Here Louie Palu talks about his trip from photographing hard rock mines in Canada to the front lines in the war in Afghanistan. The reasons he does it might surprise you.
He also talks a bit about the how’s and the why’s of his book, Front Towards Enemy, which is a box that holds a newsprint, an accordion book, a ‘zine and 10 loose portraits. All these aspects can be looked at individually, or they can be pulled apart and mounted on a wall.
Read on . . .
Tell me how you got from hard rock mines to Afghanistan.
My childhood was full of oral histories to do with war and the lives of workers. I realize, looking back over my life, that until I discovered photography, all I could do was use my imagination to try to see my family’s stories.
I literally started out in the darkness of underground mines looking for my direction. Before I started working in the mines I worked as an intern to photographer Mary Ellen Mark which gave me the structure of working on large, long form projects that went beyond magazines and newspapers. This set up how I approached every project I have worked on.
How does that you do relate to the stories you heard from your family when you were growing up?
The story that haunts me to this day is from one of my father’s closest friends who was in a prisoner of war camp. The story I was told was that the camp guards made his friend fight the guard dogs for the left over scraps of food from the guards meals. The cruelty of the stories told to me from my childhood were made a reality in Afghanistan.
It is hard to come to terms with your family identity in which your parents lived in poverty and experienced the trauma of war. For years I only had my imagination to visualize my parents detailed oral stories from the war. In Afghanistan it was now very real and right in front of me and it affected me deeply. When I looked at the young boys I asked myself if that is how my father looked when he was a boy.
What are your first impressions of Afghanistan.
To answer this question I need to go further back, before Afghanistan, to when I covered the Afghan refugee situation in Pakistan in 2004 as a Staff Photographer at The Globe and Mail. That assignment was my first view into Afghanistan. I had to document the repatriation of refugees from Pakistan back to Afghanistan. I worked out of Islamabad and Peshawar and rode a truck through the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border. I also lived with an Afghan family with 9 children that were accepted into Canada as refugees. Witnessing first hand that journey to a new country and leaving everything behind was very personal for me because my parents and sister left Italy in the 1960’s after growing up through the Second World War.
How many tours (is that what you call them) did you do in Afghanistan, and how long did it take, once you decided not to return there, to arrive at some kind of conclusion you wanted to present to the world?
I would just call them trips, tours are for soldiers and I am not one. I think I made around 7 trips total, maybe 8, I forgot and they ranged from 3 to 7 months per trip. I did the math once with a friend who also covered the war . . . we figured out I spent about 18 months only on covering frontline combat, more than 150 medevac missions and I lost count of how many miles I walked around on patrol. I also did a lot of independent work away from the military covering civilian related stories. Over the course of 5-years I produced a series of photo essays, shot video and wrote a lot.
As a photojournalist I was sharing my reporting daily, weekly and monthly in the news. I knew there would be a book one day, but it took 7-years to produce my book Front Towards Enemy after the war. The big surprise is I also made a feature documentary film, Kandahar Journals, which was not something I planned and it came out in 2015 before the book. The film was my friend Devin Gallagher’s idea, we met in a film editing class in which he was the instructor. I have many personal diaries from back then that several people are encouraging me to publish.
I love the idea of Front Towards Enemy, that it’s one thing made up of four things (which are each, of course, made up of many things, i.e. photographs). How did that idea come about and what’s your rationale for it?
In 2011 I started covering the Mexican drug war. What I quickly understood was happening was how there seemed to be two sides trying to control the narrative of how we did and did not see the drug war. So I published a newspaper called Mira Mexico that the reader could re-edit to suit what they thought the narrative should be, in essence manipulating which photos were seen and in what order. I followed up with three more newspapers one on the prison on Guantanamo Bay titled Operational Security Review and the third on Washington DC titled Federal City as a centre of political power.
Front Towards Enemy became an expansion of this idea of the reader being able to change the edit of the photographs. I think the thing that frustrated me most about covering any war is how disconnected everyone back home was from the war. Anytime the war came up in a conversation people who had never been where I had been in person were telling me what it was like and criticizing in some cases how I covered the war without having direct knowledge of what the facts were. With Front Towards Enemy I am breaking down the role of the gatekeepers such as photo editors and curators and handing it to the reader.
Your images are widely seen, your movie, Kandahar Journals, features in film festivals around the world. Do you think your work, and the work of other photographers who are doing, for lack of a better word, political photography, makes any difference? What do you hope your work achieves?
Photojournalism is all about knowledge, transparency and accountability, what you do with it as a reader or viewer is what makes a difference. For me the work my colleagues and I do is about creating dialogue and helping people keep themselves informed about what is happening in the world.
I am not sure when it happened or who started this narrative where photography is supposed to change the world, it doesn’t. However informed and motivated people with a conscious can make a difference and photography is a tool to help those people see parts of the world or issues that are hard or impossible to see.
We all hold some idealized vision of what it means to be a mother and how we are supposed to regard that state. We’ve all been told that Motherhood is sacrosanct.
But nothing is holy unless you are a fundamentalist. And fundamentalism leaves no space for nuance, for alternate views. Things are always more complicated that any idealized version would have us believe.
