Picturing World Cultures: Rita Leistner - Canada

04/04/2024Link0

Professional tree planting is back breaking piecework—a combination of high intensity sport and industrial labor that requires both technical finesse and remarkable physical and mental endurance. Using techniques more often associated with high-performance athletes, experienced planters (commonly known as high-ballers) leap up and down through uneven and debris-strewn terrain, armed only with a shovel and 30-kg bags of seedlings on their backs.

Above photograph © Rita Leistner

In recent years, tree planting has become a rite of passage among young Canadians not afraid of hard work and dirt under their fingernails. As seasonal work, it attracts many students from Canada’s southern cities. Due to the brutal physical demands, most are under 30 years old. Out on the cut block inclement weather is common, and the swarms of biting insects are legendary.

Working in—rather than on—the land for months on end, and sharing an isolated camp site creates a solid bond among planters. This has molded into a subculture of sorts, which is the subject of today’s show.

My guest for this episode is Canadian photographer and filmmaker Rita Leistner. Rita documents communities living in extreme conditions, typically investing months or years in a project. After spending a decade as a tree planter during her youth, Rita returned to the forest in 2016 to document a new generation. In 2021, she released her results as an Art Trifecta, featuring large fine art photographs, a 256-page photo book, and the documentary feature film “Forest for the Trees.”

Equally in her element in forests and war zones, Rita’s photographs and her writings about photography, art, and war have been published, exhibited, and collected worldwide. She is represented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery for art, and by Green Planet Films for film.

If you haven’t already listened, check out all of the episodes of our Picturing World Cultures podcast series here.

Guest: Rita Leistner

Andrew Dallas Blackstone (left) and Gene Williamson had to stop work during a rare summer snow, because they couldn’t see the seedlings. As soon as it melts, they’ll recommence.
Andrew Dallas Blackstone (left) and Gene Williamson had to stop work during a rare summer snow, because they couldn’t see the seedlings. As soon as it melts, they’ll recommence.
Tree Planter Matthew Muzzatti, 2016
Tree Planter Matthew Muzzatti, 2016
Tree Planter Jennifer Veitch, 2017
Tree Planter Jennifer Veitch, 2017
Tree Planter Aaron Wong, 2017
Tree Planter Aaron Wong, 2017
Tree Planter Russell Robertson, 2017
Tree Planter Russell Robertson, 2017
Tree Planter Maria Agueci, 2016. Her face is obscured by a bug net to keep away swarms of biting insects.
Tree Planter Maria Agueci, 2016. Her face is obscured by a bug net to keep away swarms of biting insects.
Tree Planter Cleo Carpenter, 2016
Tree Planter Cleo Carpenter, 2016
Tree Planter Bilal Basse takes a short break in the back of a truck between planting bag-ups, 2018
Tree Planter Bilal Basse takes a short break in the back of a truck between planting bag-ups, 2018
Coming Home. Tree Planters return to camp after a day’s work, 2019
Coming Home. Tree Planters return to camp after a day’s work, 2019
Maeve O’Neil’s hands, calloused and dirt-encrusted from planting thousands of trees a day for months on end. Time is money, and every planter wears a watch to time their work.
Maeve O’Neil’s hands, calloused and dirt-encrusted from planting thousands of trees a day for months on end. Time is money, and every planter wears a watch to time their work.
Tree Planters Evan Bull and Max Patzelt (on accordion), with Ernest, 2016
Tree Planters Evan Bull and Max Patzelt (on accordion), with Ernest, 2016
Tree Planter Clayton Gray playing his violin at camp after a long day, 2016
Tree Planter Clayton Gray playing his violin at camp after a long day, 2016
Enchanted Forest #11 (2019)
Enchanted Forest #11 (2019)
Enchanted Forest #14 (2019)
Enchanted Forest #14 (2019)
Enchanted Forest #9 (2019)
Enchanted Forest #9 (2019)
Photographer and Filmmaker Rita Leistner at work on Forest for the Trees, 2019. She is carrying a Sony A7SII camera attached to a Zhiyun Weebill Stabilizer with a 5” Atomos Shinobi Monitor.
Photographer and Filmmaker Rita Leistner at work on Forest for the Trees, 2019. She is carrying a Sony A7SII camera attached to a Zhiyun Weebill Stabilizer with a 5” Atomos Shinobi Monitor.
All photos © Rita Leistner

Episode Timeline:

  • 2:02: The backstory to Canadian tree planting as a business
  • 5:21: Rita’s interest in photography and her early days as a tree planter.
  • 12:43: Comparisons and contrasts between Rita’s early tree planting experiences and what she found when returning to the forest to document this subject.
  • 18:21: A typical day in the life of a tree planter and the actual planting process
  • 26:31: How Rita landed on her distinctive photographic style of capturing fast moving planters with a PhaseOne camera and Profoto lighting.
  • 32:40: Rita talks about how the young planters responded to her sudden presence in the camp.
  • 36:17: Rita’s lighting set up with Profoto B1 lights and coordinating with an assistant to carry all the gear.
  • 41:56: Episode Break
  • 43:10: Rita talks about power consumption, batteries, generators, workflow, and more when working in remote locations.
  • 45:03: Inclement weather, dirt, and bugs when shooting both stills and video footage out in the wilderness.
  • 48:41: The lighting details behind Rita’s enchanted forest nighttime images and timelapse footage.
  • 53:38: How the work of tree planters is perceived by both the logging industry and environmentalists, and the effects this has on the planters themselves.
  • 1:03:47: How Rita’s Tree Planter project has affected her sense of Canadian identity.
  • 1:06:04: Rita Leistner answers our PWC Visual Questionnaire.

Guest Bio:

Rita Leistner is a Canadian photographer and filmmaker who creates portraits of communities living in extreme conditions, typically investing months or years in a project. After spending a decade of her formative years as a tree planter in the Canadian wilderness, she returned to this theme to document a new generation of planters from 2016 to 2019. In 2021, she released the project as an Art Trifecta, featuring fine art photographs, a 256-page monograph, and the 91-minute documentary film Forest for the Trees.

Additionally, Rita has been captured by insurgents, assaulted, and shot at, and she has run into gunfire to get a photograph. She has published four books of photography including Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq (2005), widely considered one of the most influential anti-war books to come out of the Iraq conflict. Rita’s photographs and her writings about photography, art, and war have been published and exhibited worldwide, and are in major corporate and museum collections. From 2010 to 2016 she served as Associate Professor in the History of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the University of Toronto. She is represented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery for art, and by Green Planet Films for film.

Stay Connected:

Rita Leistner Website: http://ritaleistner.com/
Forest for the Trees Website: https://www.forestforthetreesdocumentary.com/
Rita Leistner Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ritaleistner/
Rita Leistner Twitter: https://twitter.com/ritaleistner/
Stephen Bulger Gallery Website: https://www.bulgergallery.com/artists/45-rita-leistner/overview/
Green Planet Films Website: https://greenplanetfilms.org/
Canadian photographer Lorraine Gilbert: https://www.lorrainegilbert.com/


Senior Creative Producer and Host: Jill Waterman
Technical Producer: Mike Weinstein
Executive Producer: Bjorn Petersen
Editorial Director: Shawn C Steiner
Theme Music: Gabriel Richards

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