The Tree Planters


In 2016, Rita Leistner began photographing and filming “extreme tree planting” 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, spanning over 4000 kilometres from Ontario to British Columbia. “The Tree Planters” exhibition premiered in Toronto on October 21, 2017 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery. Over 800 people including some 200 tree planters from across Canada came to the opening, reflecting the resonance and importance of tree planting in Canadian culture and the power of Leistner’s large-scale heroic portraits to capture the imagination. Leistner is currently working on a book, The Tree Planters, and a film, Forest for the Trees. Both due for release in 2020.


Rita Leistner on The Tree Planters (in The Globe and Mail)


Widely considered a rite of passage and a uniquely Canadian coming of age experience, tree planting is back-breaking, piecework paid labour—a hybrid combination of high intensity sport and industrial labour that requires both technical finesse and remarkable physical and mental endurance. An experienced worker can plant over 2,000 trees in a single day, burning up to 10,000 calories in the process. The vast and varied terrain can be almost unimaginably rugged, overgrown, barely passable, and steep. The swarms of punishing, biting insects are legendary.

It is also seasonal work, which means it draws part-time labourers, including many university students, from the cities to the less populated forested regions of the north. This unusual urban migration has had an unexpected effect on Canada’s cultural and environmental mindset: The planters, changed by their experience, bring their new knowledge back to urban society. Canada counts former tree planters among its Members of Parliament and Foreign Ambassadors. This has influenced policy by increasing awareness of Canada’s forest industry as well as popular support for strict environmental laws and reforestation quotas—making Canada the world leader in forest management and forest sustainability.

“The Tree Planters,” photographed in the aftermath of logging, forest fires and insect infestations, is a series of un-staged live action portraits of the men and women reforesting Canada’s Boreal Zone by hand and shovel, one tree at a time. In 2016 and 2017, I was “embedded” in the planting camps of Coast Range Contracting, one of a number of tree planting businesses that vie for highly competitive contracts from logging companies and the Canadian government.

Photographically, the technical and physical demands of making these portraits are off the scale. They were made with high-speed flash and a medium format leaf shutter camera while my assistant and I ran backwards through the bush to capture the planters in action. I had a very specific idea going in of what kind of photographs I wanted to make and why. The tree planters were warriors of the land, gods and goddesses of dirt, and I wanted to give them the same kind of respect and heroic treatment as has been given soldiers and loggers. I wanted to elevate tree planters in the historic, cultural and artistic tradition of Canada by creating photographs with a grandeur and aesthetic that would evoke classical painting. The depth of field and foreground detail give a feeling of dioramas in a natural history museum and accentuate the planters’ animal relation to the land.

What we think of as “Modern Canadian Tree Planting,” is only in its third generation. I was at the tail end of the first generation (I planted over 500,000 trees between 1984 and 1993). After tree planting, I became a photojournalist and spent a number of years both unembedded in war zones, and embedded with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. When people asked me what had prepared me for that work, they were surprised to hear me say “tree planting in Canada,” because tree planting didn’t sound all that hard. I had a lot of fear about going back because of the physical and technical challenges I would face. What I hadn’t anticipated was that going back to the cut-block would have as profound an effect on me today as it had in my youth. It’s as if, in middle age, post war zones, I have been given the gift of coming of age all over again. And the metaphor of sustainable life cycles and the forest has not been lost on me.

— Rita Leistner, May 2018

Sonia Smee, Ingrid Watt and Rita Leistner — Tree planting near Thunder Bay, Ontario, 1987

Photo by Catherine Lash