Documenting destruction

The history—and emotional impact—of conservation photography

TJ Watt didn’t know where he was. On the southwestern tip of Vancouver Island, the roads were long and dusty. It was the summer of 2005, and Watt had never spent much time on the remote logging roads of the island, despite having lived in Victoria for his entire life.

After three hours of driving with friend and fellow photographer Kevin Wu, Watt noticed the forest starting to change from monotonous trees with little undergrowth to scattered patches of old-growth forest. Trees, four and five metres in diameter that had stood for hundreds of years, were interspersed between the broken branches and stumps of clear-cut areas.

Eventually, the two arrived at the Walbran Valley, an ancient rainforest located just north of Port Renfrew, B.C., on the traditional and unceded territory of the Pacheedaht First Nation—land that is also shared by members of the Ditidaht First Nation.

For the first time in his life, as he drove among tall trees that touched the sky, Watt entered what he now calls “an enchanted wonderland.”

Since high school, Watt had an interest in photography. He attended the now-closed Western Academy of Photography in Victoria and was initially interested in becoming a travel photographer. Later, after volunteering for a local environmental organization, Watt learned the dangers facing old-growth forests in B.C.

Visiting the Walbran Valley for the first time 16 years ago, something clicked in Watt’s mind.

Rather than using his camera to take a scenic shot or photograph a flower, he could use his skills as a photographer to tell the stories behind these endangered trees and potentially save them from logging.

Once he left his car and stepped into the Walbran forest, the temperature dropped in the shade, his heart rate slowed, and his eyes widened at the natural beauty around him.

He had found his passion.

One of the many before and after images Watt captured showing giant ancient cedars felled in the Caycuse watershed. Photo courtesy of: TJ Watt

The history of conservation photography dates back over a hundred years.

In the late 1800s, American photographer William Henry Jackson played a prominent role in the U.S. conservation movement. Jackson, who served as the official photographer for the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories from 1870 to 1878, captured images from what is now known as Yellowstone National Park. His work helped convince the U.S. Congress to protect that area of northwest Wyoming and eventually declare it a national park.

Ansel Adams was another American photographer of the 20th century who raised awareness about environmentalism. Specifically, his images of California’s Sierra mountain range and Yosemite National Park helped Adams earn both a Conservation Service Award from the U.S. Department of the Interior and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

More recently, online photo-sharing platforms like Instagram have helped accelerate awareness around environmental and conservation efforts.

In 2019, on Earth Day, Canadian clothing company TenTree received Instagram’s fifth most liked post of all time after publishing a picture of a tiny tree with a caption explaining that for every 10 likes the photo gained, TenTree would plant one tree in Indonesia.

As of today, the photo has over 15 million likes.

Jessica DeWitt, a Canadian and American environmental historian and editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), says that photography has historically fostered renewed interest in attending and saving parks. While images have raised awareness, they have also created problems around untold narratives about parks’ pasts.

“The images [being] using to advertise parks are the good ones,” DeWitt said in an interview with The Pigeon. “You’re not going to get the picture of the timber industry in Algonquin Provincial Park, you’re not going to get [pictures of] the dispossessed people on the outskirts who have been kicked off the land.”

In some instances, social media has also created an excessive amount of tourism in parks. Two years ago, social media photographers were caught bugging the wildlife in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, impacting animal behaviour and even local traffic.

However, DeWitt maintains that social media is neither a good nor bad tool, but a different medium that is bringing forward a new era of the conservation movement.

Oftentimes, DeWitt said, people can be quick to turn a negative eye to social media. She believes photography and social media have helped “democratize” parks away from the control of governments and raised access to a movement riddled with an elitist and privileged past.

“It’s a democratization of access to parks,” DeWitt said. “It means that not just photographers are the ones capturing these parks and getting a broad audience, it’s also the amateur photographers, it’s our friends visiting.”

“The people themselves are also curating the ways parks are being represented.”

