to mind. I was initially reluctant to draw attention to it in case it blew up into one of those, pull all the pictures down situations, but the overarching legislation related to Commonwelath reserves includes lighthouses and airports too. I’ll let you know if there is any response from the government.

  2. Bob Croxford

    Dear Robert

    It seems that your government has taken leave of its senses. If it had not been for photography showing the world’s wonders to people who had never been to those places there would have never been a protected area of a beautiful site anywhere in the world.


    • Bob…nowhere do we know this better than in Tasmania, where two of our best wilderness photographers, Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis, died while engaged in their endeavours to bring the beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness to the forefront of public consciousness.

  3. T Augustine

    This is the era of government and like a liquid that fills its container, ever corner of this continent must be brought under government control.
    These controls and not the outcomes are the priority of government policy and everything in its path must be governed regardless of outcome. Outcome is dealt with later, they call this last process …fixing.

    More frightening is the snapshot we are given of the policy maker, who are these public serpents(sic), they certainly do not represent the people. A policy based on falsehoods is not in the interest of the Australian people, so who’s interest do they serve?
    Uluru is regarded as a sacred place for the indigenous owners and as long as policy reflects their cultural rights then white Australia will accept that policy. But to corrupt this by the application of something akin to copywrite is as great an act of vandalism as carving TM into the stone itself.

  4. Parm

    They Parks Management are obviuosly trying to increase the sale of images by their own commissioned photographers to generate more income for themselves. It’s not about conservation…just income generation.

    I’m sure the native people of Australia don’t give a hoot about a Law made by the desendants of people who took part in the extermination of their kin and theft of their lands!

  5. Thanks Robert, I’ve never heard of this before. What is the next step after this draft? How likely is this to pass? When would it take effect?

    And how in the world are they going to police this?? Sounds crazy and short-sighted to me.

    • Carlo…the draft plan merely reinforces regulations already in place since about the year 2000. The indications are that this plan will step things up…I have no problem with restrictions on photographing specific areas related to culture, but these can easily be indicated with appropriate warning signs. I regard Uluru as a very spiritual place and when I photographed it was very moved by its presence. Long before there was any discussion of the appropriateness or not of the climb, I found I could not treat it as a theme park and refused to climb it because I felt that this would be disrespectful.

      If the regulations are about preserving spiritual and cultural values, the obvious option would be to ban the endless procession of tourist coaches and tourists who find it essential to their trip to make the climb.

      Professional photographers are generally much more sensitive to the issues surrounding the site than the average package tour, camera-toting, tourist. From my point of view, I want to be able to respond to Uluru in the best way I know how, by photographing and showing that magnificence to as many people as I can. My photography is invariably driven my a response to my surroundings. Form-filling and waiting for applications to be approved is anathema to this approach.

      • We have a pretty good discussion about hiking Uluru here:


        I wrote that after reading about the prospect of the climbing ban. Would be great if you chucked in your 2 cents too.

        I definitely agree with you about serious photographers being more respectful than the tourists who are just adding to their famous landmarks collection.

      • Thanks for the invitation Carlo…I read that discussion with great interest…and added my comment. As far as I’m concerened the sooner the climb is discontinued the better. Uluru is not an Aboriginal theme park,,,but as Roel has written, as photographers we have long been the unpaid (and paid) promoters of the beauty of our country. That a government would go out of their way to obstruct that defies common sense.

  6. Another point about photography at Uluru. If they want to ban it because of cultural sensitivity, all photography should be banned, not just professional photography. How are they going to police it; confiscate cameras and mobile phones, strip-search, give on the spot fines, prosecute people, take international magazines to court?

    Supposedly climbing the rock is culturally insensitive, but it has not been banned, probably because a lot of tourist would stay away and that is bad for business. I walked around the rock instead and got much better photos that way. It is stunning.

    If as reported the local Anangu clan want to set up their own photo library it really smells of another grab at money. The ‘cultural sensitivity’ seems to be that it is o.k. for them to gain commercially but not for white people. That is racist!

    If it is sensitive to take pics of Uluru why would that exclude blackfellas taking photos of it? Would it mean only Anangu photographers could take photos? We know how territorial Aboriginal laws are. Could e.g. a Noongar from the Perth area shoot pics of the rock? Are there any local Anangu professional photographers who would be able to shoot great promotional images?

    It feels to me as if political correctness is getting more and more crazy and results in reversed racism and that is not acceptable. I have great respect for Aboriginal culture and enjoy being amongst the custodians of our land, but I will not accept racist rules that affect the way I live or do my business.

