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In Conversation: Rita Leistner

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by Nadja Sayej

A self-portrait of the artist at a logging cut-block in British Columbia, Canada | © Rita Leistner

Rita Leistner is no stranger to roughing it. The award-winning Canadian photographer spent a decade tree planting every summer, before she flew out to Afghanistan and Iraq, photographing women marines, warzones, soldiers and civilians, as both a photojournalist and an artist.

Risking her life for her photography, she has had a brush with death more than once—whether it's being interrogated in east Turkey, walking for three days, almost falling off a cliff or dodging bullets in Lebanon. And yet, she’s still here with us today.

More than just a war correspondent, what’s interesting about Leistner’s work is the connection she makes between young tree planters and soldiers; both are (often) in their 20s but spend their lives in drastically different ways. And the results are also very different, as well.

Leistner is a champion of tree planting and its role in ecology, which is the lead subject of her most recent photographs, as well as the subject of a documentary that she is currently wrapping up.

Ahead of her forthcoming book release with Dewi Lewis publishers, she talks to us about trading a shovel for the camera lens, sexism in the marines and how she became an artist. Close up portrait of female Marine in desert, 2011

Close up portrait of female Marine in desert, 2011 | © Rita Leistner

Nadja Sayej: Burning question: What was it like photographing women who work in the marines in the Middle East?

Rita Leistner: It was frustrating. I’d spent two months living in the desert in Iraq in 2003 with 150 male Cavalry, so it didn’t matter to me whether my subjects were male or female. In Iraq I lived with the soldiers, side by side in unsupervised Forward Operations Bases with no running water, no toilets, no shelter. We slept on the ground half the time, or under tanks to take shelter from the relentless sun and heat. Everyone was equal. I feel at home in that kind of unregulated and rugged space, something I learned during my ten years planting trees.

 Helicopter above Musa Qala base, 2011

Helicopter above Musa Qala base, 2011 | © Rita Leistner

NS: Sorry—at home?

RL: I prefer that any day to the arbitrary rules of the Musa Qala base in Helman Province in Afghanistan, which is close to where I photographed these female marines. It was amazing that I hardly experienced sexism during my almost 12 months in Iraq, neither from the American military nor the many Iraqi men and women I met, but here on this marine base, I witnessed and experienced some of the worst passive aggressive sexism I’ve ever seen. 

NS: Wow.

RL: I was impressed that the female marines took it; they had no choice and nor did I. But they have spoken about it since, including in a new book called Beyond the Call: Three Women on the Front Lines in Afghanistan, by the American military interpreter turned journalist Eileen Rivers. I did my part and photographed the female marines and I spent three years writing my book Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan to try and understand the role technology - military technology, social media and photography - plays in upheaving the structures of military and society at large.

 View of Himalaya mountain range from airplane, 2011

View of Himalaya mountain range from airplane, 2011 | © Rita Leistner

NS: How did that manifest?

RL: Making these permanent three-colour, gum-over-palladium prints from the original files shot on iPhones is intricately connected to the philosophies laid-out in my book about the value of context, process, and the historic record.

NS: What was your impression of Afghanistan?

RL: I’d been told by colleagues that had spent decades in Afghanistan that I should go there one day. I only scratched the surface, because I wasn’t there for long. I found the restriction of movement as a female hard to take. The mountainous landscapes felt familiar, and a highlight was going hiking in the mountains outside Kabul. We met a beekeeper who’s stuck in my memory.

Marines with dog, 2011

Marines with dog, 2011 | © Rita Leistner
NS: Were you ever afraid to take photos there?

RL: It takes a lot to make me afraid to take a photograph. You have to put a gun to my head. No one pointed a gun at me in Afghanistan. For much of my time in Afghanistan I was embedded with the U.S. Marines, which is overall safer than say when I was working “unilaterally” or “unembedded” in Iraq, or Lebanon during the Hezbollah Israel War, or any number of other restive circumstances where I’ve been a freelance on my own without any safety net. I’d been taken captive in Iraq and my vehicle was shot at in Lebanon; I’d been interrogated, detained and threatened with imprisonment in eastern Turkey; I walked for three days and nights from Turkey to Iraq in 2003 and nearly fell off a mountain side. There have been several occasions I was sure were my last moments on earth. That’s not to say I wasn’t unnerved when I was in Afghanistan, but I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

NS: OMG. So, what is the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a photojournalist?

