“Live an interesting life and you’ll take interesting pictures.”
– Jim O’Connell
You know the photographer Arnaud De Grave from such HESO projects as the interview with Christiania documentary photographer Charlotte Østervang as well as his in-depth gastronomic reportage on French Truffles and the simple art of Gnocchi. Of course. The French-born, raised and educated in engineering education De Grave, had, until very recently, lived and worked for many years in Copenhagen, Denmark as Associate Professor at the Technical University of Denmark. As part of his work, he traveled to various countries for seminars and guest lecture spots–Singapore, India, Japan, even the USA. He had co-founded BOP in 2004, all film…as he says, “the whole idea behind my photography is film”, and only began “digicrapping” because his mum wanted to see Japan before he came back. Oh the impatience of the modern generations…!
But De Grave has always been a closet skater-punkrock-DIY kid, even if he didn’t know it himself, so it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when something in him clicked, so to speak, and, as he had long been entranced with using old analogue cameras (Olympus Pen F, Hasselblad, etc…), it wasn’t until Japan that he began processing his own black and white film in his bathroom at home. Doing so inevitably leads to the feeling that one should show someone else (and preferably whole groups of people in a gallery-esque setting). More and more heavily his life turned from sedentary academic to one of restless documentary exposure. When, in a sudden fit of typical photographic wanderlust, he abandoned his very sensible and well-paying job at the university in order to pursue a dream of his to be “like the tall trees, you know what I mean” and ramble across continents to propose an esoteric course of study at the University of British Columbia, some of his colleagues may have thought he was daft, going through a mid-life crisis, or just French, who knows. But we at HESO, who met Arnaud at a beer-soaked table in a small pub in Shibuya some five years ago (alongside the interviewer Jon Ellis), never once doubted his decision. In fact we gave him a ride. Here’s what he has been doing:
Jon Ellis: Tell us a little about the project, what it entailed, and how you are in a position to be doing it.
Arnaud De Grave: I live in Vancouver, British Columbia and am pursuing a M.Sc. in Forestry, so the starting point is a clear interest in trees and forests. Last Christmas a friend of my landlady was house-sitting our home and for one reason or another she was still there when I got back from my trip to Europe, and she lives in a small community on an island up north by Vancouver Island called Alert Bay (on Cormorant Island where she happens to be a former radio journalist for CBC, Radio Canada). One of my intentions was to go live and work/volunteer in a small remote community somewhere lost in B.C. over the summer to learn about the way these people live and to record it photographically. We chatted about it and she invited me to Alert Bay as a starting point and I went (so do not invite me if you do not want me to come, for I will come!) She had me meet a lot of fantastically interesting people there (sailors, furniture makers, retired hand-loggers, First Nations chiefs, you name it they are there) and one of them (Roland) is the owner of a company called Bivouac West doing, amongst other things, reforestation. There was no easy possibility of an “internship” in one of these remote communities, but Roland told me about his job and invited me to join them in one of their reforestation projects in May or June. My job would be to give him visibility in exchange for accommodation and food. Or so he said… Little did I know I’d have to carry boxes of small trees, bags of fertilizer and drive big trucks! It took about 5 months to get in the position and be able to do it, roughly. And it happened by luck, or maybe perseverance, or surely both.
JE: I understand that the show is being sponsored by the Alliance Française cultural centre, how did that happen?
ADG: In trying to hold my end of the deal, i.e. to give visibility to the company, I investigated different possibilities: magazine articles, my own website(s), photo exhibitions… As I have collaborated with French cultural centres in the past (in Denmark) I tried that door and found some ears to listen to my story. I think the fact that I contacted them while creating the project and not when coming back with a “finished product” was appreciated. I explained the project, my motivation and we worked together on a reasonable outcome. They asked for a possible partnership with UBC Forestry and after a discussion with the Dean he agreed to sponsor me a bit and come give a short talk during the opening, so everybody is happy at the end.
JE: Why a photography exhibition, rather than something more academic?