With her second book, BORN, Christina Riley dares to question what it means to be a mother. Or, rather, what it means for her to be a mother.
BORN takes place during Christina’s first year of motherhood. It’s a record of her feelings of loss of self, and the contradictions she felt between what we’re told a mother is supposed to feel and what she was actually feeling.
I asked her some questions about making the photos and the costs and benefits of making work so personal.
She is doing a KickStarter to publish BORN. Here’s the link to that, and a great video where she lays it all out, so honest and true. I hope you will support this work.
Tell me a little about the genesis of, and the motivations behind, BORN.
When I became pregnant in 2013, it came as a little bit of a surprise. I had a lot going on in my life with music and photography… was there room for a baby? Some people are filled with joy and excitement upon finding out they are expecting, but I felt mostly anxious and unsure.
I knew from my past experiences, photographing myself in my life really helped me adapt and understand my situation better. It was able to give me an outside perspective that I could study and think about, distract me from the more difficult, confusing feelings going on in my head. So upon realizing I was going to do it – have a baby, I started right away photographing myself, my changing body and the way the world looked to me. The process was comforting; shooting, editing and sharing.
Right into labor I was taking pictures. Obsessed. And it continued on since my daughter’s birth, into her first years. I think being a very curious person attributes a lot to my motivation with photography. I was determined to document my strange experience through such a “normal” and “natural” thing, that really felt everything but.
Nothing can really prepare you for how you will feel or deal with the sudden change of life. I felt so alone, overwhelmed, sad, frustrated and scared, but at the same time, so much love. I never heard of how upsetting and confusing it could be. Everyone in my life always made it seem easy, beautiful and fulfilling. Feeling lost and alone really motivated me more to keep shooting, to keep searching for solid ground, for a new me. Once I realized I really had something to say, a window into a reality people don’t often advertise but commonly experience, I was motivated to share it and connect.
You talked about motivation and how you went about getting the photos. Can you connect those two things? What would cause you to think, “I need to shoot this”? What were the critical moments you mention?
In general when I’m living my life, I have a tendency to think photographically. I sort of have this awareness that what I’m doing in the moment could make an interesting photograph that would communicate my feelings. I kind of see it from an outside perspective. An example of a critical moment would be times where I felt like I was really losing it, at the edge of what I could handle. I think this awareness, or ability to see and document myself in this way spawned from my previous work, Back To Me.
Why do you think your work is so raw, so bare?
Throughout my life I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, which I think naturally carried into my personal work with photography. Why hide what is real and true?
After going to college, assisting then shooting professionally, I moved away from my close family and friends to California. I believe not having distractions or much support for a while really gave me the opportunity to experiment more with the medium as a tool of expression and therapy. Having to deal with bipolar disorder from a young age has naturally made my life emotionally tumultuous at times, therefore the rawness of my experience is impossible to avoid. By sharing myself / my life in an open and honest way, I’m able to understand myself and be understood, which is something I have struggled with forever. Photography really helps with that.
What kinds of feedback do you get from these projects? And does that feedback help you to further understand where you’re at, or do the comments you receive just confirm what you already know?
I always get curious about how the projects will be received. Some people who have viewed Born and my previous book, Back To Me, have mentioned how much they can relate to the work – that in a way, it’s reflective of their own experience in life. That type of comment is nice because it’s a reminder that I’m not alone in the emotions that at times make me feel guilty and isolated. Although feedback is important and motivating, it’s not the driving force for me.
What happens to photo-school grads after they are handed their diplomas and shown the door? No one seems to know.
Sure, there are a few that find some kind of early success (the worst kind of success, if you ask me). Then there are others who carry on because they are consumed by the possibilities of photography and what it can add to their lives (and who, more often than not, will have to work a day job to be able to afford the luxury of photography).
But most, sick of the rough and tumble hustle of making a career in photography or frustrated by not being successful (however they define that word) seem to melt away. They pick a different, more easily defined job.
In this, the first of what will be a few interviews with recent grads, Vera Saltzman (SPAO, 2012) talks about how she came to photography, her school experience and the path she’s followed since she graduated.
Lots to learn, even (especially) after you graduate . . .
What’s your background and how you did you end up being a photographer?
I was pretty late to the party when it comes to photography. I spent most of my life in the business world wishing I could be a photographer. When my partner and I decided to go on an adventure and moved to Nunavut from my home province of Nova Scotia, I bought a digital camera, enrolled in a distance education program, and started to learn. Photography was a way of getting to know the place where I lived and helped me to fit into these small Inuit communities. But I was still pretty shy about it all. When we moved to Ottawa I decided to leave my full-time employment to complete the two-year portfolio development program at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa or SPAO as it is affectionately known. There I explored all things photographic including using film and alternative processes. It was their motto of Vision Content Craft that really motivated me. After I graduated in 2012 we moved here to Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan where I continue to work at it.
Tell me a little about your career after graduation. How did you proceed? What was your definition of success? And, related to that, what were your ambitions?
I really struggled with the move to Saskatchewan. Not only did this province feel very foreign to me, I had left behind a photography community I loved. But I hadn’t come this far to give up, and I kept working. I was pretty determined. I set up a tumblr site with a goal of posting something every week. Baby steps kept me focused on making work. And once again, I turned to photography to help me find my place in a place I didn’t know.