    I shoot whatever I want; light houses, national parks, rivers that might have cultural significance because of rainbow serpents, churches, the whole lot and only make an exemption for sacred sites that are closed off for the general public.

    Not long ago they tried to tell us shooting professionally on Rottnest Island or in Kings Park in Western Australia needed a permit. Every tourist and foreign photographer could take pics there, but not the local professional photographers, or so they thought. No one talks about it anymore, because we all ignored it.

    Professional photographers are the recorders of history and the, often unpaid, promoters of this country and its beauty. Our photos and articles are published all over the world and attract people to visit, without it costing the states and federal governments a cent, but they want to restrict and punish us. Bring it on. I will fight that as long as I take photos.

    Roel Loopers
    9/10 Forrest Street
    Fremantle W.A. 6160

  7. Mark Newman

    The restrictions pertaining to the photographing of Uluru are totally absurd. In the United States and rest of the free world, photography is unrestricted and encouraged in National Parks. Rangers are occasionally known to assist photographers rather than to tie their hands. Art, creativity and sharing information (including photos of locations) are part of any civilized society. Furthermore, individuals and groups should never have complete control over natural national treasures, including geographical features. 41,000 years ago, before the Aboriginal people arrived, who owned the land?

    I would be willing to accept a compromise, for example having a few days a year set aside as sacred where no one could photograph or even visit Uluru. But the rest of the time there should be complete freedom for the public to not only photograph the sandstone formations but to wander at will. I have spent many months in Australia working on various books and projects, but you certainly won’t be getting any more of my tourist dollars if you continue to behave in this oppressive, restrictive manner. The world is a big place and there are many other, freer places to visit with just as much to offer in spectacular freedom and wildlife. It’s time the Australian government rethink its anti-art, anti-creativity policies and come up with a more sane and balanced approach to photography and tourism in remote locations and public areas. Where does the government draw the line? Will it soon become illegal to write poems about Uluru or to artistically create paintings of the great monolith?

    Mark Newman
    Professional Writer and Photographer

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Mark…I have always supported land-rights and been deeply involved with urban aboriginal issues over the years, but I find the irony here is that these decisions are purportedly made by a group consisting of less than 2,000 individuals. This is far less than the number of photographers affected by these rulings.

      As for it being illegal to make paintings of Uluru…the regulations cover any representation, no matter what form it takes. Parks Australia has not yet turned its beady gaze onto poems, songs, or other writing, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find they are working on it.


  8. Rob,

    I also see a trend which is starting to label photographers as the enemy and one could even argue as terrorists.

    When our director of homeland security in the United States was asked what citizens can do to help protect the country from more terrorist attacks she responded by saying they should look for people taking photographs.

    Where will it end? Will we have to start lurking in dark alleys and in run down homes always hiding in the shadows looking for our next photography fix?! I hope that it does not come to that.

    I for one, will not visit a place where I am unable to create photographs which I can use. It is what I do for a living now and why would I waste my valuable time and money to see something which I stand no chance of being able to use at some time. I will have to pass.

    I applaud you for your dedication in bringing the issue to those in power. If there is anything I can do, please let me know.

    • Thanks Steve…with restrictions from every direction the documentary photographers world is becoming a strait-jacketed domain, dominated by bullying police ignorant of the law and a public that has developed a belief that they have a right to privacy in a public place. These same people go home and watch all sorts of crap on television invading people’s lives and masquerading as “reality”. But that’s another story…

  9. Fascinating debate.

    The National Trust in the UK had (and possibly still has) a similar hardline stance on its properties.

    It may have softened its position of late, as I’ve seen a number of NT-sponsored competitions in photography magazines. Maybe it realised it was biting one of the hands that feeds it.

    Anti-terrorist laws are now being used to try to prevent photographers taking pictures in public, especially of police officers (then again, who’d want to?).

    Child protection initiatives are being turned on innocent parents and grandparents taking snaps of their own offspring in the park.

    Sorry, I’ve taken this a long way from the discussion around what I always knew as Ayers Rock, but I am a long way from it.

    Not far enough to stop me worrying about the issue, though. These are worrying times.

    • No, you haven’t taken the discussion off course, Martyn. The issue is that the restrictions on photography (and art) imposed by Parks Australia is yet another example of freedom of expression being chipped away at and co-opted by government, using weasel-words and obfuscation.