ADG: My M.Sc. thesis is about sustainable forest resource management of ski resorts in the context of climate change and I have been toying with this idea of mine for about 2 or 3 years now. Indeed I quit my job in February 2011 and got accepted as a M.Sc. student at UBC Vancouver in September 2011, so I am currently in my second year of M.Sc. (more or less as I take time off of my studies from time to time for photographic projects such as this one.) As my life is split between many different activities, I like to define myself as a pluri-monomaniac, if that makes any sense. So yes, it was tempting to try and combine the two and push my research into tree planting. However, after some more thinking, I’m sticking to my original plan. Although it would be nice to be able to combine my M.Sc. and photography somehow… If anyone has any idea about how to do that I am all ears.
JE: The photographs suggest very isolated locations, were the logistics as ‘Apocalypse Now’ as they appear to be?
ADG: They were. We took choppers and I have to admit I was tempting to whistle (or rather sing at the top of my lungs) Wagner’s Ritt der Walküren several times. I only shut up out of respect for the other people in the helicopter, and the fact it was super loud in there and also that it was so beautiful that sometimes/often it would make one speechless…Originally the crew (about 14 people) would be going for 3 or 4 weeks on a boat and sleep by the cut blocks. However because of unforeseen circumstances –and as far as I know now it happens all the time– the boat was unavailable so we had to fly with floatplanes every morning, sometimes to be flown to a position where we would be taken to the planting site by helicopter. Sometimes some trucks would be waiting for us with the boxes of seedlings (small trees to be planted) and the logistic would be worked that way. So a big part of the planning consists in barging trees and trucks and quads where they should be, to be used by the team. Weather is not very stable in coastal BC in the spring so one can imagine hair-pulling decisions and problems the boss of the company has to deal with. One day we could not fly. “If you can’t see you can’t fly” would eloquently say one of our pilots… And as the deadlines and margins for error are very slim, it is quite the logistical nightmare. Did I mention grizzly bears?
JE: You’ve picked a very distinctive style for the photography, an almost organically grainy b&w, What is behind the choice?
ADG: It may sound pompous but I guess that’s my style. Really there is no particular reason beyond it is the way I like my pictures and I like the way I can do the whole process myself. It is very important to me to physically perform the complete workflow of photography. All were developed in my bathroom (stainless-steel and Rodinal) and printed in a real darkroom on fibre paper. There is magic in seeing the picture bloom in the developer tray, a sensual aspect in rinsing your print, feeling the gelatinous surface before going out to the light and check contrast, tones, etc.
Do not think that I am a complete luddite, as I have nothing against digital photography for example (when I am not in a state of inebriation that is) but I do prefer the slowness of film.
I could argue that the final atmosphere fits very well with the mood I want to convey and the references in my mind (Eugene Smith’s work on Pittsburg’s steel industry for instance had a huge impact on me when I saw the exhibition in New York City in 2001, both from an aesthetic and love for printed photography point of view) but that would be a posteriori thinking. I do think that it works very well with the photo-journalism type of work I am doing with this project though. About anything can be justified in hindsight with enough rhetoric.
JE: One of the things that comes through very strongly from the pictures is the almost absolute destruction of the forest by the loggers. How did working in that environment leave you feeling?
ADG: That’s a tough one… I knew about logging and clear-cuts, but I have to admit the extent of the “destruction” took me aback. Especially “heli-blocks,” where logging is performed by helicopter, very remote, with no easy access, very steep… so only the most valuable trees are taken but loggers still need to cut a lot to be able to get said big trees and also to be able to have the helicopter operate (build a pad, get fellers down, get trees and fellers out, etc.) The amount of left-over was pretty insane to see. Even if I weren’t a hippie tree hugger–although I do like trees very much–it made me quite angry. I swore a lot that day. I also swore a lot because the terrain was pretty insane to work/walk in.
Unfortunately one gets used to seeing fallen trees. And also the planters, after a while, appreciate the terrain for the ease with which they can move through it and perform, so they are happy to see a cleared area because they know they can plant a lot, as they are paid by the tree.