It took time to become part of the artistic community here in Saskatchewan. A local artist in Fort Qu’Appelle introduced me to a retired photography teacher in Regina. I met the owner of Film Rescue International, a world-renowned business in Indian Head that develops vintage and expired film, and he taught me how to develop my own color film. Another photographer who came across my tumblr site reached out to me and we’ve become a source of support for each other. It has taken a while but the circle is growing.
In 2006 I had my first solo exhibition “Cry of the Lake Dwellers” at Slate Galley in Regina, which I’m now represented by. And I also started to do some commercial work that allows me the freedom to do my personal work.
I make use of numerous genres including landscape, architecture, portraiture and self-portraiture. Though I now primarily work with film, I enjoy incorporating various techniques and cameras into my practice. I believe in taking advantage of all photography has to offer creatively to continue to expand and evolve my body of work.
I think success means continuing to grow, learn and produce meaningful work. The rewards can be few and far between, and you have to be internally motivated.
Can you talk a little about what you learned about developing a career in photo school, about how your expectations were met and not met? I take it from your answer to my first question that you had experience in the business world. How did what you learned there (in business) help you with building your photo career?
I learned so much! As you know SPAO is a small grassroots school where the students have the opportunity to make things happen. Not only did we learn the craft and history of photography, we came up with project ideas, developed them, wrote artist statements, assembled portfolios and then marketed it all doing everything from circulating exhibition posters, designing our website and artist promo cards, to using social media as a promotion tool and finally hanging shows, even catering food for the event and then networking with patrons, media, etc. I even wrote an artist grant application to win a tuition scholarship. I took advantage of every opportunity to “learn by doing.” Perhaps my previous experience opened my eyes to how it all would apply later on. Whether we like it or not there is a business side to creative work.
One thing I look back on from my time in the corporate world is a workshop I attended to determine my personality type and how it influences the way I like to work. For instance, I prefer to stay open to new information and options rather than having things definitively determined, so I need strategies to help me to pick a direction and follow through. When it comes to personal photography projects now, I usually approach them differently than the structured way we did in school of first picking an idea and then making the images. We didn’t have years to work on a project there, and it also seems much the same way in the art world – you’re expected to produce projects of a specific number of photos within a specific time frame. After I graduated I felt tremendous pressure to come up with a series in this way and, if you’re a person like myself who doesn’t like to close doors, this can be suffocating. I often think about that workshop and remind myself I can do this in my way. I keep making images, playing with processes and exploring the possibilities. At some point though I say “Ok, what do I have here?” I need to step back and implement some of what I learned in school to help me focus or I’d never get anything done. Photographers like to discuss what is the “right” way to set about a project. Understanding what works for you personally is always the right way.
I don’t think having talent or training is enough either. One thing I treasure more than anything are the resources that I found in photography school: friends, teachers, other alumni, who I still turn to for support. School gave me a community I still value. I’m a big believer in the importance of a network of people supporting one another, no matter what career a person chooses.
You live in Regina. What’s it like living there and tell me a bit about the art/photo scene?
Growing up on the east coast, I imagined Saskatchewan only as this straight monotonous Trans Canada highway stretching over flat, bald ass prairies. A means to an end – to get to Alberta. But there’s so much more.
I actually live on a lake in rural Saskatchewan, an hour outside of Regina. I love dropping from the prairies, or “up top” as the locals call it, down into the Qu’Appelle Valley with its chain of lakes surrounded by smooth rolling hills. The amazing Canadian Olympian snowboarder Mark McMorris got his start here at the local ski hill. We live with harsh winters, wind chills over -40C, but also get more sunshine than any other place in Canada. My goal is to travel from the southern grasslands through the boreal forest to the sub-arctic north to better understand the province.
Historically Saskatchewan is a strong supporter of the arts. For instance, the Saskatchewan Arts Board is the oldest public arts funder in North America. Since 1948, it has been encouraging and funding a wide variety of artistic endeavours. Only the Art Council in Great Britain has a longer history. And BlackFlash, a photography and new media in art magazine, has been published in Saskatoon for the last 34 years. Pretty impressive!
Similar to Ottawa, there are camera clubs, commercial and freelance photographers, university fine arts programs, and artists/photographers working with photography to create their artistic vision but overall I’d say photography itself is still on the periphery of the art scene here. The legacy of abstract/landscape painting is pretty strong. And ceramics. One man who purchased a piece of mine noted it’s the first photography in his collection. It’s not an easy sell.
I count myself lucky to have Slate Gallery in Regina representing my work. With their support I’ve had opportunities for exposure I likely wouldn’t have had working on my own anywhere. Not only do they see artistic value in photography, they encourage me in my practice.
Now on to your photos. Tell me a little about your first project in Saskatchewan. How did you choose it? What was your motivation? How long did you spend on it? Any other pertinent info.
Picking a project upfront has not been my process. It works well for some, but I honestly think it can be the kiss of death for others. I made lists of projects that are still sitting in a notebook. I beat myself up for being a shit photographer who couldn’t get her act together. It could have been the end of my photography career, but I kept making pictures and talking about photography with friends.
