News > “ I Want To Go Where the Big Trees Are” interview: Lauren Oakes

[2004-04-12] “ I Want To Go Where the Big Trees Are” interview: Lauren Oakes

“I don’t even know how we got there. We took a bus to this crazy burned forest; it was like being in a national park, what you would imagine of beauty and grandeur—that big—but it was all burned. Burned some 40 years ago so they could illegally harvest the redwood in there. We got to this place, and my boyfriend finally said, ‘I get it now. It makes sense now. I wasn’t quite sure what you have been chasing, but this is insane.’”

In the winter of 2002, Lauren Oakes traveled to the Valdivian Rainforest in Chile, South America to research and document the destruction of old growth Alerce trees by an expanding timber industry. She came back with a series of photographs accompanied by personal and factual essays, entitled The Life of the Land. This project displays the visual aspects of this story, while exploring the relationship between man and land, nature and destruction. It became, “…a story of the many life dimensions to this land, its challenges, transformations, and perhaps our memories.”

Lauren Oakes is a senior at Brown University, concentrating in Environmental Science and Visual Art. Her father introduced her to photography at an early age, and her passion for conservation and the outdoors grew from a personal connection with nature, and the desire to move beyond her upbringing in Stamford, Connecticut. Oakes has lived on a Blackfoot Reservation in Montana, helped construct bridges in Alaska, worked with the Student Conservation Association (SEA) in South Dakota, and maintained trails in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She has also traveled to Surinam in South America with the Albert Shweitzer Institute, to transport medical supplies, visit orphanages, and explore the rainforest. It is this movement between diverse landscapes, economic situations, and cultures, that has informed the unique role of environment in Oakes’s work.

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How did your initial expectations change as you traveled throughout Chile?

I thought it was going to be hard to find the trees that were cut down, and it was to an extent, but what ended up being much harder was finding the old growth trees that were still standing. When I did find them, that’s actually when the rainy season started. It was ironic because I eventually ended up in a forest of old growth and got rained out of making any pictures. “Finally I’m actually seeing one of these trees alive! I’m actually looking at one of them”—I had been looking for them for two months, and I just couldn’t photograph because of the rain.

That was my impression coming down to Chile-- that I was going to have to be searching for these places where the trees had been cut down, and where there was deforestation, but it turned out to be the total opposite. It was impossible to find out where they actually were, where the old growth was still alive and preserved. “I want to go where the big trees are,” that was always my line, “show me the big trees.”

In one of your essays you wrote about a man on a bus who said that the people passing didn’t think anything of the land. Did you find this to be a common response to the destruction?

I found it to be mixed. People in the larger cities, I felt like they knew—except for in Santiago. In Santiago they had this romantic vision like “the south is beautiful, everything is so preserved,” and that’s not the case. It is beautiful, and you do love it, but there are parts that aren’t very well preserved at all. Santiago is different than most cities in that, though. In the other towns in the area where I was shooting there were a lot of murals, which are some of the photos in my essay. On the way into the towns they have murals about the history of that town or that area, and in all of them I would find murals that included some part of destroying the forest that was there. Also, in the cities I would hear comments about the industry infringing on them, and about the wood chips…but in some of the more remote areas I got to, it wasn’t the same. I think it was because, well, I saw a good amount of illegal logging that went on in remote areas by small farming families. I saw this one guy with an ox pulling redwood out of a forest. He lived in the middle of nowhere, and was probably just trying to feed his family.

Tell me a little about the process surrounding the shooting of the Alerce photos? How did you go about constructing the images?

It was really intense because I was shooting for weeks on end without seeing anything at all, any products. They were all undeveloped rolls of film, and the pictures were all in my head. I have journals that I wrote with tons of information. Every time I took a picture all the stuff I had learned was informing what I wanted to capture; so they were ‘loaded’ in that way. I want to go back to create something larger, a more comprehensive form of environmental documentation, you know a picture can only say so much.

