Canada has some of the strongest sustainable forest management policies in the world, and one result is that every year, roughly 500 million new trees are planted, mostly to replace those harvested for timber. That work, however, is easier said than done. The backbreaking labor of planting trees has become a popular—if brutal—summer job for (mostly) young people, who spend months at a time lugging seedlings up steep slopes and earning up to $.25 per tree they successfully put in the ground.
That work is the subject of Rita Leistner’s new show “The Tree Planters,” which opens October 21 at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto and runs until November 8. Leistner is a documentary and conflict photographer whose interest in communities under extreme conditions has taken her to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arctic. More than 25 years ago, Leistner herself worked as a tree planter in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, planting more than half a million trees between 1983 and 1992. She says in a statement, “I have always said that my experience in the strenuous, remote job of tree planting in Canada prepared me for the role of documenting communities in extreme conditions. After so many years shooting conflict and war, I wanted to create photographs that were not about death, despair, hatred, loss or violence.”
The 19 photographs in the show were made using a digital camera and battery-powered flash, which Leistner and her assistant carried into the wilderness, accompanying planters working for Coast Range Contracting. Often shot at the moment the planter plunges a shovel into the ground, Leistner’s low angle and bright lighting give her subjects a heroic air. Surrounded by rough terrain and the tree litter that remains after harvesting or fire, Leistner’s subjects grimace or furrow their brows in concentration. Behind them are majestic mountains and dramatic clouds. Says Leistner, “I felt great urgency to begin this project as I knew being in my 50s, I would not have many years left where I could physically keep up with the athleticism required for tree planting. It’s a back-breaking dance of bodies, shovels and dirt, and I hope the messages of living in the moment and the power of perseverance are understood through my photos. I have great hope for the future and believe this series will promote the care for the world that all our futures depend on—one tree at a time.”
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