I’m not even sure I can identify a “first project.” It was more like I had all these images and then went back to reflect on them. I seemed to be drawn to certain things, always looking for home. This profound longing for the east coast and a desire to feel a sense of belonging on the Prairies appeared as a common thread. I felt like a transplant that hadn’t taken root. Fishing shacks reminded me of time spent with my father in Nova Scotia, grain elevators marked the landscape like prairie lighthouses, the importance of water in a landlocked province haunted me, and so on.
I try to not put too much weight on how long it takes me to do something. It takes as long as it takes. Perhaps a day, maybe a week, or even years. I spent a week making a handful of images using a simple homemade pinhole camera with some paper negatives called, “I walk the valley.” It speaks to the overwhelming sense of loneliness and sadness I felt when I moved to Saskatchewan, which was intensified by being slammed with menopause. And I was done with it. I had no more to say.
Other work may never end. The fishing shacks and grain elevators for instance are a kind of typology I keep adding to. I worked on my most recent series “O Human Child” going on three years. Photographing the local iconography, landscapes, or the portraits of people of Saskatchewan helps me to foster attachment and feel like I belong here. I love what Robert Adams says about why people photograph – “At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect – a sense of inclusion.”
I may go back to my project list at some point so I won’t get rid of it. I’ll even keep adding to it, but it won’t be what I live and die by.
“Son, I ain’t trying to be some asshole but the sun is setting and you in a place you don’t belong. Go on and take my picture but after that I suggest you run on home”.
Those were the first words spoken to Brandon Thibodeaux in the Mississippi Delta. He made the picture and left. Then returned the next morning and stayed for eight years.
Who belongs where is much discussed in the photography world these days. And rightly so, there are many egregious examples of carpetbagging to be seen. As well, there is the sticky question of who gets (is allowed) to represent another. The history of photography can be neatly placed upon the history of colonialism, this must be acknowledged.
I know from personal experience the responses you can get when you photograph a society other than your own. You are exploiting, people will tell you, you are denigrating or you are glamorizing or glossing over, you don’t have the proper history, you don’t know, you don’t belong. Some believe that those you are interacting with have no agency and no understanding of the dynamic at work. (Which can be, but is not necessarily, the case.)
There’s another thing I know, and that’s that I don’t believe anyone who holds fundamental/categorical positions, who thinks there is only one way to look at this world we live in. I mean, I believe and accept that that’s how they think, I just don’t believe what they think.
For me, the job of photography and of photographers is to present us with images that cause us to question. That means we must look at, think about, be affected by and, yes, question, each body of work on its merits, on its intent and the transparency of the process applied by the photographer (which, if you ask me, is almost always apparent if you look at the photographs).
With this in mind I talked with Brandon about the time he spent in the Mississippi Delta, which resulted in his book In That Land of Perfect Day.
What was the genesis of the project that became In That Land of Perfect Day?
I set off riding my bicycle across the northern Mississippi Delta back in June 2009. Without having much of a plan, I set out to explore the region letting one serendipitous encounter lead me to the next. My first weekend there I met James “Dance Machine” Watson Jr. at a parking lot party in the front of Alligator. He invited me over for Sunday lunch the following day. That invitation is how I met the Coffey family – the home where James was staying – and the Coffey’s from that point became my surrogate family in the region.
They’re a large family with lots of boys, big boys, the kind you don’t mess with, so every one in the area has a lot of respect for them. I feel lucky that they were the first bunch of folks that I met in the Delta because my relationship with them vouched for me everywhere I went in the surrounding towns. It was like I suddenly had an extended family with lots of brothers and uncles. I like to say that I found the key to the most tender part of the Delta in the pocket of the wildest man in town. I owe every bit of this project to the generosity of a man who invited me over for lunch not realizing we’d both be in each other’s lives for the next 8 years.
Like you, I’ve spent some time in the Delta, going to small towns, making contact, listening, telling stories, photographing. I have always been struck by the grace of the folks who live there. It seems so different from the people I meet here every day (that’d be: Canadians). The people I met there really attracted me but I always knew I was an interloper (for lack of a better word). How do you reconcile your work in the Delta with the fact that you, as we say in Canada, come from away?
This is definitely the crux of documenting any one other than yourself or outside of your own family, right? It’s something I’ve battled with since the beginning of the project, this notion of being able to come and go as I please. It was most striking to me at the onset of the work when I was staying at a local hotel in Clarksdale. I’d spend all day with families in the small Delta towns south of there but when the sun had fallen and the pictures were taken I’d head back for a beer in the local bar and to my hotel room with some sort of unsettling feeling. With this in mind I made sure that we spoke about my work, my reasons behind it, and what my aspirations were for it, folks understand that this is what I do for a living and encourage me to do it. I never tried to hide something or have an ulterior motive beyond what was covered in conversation. That transparency, that pure honesty put my mind at ease with photographing and bypassing the hotel and living with the folks I photograph alleviated the issue in mind of “coming and going” which in turn spawned a richer and deeper relationship in the end.
In terms of race, while I was aware of the skin difference, I was never raised to think of people as the other, and I think that value was reinforced with my background of being a newspaper photographer—you find common ground with anybody. You build a relationship with anyone based on commonalities not differences, so race was never the first conversation we’d have. We’d speak about love, or loss, or companionship, and the race conversation would come down the road in an almost passing way.