RL: Possibly that I am not per se a photojournalist. It’s been enormously liberating to “come out” as an artist, which didn’t surprise anyone. If you mean what did I learn working in conflict zones, I would say the biggest lesson is the same one for all things in life: it’s always better to try and resolve conflict than escalate it or engage in it.

View of Old Market from Musa Qala base

View of Old Market from Musa Qala base, 2011 | © Rita Leistner

NS: Was photographing a war traumatic, and has it had any after-effects?

RL: A lot of things in life are traumatic. Having spent time as a journalist or artist documenting other people’s trauma in conflict zones has sometimes put in me positions of being traumatized myself. I’ve tried to keep things in perspective. After all, I have chosen to be there, whereas the people I’m photographing or interviewing for the most part are not there by choice. But it would be impossible to say there have been no after-effects.

NS: Like what?

RL: There have been rehabs, fights, run-ins with authorities and many broken relationships. But that is behind me now, if still a part of me. Sometimes I think about the chicken and the egg, because something drew me to these places that no one was making me go to. That’s something I’m still exploring, especially in my work with tree planters in Canada. I’ve been drawn to conflict, damaged places and people, and things that needed fixing. In time I learned that little that I do makes any difference. It didn’t stop me from trying. The metaphor of self-reparation and recovery is obvious.

Oceanne Bourque, 2016

Océanne Bourque, 2016 | © Rita Leistner

NS: You were a tree planter, as well?

RL: I tree planted for ten summers of my youth, from age 20 to 30 years old. Why did I keep going back to those burned and logged landscapes, with a shovel in hand? I’ve traded my shovel for a camera, but in a way, I’m doing the same work. Part of the answer is in the portraits of tree planters I’ve been making over the last four years. The photographs of the tree lines on the margins of the cut blocks, which I call The Enchanted Forests, are not what they seem because they are both beautiful and damaged at the same time. I’m always interested in process and the work in progress.

 Andrew Dallas Blackstone, 2017

Andrew Dallas Blackstone, 2017 | © Rita Leistner

NS: Why did you decide to focus on these forest workers that are featured on FFOTO?

RL: When I planted trees for ten summers in my youth, it was one of the hardest things I’d done, and taught me about perseverance, living in the moment, and the possibility of doing things you at first think are impossible. After tree planting, I became a photographer and an artist. No one ever believes me when I tell them how hard tree planting is or how it prepared me for the rest of my life. I wanted to make a project that would answer to that. The timing was good too: We’re at a point in history where more people realize that replenishing the world’s forests is a matter of survival. I had very clear ideas going in about making portraits that raised this physical labour – of these forest workers – to a kind of heroic status, that would make viewers think of classical painting and great historic figures.

NS: Who are they and what are they doing?

RL: I don’t mean to gloss over that tree planters are part of the legacy of logging and colonialism – because logging in North America was one hundred percent a colonial endeavour – but in general I want tree planting to be seen as something powerful and hard and aggressive that has a kind of warrior nature to it. We’re at war against climate change and deforestation. That’s what I mean to show.

 Franco Benti, 2016

Franco Benti, 2016 | © Rita Leistner

NS: Why are tree planters so young?

RL: Most tree planters are under 30 because the work is so incredibly physically difficult. Many are students because the main tree planting season is from May to August and coincides with school break. It’s good to employ young people and give them purpose. I’ve seen young people sent to fight wars. I can tell you the outcome and the effect on these two groups is radically different. Tree planting makes people into better versions of themselves. They come out strong and resilient and curious and hopeful. War damages young people, even if they survive deployment. More soldiers die by suicide after they’ve come home than die in conflicts. I’ve been compelled to look at these differences. In the process, going back to the forest has been good for me too. And, of course, it is very rich subject matter for photography.

The Tree Planters - The Enchanted Forest #16, 2019

The Tree Planters - The Enchanted Forest #16, 2019 | © Rita Leistner

NS: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, projects or books in 2020?

RL: I have a book coming out with UK photobook publisher Dewi Lewis about the tree planters’ work, and I’m happy to say filmmaker Don McKellar has agreed to write the foreword to the book. I’m working on a film, too, which is also due out in the fall, the same time as the book. It has been a busy five years leading up to this double release. The film is an experimental documentary, Forest for the Trees: My Portraits of Tree Planters. I have several exhibitions in the works for 2020 and 2021, but nothing I can announce yet. 

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Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City who has written 5 books, including Biennale Bitch and The Celebrity Interview Book. Follow her on Twitter: @nadjasayej