After spending two hours taking photos at the Chedoke Trail in Hamilton, Ontario, 22-year-old photographer Brandon Trahan and his friends started to head home. The trail, located in the heart of the city, is home to rolling hills, waterfalls, and kilometres of beautiful scenery.
Derailed by a muddy ditch blocking the main path, Trahan and his friends decided to take an unauthorized path down the trail. Trahan went first, using rocks to gain his footing. When he suddenly heard a scream, he looked behind him and saw his friend tumbling down the trail.
She ended up hitting her chin on a rock on her way down, fracturing her jaw in three places and breaking her wrist.
Trahan regularly visits the city's now Instagram-famous waterfalls to take photos and that was one of the worst injuries he's witnessed.
"I did have my camera and I was taking photos beforehand but when we were going down, we weren't taking photos," Trahan tells VICE. "But getting to those places to get those photos, that can be a little risky at times."
Over the last few years, Hamilton, sometimes referred to as the Waterfall Capital of the World, has seen an influx in photographers, amateur and professional alike. Search any of the region's waterfalls on Instagram and you'll be greeted by thousands of legs dangling over cliffs and selfies onlooking towering heights.
While the risky photos garner a lot of attention on social media, the amount of injuries and fatalities in the area is causing a stir.
Last year, Hamilton's fire department had to execute 25 rope rescues from the surrounding waterfalls, indicating a 65 percent increase in rescues from 2015.
There have already been several rescues this year, some resulting in injury and even the death of a young photographer last month.
The issue is hardly just a local one.
This month alone, two siblings had to be rescued from Ontario's Scarborough Bluffs after allegedly trying to take selfies, meanwhile two men decked out in camera gear were arrested for climbing 15 to 22 metres up Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver.
All around the world, selfie and photo deaths have increased, with the main causes including drowning, gunshot wounds, getting hit by trains, and, topping the list, falling from heights.
Earlier this year, a 21-year-old woman drowned in dam water while she and her friends took selfies on a stranded rock in New Zealand's Waikato River.
In March, two teenage boys fell to their deaths after taking photos on top of a cliff in the UK.
And a few months after that, a man in India was killed by an oncoming train as he and a friend posed for a selfie on the tracks.
Getting creative on Instagram and other social media can be tough, so doing something a little dangerous for a good shot can be tempting. But authorities are taking notice and taking steps to deter 'grammers.
Kara Bunn, manager of Hamilton parks and cemeteries, has been driving numerous safety measures around the falls to prevent more injuries and fatalities.
"It's not worth it," Bunn tells VICE about people taking risky pictures for Instagram at the falls. "I hold my breath when I watch these people. Even if you're a really seasoned hiker, if you take one wrong step or the trail is eroded, you could find yourself tumbling down pretty quickly."
To deter visitors from taking dangerous unauthorized routes, Bunn's department recently put up a chain link fence; signs outlining the risks, the law and the maximum $10,000 fine for trespassing; and have even camouflaged footpaths with broken branches and debris.
Bunn credits social media for the increase in visitors.
"It spreads like wildfire on social media because that fabulous photo of you standing on the falls tends to be the photo that someone else wants to then take of themselves," Bunn says. "But it doesn't tell you the story of the danger of getting there. So, a lot of people may show up not knowing what they're getting into."
Regardless of these very obvious dangers, adventure seekers continue to do the absolute most for Insta pics in dangerous areas both in and outside of Hamilton.
Understandably, the prospect of capturing that perfect shot often drives photographers to push the envelope further each time. Like any artist, achieving that goal can be incomparably rewarding—including financially.
New York City-based rooftopper Adrian C., aka @opoline on Instagram, is one of the many photographers these days willing to traipse the rooftops of skyscrapers to capture stomach-churning images.
With over 54,000 Instagram followers, Adrian has taken risks many couldn't.
According to him, one of his most standout achievements was rooftopping 432 Park Avenue, the tallest residential building in the western hemisphere standing at nearly 1,400 feet. The mission took Adrian days of research, dressing up as a construction worker at 4 AM, nearly getting caught by security on the roof and scaling a crane to get to the edge.
"When you start going up, you know what you're getting into. You already took the risk when you thought about doing it," Adrian tells VICE. "Once you think about it, nothing can stop you. That idea grows, grows and grows and it starts becoming more of an obsession to get [the photo]. And somehow, you end up doing it."
Adrian says that every time he walks out of the building, he wants to do it again. It's that obsession and adrenaline rush that drives so many people to risk it all.
He's certainly aware of the dangers though and knows of people who have died in New York doing what he does.
"This is what it is. You never know. It could happen to me. It could happen to anyone who's trying this," Adrian says. "I'm not the right person to say don't do this, but if you do it, just try to do it as carefully as possible, knowing that you are taking a risk."
University of Western Ontario sociology professor Anabel Quan-Haase recognizes how powerful social media can be in shaping people's real life decisions to take risks.
"Social media is an attention economy where there's hundreds of thousands of pictures, so young people are often willing to take risks to have a shot that will catch others' attention," Quan-Haase says. "From that standpoint, social media can create greater risk-taking and blur the boundary of when that risk is still healthy and when it has gone one step too far."
While Quan-Haase doesn't encourage young people to get willy-nilly with their own fate, she poses the argument that risk-taking is part of growing up and is sometimes necessary for success… to a certain extent.
Adrian points out his purpose as a rooftopper, in that he's often able to shed light on the unknown.
"Say there's a big wall in front of you. Some people will only think [about] what's behind the wall. We are the people who climb the wall. We see what's happening on the other side. Then we come back and show our pictures to the people that couldn't pass that wall," he says. "I guess you're born with that."
Across the border, Trahan echoes a similar, yet more cautious sentiment.
"Sometimes you kind of have to step out of your comfort zone to be able to get the good shots," he says. "But I don't think that you have to go so far out of your comfort zone that it puts your life at risk."
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