Looking back, am I the perfect narrator for this tale? Who’s to say. The only reason that I was able to tell what I’m telling is people have allowed me to. I’ve come across a few folks over time that question the validity of my authorship on the subject given my ethnicity but in doing so I can’t help but question what those people’s skepticism is really saying about the folks I photograph. Are these skeptics saying that because of their race or their economic status the people I photograph are incapable of deciding for themselves who they can confide in, who they can trust, or with whom they can share their world? I began this adventure not so much as a photographer on a mission but as a man who simply had more questions than answers about life and fortunately the folks I’ve grown close to in the Delta have had a whole lot to say.
I love that answer, Brandon. Maybe that’s because it so closely echoes my own philosophy, approach and reasoning. I want to follow up just a little bit, because, as you say, this question is at the crux of much documentary photography. I also want to be aware (beware) of just nodding my head in an echo chamber.
Many of my projects take me into contact with people who come from a different background. Like you, I have conversations with them, explain what I think I’m doing, we trade stories and experiences. In the end I want to photograph them and have to admit that, despite all the niceties that have preceded, I will never be able to understand their fact and, in the end the power (for lack of a better word) rests mostly with me.
Even so, the almost unanimous response from the people I photograph is that they are happy someone is interested enough to go out of their way to listen, to work with them, to bring some aspect of their lives forward, to share. So it seems to me that there can be a disconnect between the theories of representation and the experiences of some people on the ground who are actually curious about the “news” that exists outside their immediate sphere. (And I say “some” people because intent and transparency is something many photographers either don’t think too much about, or don’t care enough about to practice.)
Can you tell me what you think about this disconnect between theory and practise?
Gosh, where do I begin with this. This is the meat of it all, right? This could turn into a lengthy reply, sorry in advance Tony.
Well, I gave up on having a Jesus Complex with photography long ago. I recognize that this work can only do so much in explaining the Delta and it’s people. I, like some of my contemporaries, entered into photography with this grand notion of changing the world through my lens. I do believe images hold the power to change lives but the true power to change things (if in fact they need changing) lies within people. Actually, the very idea of going somewhere and “changing” a situation is really another pitfall in the theory versus practice relationship, for it implies that I know better. The fact is that this project will never bring economic diversity to the Delta – thereby bringing more jobs, it will never change the state of Mississippi’s education system, and it won’t erase the legacy of racism. What it can do is present another platform for discussion (just as it’s doing now between us) that acknowledges the history and lives of folks living there today, and it can introduce a certain way of life to someone that may never have the opportunity to experience it themselves. I got an email from a woman who recently bought my book that said it moved her to research a local church in the Delta and make a donation. That’s great that it has the power to inspire people to act in a certain way. I like that.
I just received a copy of Aperture’s Vision & Justice issue that is guest curated by Sarah Lewis and focused on the portrayal of Black America in photography. When I read your reply I was reminded of Mrs. Lewis’ quote in the issue’s foreword, “Art is often the way to cross the gulf that separates us…How we remain connected depends on the function of pictures – increasingly the way that we process worlds unlike our own.” That’s what this project is about, a yearning to understand. To cross a bridge. To not let others tell me how or what I should think but to go out and seek those truths for myself. Let me pause for a second to say that I‘m not sure I ever wanted to confront racism directly, so much as I wanted to confront an understanding of racial and regional identity, and in that, maybe I am confronting racism to some degree. In my opinion the best tools we have against racism are knowledge and empathy, which in turn foster the very understanding I sought. I picked up a Cornell West quote somewhere along this journey that speaks about empathy, he said, “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”
Thus, in terms of being a white man in a black community, I found it to be my duty to listen, to educate myself, to ask questions and to collaborate in a way that brings forth the attributes that I found in these communities, that I heard in their churches, and saw in their lives. That is my stand, to take it upon myself to learn, in the hopes of being a part of something larger than myself.
I don’t know how I feel about your notion of never being able to fully understand their “fact”. I think that’s the inherent trouble, this notion that no matter how hard you try, no matter how much effort you put into learning about someone else, you’ll never get it. If that’s the case, then why try? Why waste your time, your resources, and ultimately your life, striving to find something that you feel you have no hope of ever finding? By this logic, the only people I’m left qualified to photograph or write about are lower middle class white males who reside in a specific locale. That’s a bit short sighted, both limiting and discrediting generations of stories already told and those yet to come.
And where would that leave us as a species? In some tribalistic quarantine? This only serves to widen the gap of misunderstanding and reinforce the notion of the “other” to keep the psyche of these “theorists” comfortable. When my book came out I had one Instagram critic accuse me of being some faux racial ally for my own personal gain and profit. For one, if this person knew anything, they’d know that there’s no profit in photobook making, and two, if they’d taken the time to read anything I’ve said I’d hope they’d seen some genuine attempt to learn on my part. Some people want to “theorize” and complain for the sake of feeling like their voice is being heard or that they’re contributing to the dialogue in some way, but I don’t see any real solution in their notion.
