Rita Leistner’s photos capture more than moments: Hair tied back, eyes focused on the task at hand, the young woman is hard at work, surrounded by the debris from clearcut trees. The terrain is desolate, unforgiving, ominous even. Like a warrior wearing layers of heavy armour, she is weighted down with the tools of her campaign — saddle bags, a spade, formidable boots. Her expression is one of concentration, undeterred by the devastated landscape.
With its brooding quality, dramatic lighting and powerful central figure, the portrait of Jennifer Veitch takes its cues from the heroic tradition in classical painting. Like the other subjects in The Tree Planters series by photographer Rita Leistner, Veitch is captured in the midst of a crusade, battling the elements and hostile surroundings, unbowed by presumed hunger and exhaustion.
“I had spent much of my life photographing in conflict zones and watching how soldiers are portrayed in this epic, heroic manner,” explains Leistner. “I see tree planters as warriors of the land and I wanted to portray them with equal stature, so [their photographs] might hang in museums next to great paintings of soldiers and of angels — and gods, for that matter.”
With The Tree Planters project, the Toronto- based award-winning shooter and writer has shifted the focus to her own roots. Before her three-decade-long career documenting life in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Leistner worked every summer when she was in her 20s, from 1984 to 1993, in cutblocks — land areas designated for reforestation — in Northern Ontario. She credits tree planting with preparing her for the gruelling nature of combat photography.
“Tree planting [has] stuck with me my whole life, and [it] is widely considered a coming- of-age experience,” she notes. “I was part of the first generation of planters who are now in middle age, which is a kind of second coming of age. I wanted to go back to the cutblocks to meet young planters and create a bridge between them and my generation [by] asking my peers how tree planting helped them overcome challenges later in life. I am discovering some incredible stories through this.”
In addition to The Tree Planters series, which was the Guest of Honour exhibit at this year’s Photo Doc. in Paris, Leistner is also working on a documentary and book on the subject.
“It was not uncommon to go a week or two weeks or more without access to proper bathing, all the while living in crude conditions, putting up with inclement weather, punishing insects, and all kinds of things I really appreciate the absence of when I am at home in the comfort of my bed,” she says. “But perhaps even more, [it prepared me] mentally. Tree planting is incredibly isolated and repetitive work.”
Since the early 1990s, Leistner has observed up close, respectfully, various disparate groups. “The secret to photographing someone as a subject and not as an object is to identify with them,” she explains. “Being an outsider while, at the same time, empathizing or wanting to belong has driven my photography.” For those who plant, a sense of camaraderie through shared hardship is natural, something she witnessed too while chronicling past subjects — U.S. soldiers and Iraqi prisoners of war, as well as American female wrestlers and female psychiatric patients in Iraq.
Leistner’s photography is internationally renowned — the National Autonomous University of Mexico is currently running a retrospective of her work — but she makes time to contribute to smaller projects, such as From Janet With Love. An interactive photo essay produced by the National Film Board, From Janet recounts a daughter’s attempt to understand the life and values of her mother, a pen-pal bride who immigrated to Canada when she was 17. It reflects the larger goal of socially engaged photography, which is what defines Leistner’s storied career.
“I’m not interested in making art that doesn’t have a purpose or [doesn’t] take some kind of social, political, or ecological or educational position,” says Leistner. “This is particularly important when photographing people in extreme conditions. It is not enough to witness, to be a voyeur. I promise the people I photograph that I will commit myself to getting the work seen and tell their stories in a way that will bring dignity to what has happened to them or to what they are dedicating their hard labour to.”
In her quest to tell these stories visually, Leistner veers towards a formality that may appear anachronistic in today’s world of grainy viral images, citizen journalism and Instagram pop art. “I am not a fan of ‘accidental art,’ ” she says, admitting to imposing “an artistic order” on the events that she is capturing. Although she experimented with an iPhone 4 to photograph U.S. Marines for her project in 2011, Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan, Leistner prefers a more technical approach.
This is evident in The Tree Planters, which channels an old masters vibe. To get this effect, Leistner combined her photojournalism practice with techniques and strategies associated with film. “The lighting was very deliberate,” she explains. “I wanted to create the look of a classical painting, with very controlled lighting, so the images could be printed huge.” (Each photo is an impressive 78” x 58”). To get her unstaged shots, Leistner positioned herself in front of her subjects as they worked at quota-driven pace, scrambling backwards over tree stumps and scrub, as an assistant followed with a giant strobe light. “It was unbelievably hard work,” she says. Leistner returned to the cutblocks this past summer, seeking two things that have defined her career as a tree planter and as a photojournalist — the seemingly oppositional but entwined goals of solitude and community.
“I went away and did conflict work and wanted to go back to the forest. It’s a great feeling being in the wilderness with no one around you, feeling so small in the landscape. It feels really safe, too — a big contrast to being in a conflict zone,” explains Leistner.
“But you’re also part of a community, and I think there’s something in me that is drawn to a community. I’m an outsider, yet someone with a connection. That’s the continuity thing. I keep being drawn to communities, and everyone is, like, ‘Okay, there’s Rita. She’s just with us.’ ”
By Yuki Hayashi – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Fall 2018