Since Watt first photographed the region, logging company Teal Jones clearcut over 33 football fields of old-growth forest. Photo courtesy of: TJ Watt

In November, Watt, who also co-founded the Ancient Forest Alliance in 2010, published a series of before and after images to his Instagram showing clear cut trees in the Caycuse watershed on southern Vancouver Island.

The images received over 9,000 likes and were featured in The Guardian

In April 2020, Watt visited the Caycuse watershed area and took photos alongside towering trees. When he arrived, he noticed that logging around the watershed was roughly half done and that the trees he was standing amongst were on the verge of being removed. So, for the first time in his career, Watt recorded specific measures for his before shots of the forest.

He noted how far away he stood from the trees, the lenses he used in different shots, and took reference photos from where his tripod was set up. Seven months later, when he returned, he used those measurements to chronicle the destruction of the forest.

“That was such a gut-wrenching experience,” Watt said about returning to the Caycuse watershed in a phone conversation with The Pigeon.

“After 10 or 15 years of doing this, I’ve seen, sadly, a lot of places disappear. Some hit me more than others, and that one…” he paused, searching for the thoughts that went through his mind upon seeing the forest vanish, “It was just brutal.”

The emotional impact of seeing a forest in ruins still weighs on Watt, who calls fieldwork the “unseen but all too real dark side” of his profession.

There are about 25 million hectares of old-growth forest in B.C., with over 800,000 of the hectares located on Vancouver Island, and in June it was revealed that the province had overestimated the remains of old-growth in B.C.

In September, it was reported that the B.C. government planned on protecting 353,000 hectares of old-growth forest in the province. Further, an independent review panel wrote 14 recommendations—which included deferral logging areas for trees older than 300 and 500 years old—that have yet to be implemented.

“The government, under pressure from groups like [Ancient Forest Alliance] committed to implementing all 14 recommendations, which if taken in totality would result in a paradigm shift in forestry management and old-growth protection in B.C.,” Watt said.

“But, what they say before the election, and what they do after, is always the question.”

Watt considers himself a resilient individual, but the previous year has taken a toll on him mentally. Specifically, after the Caycuse watershed series, he found himself stressed and anxious all the time, and has now reduced his work hours to watch his mental health.

“In the environmental movement, we’re often always talking about sustainability, sustainability, sustainability,” Watt said.

“But where that tends to go out the window is with people’s mental health because it’s hard not to [lose track of wellness]. It’s a slippery slope. This is a very time-constrained issue that has tangible and permanent implications on the ground every day [that] old-growth logging is allowed to continue.”

Watt knows capturing the destruction of old-growth on Vancouver Island is worthwhile, but he admits it’s taken a personal toll. Photo courtesy of: TJ Watt

Watt agrees with DeWitt that social media is neither inherently good nor bad, but insists that it’s a growing medium that can be used as a positive tool for environmental awareness.

He said powerful photography can be used on social media to visually alert people to environmental destruction, and motivate them to take political action that can help save the planet.

“We’re visual creatures. That’s how we consume things,” Watt said.

“We absolutely need the science, research, and facts to back everything up, but I feel we’re very strongly emotional creatures as well and you need that feeling to hit you, land in your chest, that inspires you to change your behaviour, speak up, or take action.”

At the end of the day, whatever the medium, Watt hopes that people seeing the images of trees in rubble or bare stumps scattered on the side of a hill will be encouraged to contact their local politicians to remind them about the issue facing these forests.

“Those before and after pictures [of the Caycuse watershed]—everyone was sharing them to their Instagram stories, like everywhere, and tagging the politicians. That’s a simple step people can do to help out.”

On the Ancient Forest Alliance website, Watt reiterates that the mission to protect B.C.’s forests can begin by implementing a science-based plan to protect endangered old-growth, working with Indigenous communities in developing land use plans, and exploring sustainable second-growth logging opportunities.

“In 10 years of doing this, I think I’m probably more hopeful than I have been in the past. We really have some commitments to hold the government to account,” Watt said.

“The first cracks have begun to form, there’s some light coming in, and now we have to keep pushing harder than ever.”

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