      Australians like to think of themselves as anti-authoritarian larrikins, but the reality is that we are mostly aquiescent, subservient individuals who don’t want to rock the boat when it comes to confronting authority. When push comes to shove, we mostly just roll over and tell each other to stop whingeing.

  10. Melanie Votaw

    Thank you for posting this. I was there in 2006 and was very disheartened by the restrictions. I have some photographs that I would love to use commercially but am only enjoying them privately because of these regulations. I just don’t understand the reasoning behind them.

  11. We have the same problems in Australia, Martyn. Parents not allowed to take photos of swimming, life-saving and other carnivals, as they might have other kids in the photos as well. That kind of paranoia does not stop child abusers of course, it only creates a lot of frustrated parents.

    We are becoming an over-regulated society where people in power take more and more of our liberties away. We need to stop them from doing so through protest, writing letters and civil disobedience, and most of all by keep shooting good pics!

  12. So does this have any impact on photos taken before 2000? Or published outside Australia? What if the photo isn’t sold, but is used on the blog of the photo-taker? I’m a writer, not a professional photographer, but I do have images on my blog. How far reaching and ridiculous is this likely to get? (And sorry to hear about this business.)

    • Cynthia, in relation to pictures taken before 2000, the law is retrospective. I think you’ll find that a picture used on a blog would be considered publication. If that blog were to promote your ability or services as a writer, it could be interpreted that the picture was being published for “commercial gain.

      This is a very broad view of course. I had always thought that commercial gain carried with it a notion of profit. Most photographers publishing pictures of Uluru are only doing so to defray the high costs of getting there. In my opinion, none would be making a profit. i.e. no commercial gain,

      As far as how far reaching and ridiculous it can become: in my view it is already ridiculous. How far will it go? Who knows?

  13. As someone who lived out at Yulara for a couple of years in the mid 90’s I like to think that I’m pretty culturally sensitive to Anangu concerns. Uluru itself isn’t a sacred site but there are two mens’ and two womens’ sacred sites around the rock itself. When I would walk around the base with Anangu friends women would avert their eyes from the mens’ sites and vice versa.

    So from a cultural point of view I can see why they would want to avoid these areas being photographed. But the reality is – they can’t enforce it. Any culturally insensitive clod can stick any photo they want up on Flickr and it’s seen by the entire world.

    So I think the answer is education. Rather than trying to take all the images professionals shoot we should be encouraged to respect the wishes of aboriginal people.

    I seem to recall at one point a few years ago there was a rule that anybody who wrote a travel article about the park had to forward the piece before publication to get it vetted before it could go to print. Talk about censorship and lack of a free press.

    I find in general in Australia that National Parks don’t seem to want to encourage photography for who-knows-what reason. The laws in all states are Draconian and they’re now extending to council run areas.

    $500 for a day permit to photograph down at Sydney’s circular quay, $600 permits required for the Esplanade Lagoon in Cairns and so on and so forth.

    It’s just getting ridiculous. We’re getting to the stage where the only people who will be able to photograph our tourism icons are photographers being employed by the tourism boards (the tourism boards getting copyright in a lot of cases) who will then give their pictures away for free to anybody who wants them. Then again maybe that’s what they want.

  14. OK, here’s a question. I just posted this guide to the Great Ocean Walk, which is managed by Parks Victoria:


    The published photos are mine, but I obviously didn’t get permission from them. Is this technically illegal?

    • I’m not sure about that one Carlo. The law varies from state to state. Here in Queensland you need a permit for every day you’re in a national park in which a photograph you took gets published. You purchase a permit for a period of time (say 1 or 2 years) and at the end of every year tally up the number of days you were in the park which led to pictures being published and you then pay $25 per day.

      You’d have to check how it works in Victoria

    • Carlo..it looks like Paul has kindly done my work for me. What you have to understand with the park situation in Australia, is that an entity called a “national” park, may actually only be a state park and under the control of the park and under the control of the relevant state body, not the federal organisation, Parks Australia.

      When you posted your query, I went and checked the latest situation with Victorian National Parks and discovered that their photography permit now adopts the US approach almost word for word. I was waiting to hear from a colleague to see if he knew when these changes were introduced. The wording on the Victorian photo permi says:

      Photography Permits are NOT required for:
      • Individual amateur photographers taking photographs for personal interest. However, if photographs are used for
      publication, public display or possible future sale, a permit or licence may be required.
      • Photography for news and current affairs purposes. Producers should liaise with relevant Parks Victoria staff.
      • Small scale* editorial photography
      • Wedding / portrait photographers.
      * Small scale is defined as a maximum of one photographer and one assistant with low level equipment
      (such as that which fits into a backpack or a single tripod) and uses no props or talent. This category includes most
      speculative and editorial work.
      ** Some Parks Victoria managed parks and other areas require a booking and charge a fee. See http://www.parkweb.vic.gov.au
      for further details or call the Parks Victoria Information Centre on 13 1963.

