Canadian artist Rita Leistner uses photography and film to create portraits of communities in extreme conditions—such as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, female patients at psychiatric hospitals in war-time, First Nations communities in the Arctic, women wrestlers in the United States, and loggers in Canada—exploring themes of purpose, struggle, and belonging. Each unique world shapes her conceptual approaches and aesthetic styles, resulting in distinctive, large bodies of work that merge art and documentary and often consist of books or films in addition to photographs for installation and exhibition. She typically invests months or years in a project. In 2016, she began photographing and filming professional tree planters in the rugged backwoods of Canada. Leistner herself is a veteran tree planter—before becoming an award-winning war photographer, she planted over 500,000 trees in Canada from 1984-93. “The Tree Planters” exhibition premiered in Toronto on October 21, 2017 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery.
“The Tree Planters” consists of a major exhibition, a feature documentary film, Forest for the Trees (2021) and a 250-page book with a Foreword by Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar (Dewi Lewis Publishing, UK, Spring 2021).
Leistner studied photography at the International Center of Photography in New York and has an MA in comparative literature from the University of Toronto, where she taught the history of documentary photography. Her work has been exhibited internationally at venues including the Musée Albert-Kahn (Paris, France), Ben Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), the North Vancouver Museum (Canada), the Musée du Nouveau Monde (La Rochelle, France) and the Centro de Fotografía de Montevideo (Uruguay). She is co-author of Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq, and The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story. Her first monograph, the interdisciplinary work Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan, was a finalist for the 2015 Marshall McLuhan Award for Media Ecology. Her writings on photography have been published in many magazines and books including Memories of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images, The Routledge Companion to Photography and Visual Culture, and The Photobook Review.
Rita Leistner is a 2018 World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Award Winner, has won three Canadian National Magazine Awards Gold Medals and was a 2017 finalist for the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography at Harvard University. Her work is in private, corporate and public collections including the Musée du Nouveau Monde, the Comanche National Museum (USA) and the Royal Ontario Museum (Canada). In 2017, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa acquired fifteen years of her work from Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Afghanistan—among the largest holdings in the collection.