This unease about authorship both belittles the intelligence of one’s subjects and subjugates the photographer beneath some fearful reign of creative terror, stymieing any hope of understanding at the individual level.
I agree with most of what you say about understanding. I think it might be semantics that separates us so I will push on because these ideas are so important to me. I want to get this straight.
The bits I agree with are those where you talk about the possibility of learning about someone else and how not believing there can be growth and understanding (things that are central to the reasons I photograph these days) leads to tribalistic quarantine. I agree that making an effort to learn is a good human trait (but one that many photographers don’t seem to embrace too much, preferring, instead to just plug the subject into their preordained system).
So I agree with almost everything you say. But what I’m not so sure about is our capability to really, really, know a culture that originates outside ours, that has a different historical fact. Perhaps we are disagreeing over a matter of degree.
What do you think?
Hum. I get what you are saying, and I thought that’s what you meant the first time around. Can I truly ever experience the world as someone else does? Short of climbing into their own body and making judgements based off of their own memories, fundamentally, no, my perception of reality will always be tinted by a slightly different hue. But I might be diverging and speaking more about interpretation than comprehension. I don’t know if I have an expanded answer for this one. I believe all one can do is inform themselves by seeking honest answers. The closest we’ll ever come to understanding someone else is solely based upon how much that person wants to be understood.
I met with acclaimed Canadian documentary photographer Rita Leistner twice in the lead-up to her most recent exhibition, “The Tree Planters,” which opened October 21st in Toronto at the Stephen Bulger Gallery. Leistner spent the 2016 and 2017 planting seasons embedded with Coast Range Contracting, a tree planting operation in British Columbia. She is in the midst of this body of work, which will take her back to the bush for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The work is a sort of homecoming for Leistner, who spent 10 years (1982-93) as a tree planter, sometimes as the lone woman on a team. Leistner has spent her lifetime defying gender stereotypes and proving herself in male-dominated industries.
We talked about the logic of return, the choreography of technology and bodies that it takes to get a shot, missing shots, crashing well, wrong turns, and crying in the cut block. Talking with Leistner is intense: she’s intense. It’s tempting to describe her as larger than life, as epic as the portraits she makes. She’s a no-bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is interview subject who looks you in the eye when she speaks. This is my conversation with the passionate, animated, deeply committed documentarian who—like me—loves a good chin wag.
I was surprised when I opened the document of images you sent me in preparation for our talk. I wasn’t expecting these arresting portraits. Why focus on the tree planters in this way, and not tree planting per se?
The tree planters are the heroes of the project. For me, the focus is their work. There are many other bodies of work that show the cultural life of tree planting—the camaraderie at camp, the dirty gloves on the ground. It’s much easier to shoot a pair of gloves lying on the ground than to run around the bush chasing someone. But I love those other kinds of shots, too, and I take those kinds of pictures. I’m shooting everything. That’s the way I work: I’m going to amass a gigantic amount of stuff and this project will take many forms. There’s going to be a film. There’s going to be a book. I’m shooting stills, shooting video, flying drones, out there on my own, mostly, because I can’t afford to pay someone to do a three month assignment…
But you had assistants, yes?
I did: Marsha MacLeod the first season and Jade Brown the second season. These portraits can’t be done without an assistant, because my assistant is carrying the strobe light and we’re both running around simultaneously. To have the quality of light that you see in these portraits, I need that strobe.
How does the strobe light affect the subject? Doesn’t it make you too present, as it were, for the shots to be candid?
Oh they don’t even notice the strobe light—it’s too fast. And “candid” is the wrong word, suggesting that I’m shooting without the subject’s knowledge. I would call this “action photography.” It’s like sports photography, really—like shooting an obstacle course race. Subjects aren’t stopping or posing for me, but they know I’m there. It’s not staged, but it’s not candid. As a documentarian, I don’t want to get in the way. I don’t want to interfere with what my subjects are doing. And Garth Hadley, the owner of the tree planting company, has done me this generosity of welcoming me. I don’t want to interrupt his business; it’s all about production in tree planting. The last thing I want to do is slow down production. And that goes for the tree planters. They’re trying to work and I couldn’t be with them for months if I interfered. I work around them. And because I know tree planting, I can anticipate where they’re going to go next. I need to be ready before they plant their tree. I’m anticipating and dancing around the planter and my assistant is anticipating and dancing around me. I elbow her and point to where I need her to go and tell her to get on my right side, like, now. The planters are not stopping or changing anything they’re doing because I’m there. But of course they see me. I might be with the same planter for two or three hours. I’m anticipating where the planters are going to go and I’m running in front of them—backwards—to get the shot. My assistant is basically a human light stand that’s never still. We can’t stop to set up a light. That light has to be as dynamic as I am. It’s crazily physical.
Is your work as strenuous, as physical, as tree planting? It looks grueling.
Um, no. It’s highly physical but nothing is as physical as tree planting—at least, nothing that I’ve ever done in my life. And that’s precisely what I want to show, because there’s this idea of tree planting as fun—as a campy, communal party. I’m hoping that people who have tree planted will look at these pictures and feel it actually represents what tree planting looks like, what it feels like. I’m 53. I couldn’t plant trees anymore. It’s too hard—it’s too hard to plant 2000 trees in a day. I can barely do what I’m doing. At the end of the day, I’m just completely physically shattered. And yet I have to go home—to camp—and back up stuff and look at all my footage and make sure everything is working and get everything ready for the next day. Maybe I’m asleep by 11pm and then up again around 5am.