      So, basically you do not have a problem with the Great Ocean Walk or any Victorian parks. I think Parks Victoria are to be highly praised for their enlightened and realistic approach to editorial photography. As soon as I find out when these changes occured, I’ll let you know.

  15. Hi Rob,
    Your brother-in-law Pete put me onto your blog. I’m a keen amateur photographer (ask Pete to show you the pics from our Kimberly trip sometime).

    I wonder how they think they’ll enforce this sort of thing. Do they look at your camera gear and decide if you’re a pro or not ? I use a 1D MKII an L-series lenses, but I’ve never sold a photo in my life (unless a few slabs in exchange for some IRB pics to a surf-club counts).

    Does this mean that if I’m there on holiday taking photos for my own use, they’ll decide my gear looks pro and charge me ? By the same token, I’ve seen some damn fine photos taken with modern point-and-shoot cameras.

    While taking pictures for soccer, footy or surf clubs, I get asked quite a bit who I shoot for…maybe I need to paint that big white lens some other colour.

    Hopefully these guys will see some sense !

    • Hi Andrew…I’d like to see some of those Kimberley shots. I was there in July working on a children’s television production and am heading back up there in a couple of months.

      As an amateur, you won’t get charged a fee but you might be challenged by rangers, as many have, for toting cameras like that Canon. But you will be breaking the law (as are thousands of photographers) if you decide at some later time to licence the pictures through a stock photo agency. Many amateurs these days market their work to supplement their travel costs.

      I’m hoping that with a sufficient groundswell of support, that maybe Parks Australia can be convinced of the merits of modifying their stance.

      • Hi Rob

        That’s a worry.

        I’d like to think that if I ever manage to get a decent shot that I could later decide to put it up on a stock image site or something like that.

        Yeah, the Kimberly. I need to figure out a way to get back up there for some more shooting.

      • Rob,

        If you’d like to see some Kimberley shots, we featured some of the work of Fleming Bo Jensen in this piece:


        He has some extraordinary shots:


      • Thanks Carlo…Flemming has some great landscapes there…the Kimberley is an exciting and beautiful place. One of my favourite places in Australia. I spent a month up there earlier this year and am going back there soon for another month right at the beginning of the wet season. Hoping for some amazing skies…

        Actually, I was referring to the pictures from Andrew and my bro’-in-law, Pete’s trip to the Kimberley. Family snaps:-) He has a tendency to be a bit modest about his photos…

  16. Further to my earlier post Carlo, it seems that Parks Victoria have contradicted their own documents from time to time and have insisted that a permit IS required. I’ve emailed them for clarification.

    I don’t think they’ll come after you though and you can always wave their own permit application form at them is they did. I’ll let you know if I get a reply.

  17. Federal Environment Minister and former front man for the rock group, Midnight Oil, Peter Garrett has just launched a $21,000,000 “viewing platform” at Uluru. This is a lot of money to spend on making it easier to take photos that you can’t sell.

    Story here: http://tinyurl.com/yecrca4

    Seems he’s not going to commit on banning tourists climbing Uluru. And you can’t help feeling that the local community could have put the money to better use than another road and platform for tourists to perch their tripods on.

    According to the Sydney Morning Herald report, the group used the rock for a backdrop to a music video in 1986. I wonder if Midnight Oil paid for the right to use the location? Must get someone to ask the question…solid rock, sacred ground, indeed.

  18. Bradley

    I am a pro photographer and I work as a freelancer for major international photo agencies and over the years I have seen conditions put on pro photographers that defy belief and are just over the top. The rules regarding pro photographers capturing Uluru are just simply crazy! It’s a restricition on what we do not only as creatives but it restricts us from doing our jobs. I am seriously planning on going to Uluru in September this year and so this is how I stumbled onto this web site which may I say is very informative and very good. I’m not put off in going to Uluru but I am frustrated as I really want to use my images of Uluru on my web site. My closest and dearest friend is indigenous so I have every respect for the people and their customs but even he thinks that the rules and regulations are a little over the top. I understand that some rules on photographing Uluru is fine but when the rules are just too strict and over the top it really is of no help to anyone at all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s