I would also draw a lot. I drew maps because there wasn’t any way to know what images would look like next to one another, what they meant. I was trying to figure out and perhaps still am-- what it meant to see the chopped trunk of a huge tree six feet wide in diameter one day, then the next day see a plot of newly planted Eucalyptus trees. All that stuff I was trying to figure out, so I would draw things. Did I want to compare them visually and shoot everything from above, show these different trunks? So I have stuff like that, where I shot different trunks, the different types of primary growth clear-cut or harvested secondary growth. I think I had four or five different plans that I wanted to shoot, or ideas as distinct ways to approach it. Every time I found a new location to shoot I would make sure I included each one of those styles or ideas in the shooting I did there. That’s why so much editing went on—because there were so many different ways that I shot.

Are you still editing?

I am pleased with the photos I ended up with, but I feel there is still so much more to the story that is in my head that I want to put together. I feel like the pictures that I have are nothing compared to what I could make if I went back now, because my technical skills have gotten so much better. I now like to shoot large format, which is much more traditional in landscape photography, and I have much better control of lighting, exposure and development. I have a better idea of what it is that I want because I’ve had so much time to think about it. I needed to close the book on the negatives I have, even though it is tempting to look through them.

What else will you do differently if you go back?

Well, I would be a lot more confident in myself in terms of believing that I had the shots. My eagerness to see the actual negatives developed got me into a bit of a mess down there. I had shot some thirty rolls that I would keep in a fanny pack, because I was worried that my backpack would get stolen. I thought, “If my pack gets stolen, the only thing I need to survive is my film and my passport.” So I had this pouch of film that stayed with me at all times.

I had all this film and I wanted to make sure I was getting the shots I thought I was getting, so I took a 20 hour bus ride back up to Santiago to find the best processing place there. I took them two rolls of film, the way your supposed to do it—two rolls I didn’t really care about—and I had them developed for a test. When the first two rolls came out great, I gave them the rest of my film, and picked it up a week later. They were okay, but three or four rolls were completely over developed. I didn’t realize it because there were so many rolls, but that night I took them back to my hostel and stayed up with a flashlight looking at everything. All of the sudden at two in the morning I realized that some of them were really messed up, and I totally freaked out! I then realized that there was some kind of residue on the film, like they used powder chemicals that were mixed all the way to saturation or maybe there were minerals in the water that dried on the film. So I went back to the shop first thing the next morning and here I am speaking Spanish, “Help me, what did you guys do to these, tell me what’s wrong, just please tell me what chemicals you used and if they are fixed well? Did you wash them?”—They wouldn’t answer much at all, except to say that they’d rewash them all for me if I wanted. No way did I trust them then. Luckily, through a friend of a friend, I ended up tracking down a photographer in Santiago who let me into her home, and for three days straight we washed and re-fixed and re-washed all of my negatives. We had to go out and buy about ten gallons of pure water because the water was loaded with minerals—it was a disaster!

So what ended up happening with those negatives?

Those three rolls that were over developed, those were gone. But I had shot about 30 rolls, and what ended up happening is I learned a couple of things: I learned that because I had been shooting in such different light the whole time, in so many different locations, to make the photos look consistent in a darkroom even had they been perfect, would have been a challenge. Good zone photographers process film for what they want, exact processing for exact exposure, for that one picture. That’s not what I was doing at all. I realized that I had to print these pictures digitally, though I didn’t know anything about digital at all. So I came back that year and learned everything from scratch. I spent three months learning the tools; high resolution scanning, Photoshop, outputting all of it—loosing sleep just messing with the files, trying to make them work. You know, I was so invested in the project I just wanted to do whatever it took to make them work. The problem is I just needed the confidence to think ‘I’m getting the shots.’ So I’ll make sure I have that when I go back: the ability to know I have the makings of the image I want when I choose the moment to open the shutter.

Lauren Oakes is a Senior in Visual Arts & Environmental Studies at Brown University

Catherine Foulkrod is a Senoir in Art Semiotics at Brown University