Did you—do you—keep the same schedule as the planters when you’re shooting? Did your days begin and end with them? Do you camp with them?
Oh yeah. It’s very remote so I have to be in the same place. I’d say I kept a similar schedule, roughly. I get up at 5:15am. The vehicles pull out at 7am. I lived in a tent for my first year of shooting—and for all my years of tree planting. When I went last year, I had a big tent for my gear, a tent for me, and a tent for my assistant. I had a generator because I have to charge all my gear. I have a 4-wheel drive Jeep because I need to be independent; I have my own satellite and aerial maps on my iPhone. And it was very challenging, working out of a tent with all the electronics. And it’s cold. It drops below zero almost every night. It’s really cold.
Remind me: where exactly are you?
Central and Northern B.C.—often at high altitudes. And so the cold is brutal. I had been thinking about getting a trailer after that first, incredibly grueling season of shooting, living out of a tent. But I didn’t want to be the asshole photographer with a trailer. I wanted to live like the planters as much as possible. But then I realized that some of them had trailers and the foremen had trailers . . . so this year I bought a camper trailer and it has helped a lot, largely because it has a propane heater in it. In the morning I can wake up and turn on my propane heater and get ready: I make instant hot chocolate and instant coffee with Coffee-mate: that’s my thing; it’s what I get up for! And then I get all my gear sorted and prepared. I have to be ready to go by 7am. And my assistant makes the lunches. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it takes at least 10 minutes and every 10 minutes counts.
I’m always curious about the question of access. For this series, how does it work?
Access is a huge issue in a project like this, of course. I have a really big “in” because this tree planting company that I’m shooting is owned by one of my old tree planting buddies. I also have a reputation as a tree planter and a photographer. Both of those things help. And as I would with any subjects, I treat the planters with enormous respect. They’re the most important people in the room. That respect and that trust is everything to access. I’m good at getting access, at gaining trust, because I’m very honest, upfront, and approachable. And I’m genuinely interested in the subjects, or I wouldn’t be doing this. People respond to that. They know I’m interested in what they’re doing and that I’m passionate about it and that I’m working as hard at my job as they are at theirs. I introduce myself to each person; I tell them about my project, about what I’m trying to do with it. I ask them to come and talk to me—let them know that they can ask me anything. And that’s true—they can ask me anything. Same goes for you, by the way.
Okay: Let’s talk cameras. How many cameras do you use?
I have my medium format for the stills. It’s a Phase One camera, so it shoots super high res for these gigantic prints. I want to make prints that are suitable for a major gallery. The work is so hard to get, so expensive to make. It’s not a dress rehearsal. There is no point in doing at anything but the highest level possible. I knew it would be a number of years in the making, and I thought: I’m going all in. I’m making the best possible pictures I can because I’m not going to go back and do it better, later, say when I’m in my sixties. I can barely keep up with it now. No dress rehearsal: I’ve got to get it now. For video, I’m shooting on a Sony A7SII, which is beautiful, does 4K, and is easy to use. I’ve had a couple of DP buddies for a couple of days here and there to do some work on the ground with me—Scotty Wilson and John Price. And I have a DJI drone—I’m on my second now, slightly upgraded. I crashed the first one. They crash remarkably well. I’ve managed to fix that one so now I have a spare. I’ve learned that drones are meant to crash. That’s been really fun, learning to fly a drone: nothing makes me happier than learning something new. It’s the nature of being a documentary photographer who works in long-form tradition: you have to learn to do it all yourself. So those are my main cameras, along with a smart phone that I use for my Instagram. I got an Instagram account two years ago, partly because I had a 22-year-old assistant and she set it up for me. It’s really easy to use now that I know how!
Easier than a drone!
Oh my god, exactly. A lot easier than a drone! And a lot easier than a Phase One camera, which took me a long time to figure out how to use properly—to get everything to the sweet spot—to get my flash and my camera working together in such a way that I’m getting exactly the picture I want. Because I’m shooting fast-moving subjects, with sync strobe, there are a lot of technical limitations. It’s super high key. So, technically, things have to be working perfectly. I would say that until this particular Phase One was invented (and Hasselblad now makes a similar one), I couldn’t have made these pictures, this way, because I need to be at f22— I need really large depth of field. I also have to use a fast shutter speed: 1/500th of a second. I need a leaf-shutter camera to use at that kind of sync speed because your average Canon DSLR syncs at 1/250th of second. That would blur—it wouldn’t work for what I’m doing. I need a super expensive leaf shutter lens that I can only get with medium format. I wanted medium format anyway to go big. And of course sometimes it’s not bright out, so in order to still shoot with such a small aperture, I need to be able to up the ISO. On this camera, I can shoot at ISO 800—super high for a medium format digital camera. And it looks stunning. With my old Hasselblad, I couldn’t shoot over 100 ISO or it would look like crap. And I use a portable 500 watt Profoto strobe—it’s like the Cadillac of lighting.