JE: Does the replanting make a difference or is this the ‘plaster on a gaping wound’ that it would appear to be in the pictures?
ADG: It does make a difference. I would rather stay away from political considerations as this exhibition is primarily about the people working in the field and not a statement for or against governmental attitude towards forest management. However, there would be a lot to say about that, but it has the tendency to push me in “angry young man territory” as you yourself said to me once, albeit on a different, but not too unrelated, matter.
An interesting fact is that the tree species which are replanted are the ones living there originally, and if left to natural regeneration there is no guarantee that the same species would grow back the same as before because of climate change for instance or because some tree species are more prone to take over (called pioneer species) or because some are shade intolerant but grow slower so when the faster one are there it is tough for them to grow even if they were living in that zone before… So replanting definitely helps. The companies are also responsible for these trees until they reach the “free to grow” stage (about 3 or 4 metres high). It is not: we plant and then we get our legal obligations checked and move the hell out of there and destroy some more somewhere else.
JE: The work of the planters looks back-breaking. What kind of people end up doing the work?
ADG: It is indeed a very tough and physical job, I was not by any means doing the same kind of job the planters do (although I tried it for a little while, I did plant about 80 trees), but I was helping the foreman (who was a woman by the way, a tough one) by carrying around boxes of seedlings, bags of fertilizer, etc. Imagine moving a friend of yours to a new house, but instead of boxes of books in the elevator you carry trees, sometimes on logging roads, sometimes directly in clear-cuts. Sometimes we had to patch roads which were supposed to be “quad-able” but were not, or declared so by someone who never used a quad in his life, so we had to rebuild them with logs and stones… Fun times… The planters do long days: from around 8am to 5pm they plant, and there is commuting time as well. Weather can be sunny, hot, rainy, freaking cold. So it is a very physically demanding job. And the bugs! Ho man, did I hate the bugs!
About the people doing it, well, most of them are people who like the lifestyle: seasonal work, hard but in the open space of Nature. Some of them do it because they are happy to work in the forest but doing more environmentally pro-active than cutting trees down. They are also doing this job for the money, for it is well paid.
A lot of people think that tree planting is a student job over the summer. It is, but not in coastal BC. In the interior where it is all flat and where one plants trees in a trench (not to diminish this kind of work which is also very physical, but less technical, but it brings experience.) The company I was working with only hires planters with a lot of experience. Most of them had been planting for about 6 to 8 years, and more.
JE: It sounds as brutal as it looks… take it you won’t be going out to work as a backcountry planter! What’s next for you photographically, and with your forestry work?
ADG: Well, I am actually considering asking Bivouac West to hire me as a full time helper for a month next spring/summer. Definitely not a planter as you can hardly call 80 trees experience haha… But I’d like to see more and live on a boat for some weeks. Besides, I have a proposition to go and work a bit as an assistant for a forester some weeks in December this year. So I guess my adventures in the woods are not finished yet. And I’ll hopefully do some field work for my M.Sc. thesis in the coming year, which should lead to travel and photography opportunities. Chicken and egg sort of thing…
From a photography point of view I always have a good half-dozen projects in progress, some will never see the light, metaphorically speaking. A very long on-going one is (of course) based on old-growth forest and trying to find a way to capture with pictures the complexity and beauty of it all. The main issue is that it is very multi-scale, from gigantic 70 m high Western Red Cedars to small moss and mushrooms embedded in their roots. It might be only an excuse to go muse in the woods though… I’d also like to get back and document a bit of this other jungle which is the urban land. I live very close to a very lively neighbourhood in Vancouver (namely, for those who know, East Hastings Street) and everyday is a new surprise down there. For me photography is about whatever triggers my interest and a way to make my life interesting as well. I often remember Jim O’Connell‘s words (whimsical as always): “live an interesting life and you’ll take interesting pictures,” words that I may have a tendency to misinterpret or at least try and reverse.
JE: Thanks! Anything you’d like to add in closing?
ADG: Go out, take pictures!
Arnaud would like to acknowledge: UBC Forestry, Alliance Française de Vancouver, and BivouacWest