You speak very passionately about light…
I am very passionate about light, about lighting. A lot of photographers hate it. You know, Cartier-Bresson, in The Decisive Moment, said something to the effect of using artificial lighting is a crime against the nature of a photograph, the nature of reality. I studied with photographer Arlene Collins at ICP because of her reputation as a master of lighting—she had been a student of Lisette Model. Ruth Kaplan, whose incredible “Bathers” photographs are currently in the front room of the Stephen Bulger Gallery, was also a student of Lisette Model. Model trained, among other people, Diane Arbus. And of course Model is not as well-known as Henri Cartier-Bresson but I would say she’s at least as influential. Larry Fink, Kaplan, Arbus, and everyone who followed them—documentary photography with a focus on, say, more composed portraiture—is all Lisette Model. She trained so many photographers. The fact that everyone’s heard of Cartier-Bresson and no one has heard of Lisette Model is the rampant sexism in our industry—in our whole culture—at work. She was easily as important as Cartier-Bresson, if you ask me. Wait: not even if you ask me. She just was. So, Model taught Collins and Collins taught me about lighting. She also taught Naomi Harris. You can see some of the things Harris and I share, stylistically. You’ll hear many people who don’t use lighting say that its use means that the work isn’t “real” or “true” documentary; usually, those people simply don’t know how it works, how to use it. With lighting, I’m trying to create a specific aesthetic, and it’s not going to be everyone’s thing. I’ve been doing it my whole career, and was often dismissed as someone who wasn’t “journalistic.” What does that even mean? I’m not staging anything. It’s completely reportage, in that sense.
I think you just raised my next question. I mean, I’m looking at these portraits of other people and I can’t help but read them as also, and necessarily, autobiographical. The story you are telling is also autobiographical—in a way that runs deeper than the fact that you used to plant trees, too.
Absolutely. And this has been the struggle with making the film, too. How do I tell a story about others and attend to the autobiographical without losing the nuance and the subtlety of how that identification works? I’ve taken a couple of wrongs turns, for sure. I’m hugely invested in the stories that I tell—I’m not a detached journalist. At the same time, I don’t want this work to be all about me and my journey. Tree planting is widely considered a coming-of-age narrative. And people like me who were part of the first generation of tree planters are now in mid-life, or older. And mid-life is another new beginning. I feel like I’m coming-of-age into the next phase of my life. So visiting these young people, I see the parallels, the connections; it’s part of the appeal of this story. Talking to them is so inspiring. The lessons that they’re learning in the field, I’m re-learning, re-living.
Literally, you have to plant one tree at a time—there’s no other way to do it. But that’s also a great metaphor, isn’t it? “One tree at a time” applies to photography, to the difficulty of the kind of photography that me and many of my colleagues choose to do. To show this work is also to show the work of photography. One day at a time. One picture at a time.
It’s amazing how we need to learn the same lessons repeatedly, isn’t it? Often the simplest things prove the most complex.
Simple things you can grab. I like going back to the simple, because it’s about process. About moving. And that’s part of what this project has been—going back to the physical, going back to the forest. I find I miss being in the cut block (that’s the term for the area authorized for re-forestation). Everyone cries in the cut block. This is incredibly difficult work: it’s long and it’s hard and it’s buggy and it’s muddy. It can be miserable, lonely work. But it’s also incredibly beautiful, and can feel completely freeing, full of joy. The cut block is extreme—it intensifies the emotions, whether happy or sad or disappointed or proud. The cut block offers you the time and space to embody these emotions. And, really, to cry. Sometimes, out there, I feel like the luckiest person on earth.
Is there a specific image in this series that exemplifies this mantra, “everybody cries in the cut block”? That illustrates the simultaneity of the difficult and the liberating?
For sure. One day I took a photo of this tree planter, a woman named Jennifer Veitch. She’s an awesome tree planter. And she was leaping over top of a mountain and you can see mountains in the background. It’s the shot of a lifetime. And when I looked at it on my computer, it made me cry. It makes me cry just thinking about it—I’m crying now.
This image makes me think about my sister tree planting and me tree planting and my whole life of fucking sexism. I’m 53 years old, and I’ve done all of this fucking work, and I’ve just spent an entire three months in the bush working so hard with all this gear and all these logistics. And with 25 year olds next to me acknowledging how hard all of this is. Then I go on the internet and there’s a post about Nikon and how they got 32 guys to test their cameras? How great an opportunity is that for those photographers? It gives them such a leg up. And, really, they couldn’t find any female photographers to test their equipment? Really? It’s not about “Oh I feel hurt because Nikon’s sexist.” It’s more like “What the fuck: I’m trying to survive in my career. Could I be working harder? And then I have to look at this?” And inevitably I read the comments about how women simply turned down the chance. Yeah, right. Nikon offered you a free camera and money to go test their equipment and you said “oh no thanks” probably because you were menstruating or you had to take care of your kids or you were shopping or for sure you had something more interesting to do than advance your career? What a lie, first of all. And it’s like, “Oh fuck off.” We still have to listen to this?
I’m going to show you this picture of Jennifer. Look at this picture of a phenomenally strong, beautiful woman just fucking killing it. And I got it. I was fucking killing it, too. This, right here, is what drives me.