When the Anne Fontaine Foundation approached me to donate an image to help raise awareness on the destruction of the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest) on the Brazilian Atlantic Coast, I immediately said yes. Surprisingly, when I went through my archives to choose the image, I was disappointed to not find a photo with a tree as the protagonist. I had done SKIN, an entire body of work focusing on the human figure in harmony with nature, and I could not find the right photo for this project - that was hard to admit!
I decided to start from scratch and create a new image. When I began brainstorming about the concept, I knew that I wanted to focus on what I call “the fragility of life”, a subject that I had explored in my last 3 projects. I aimed for the image to be realistic and dramatic, yet poetic and dreamy as well. I also wanted to highlight the duality between love and suffering, because people need trees but they destroy forests every day, forgetting that trees are one of the main elements that keep humans alive. To visually translate my thoughts and create an image that would make audiences think, I used symbolism, as I often do in my work.
While visiting the Brooklyn Botanical Garden many years ago, I had noticed a beautiful weeping beech tree with its bark entirely covered in inscriptions. They were mainly names of people and hearts, engraved by lovers eager to leave a trace of their infatuation for someone else to see. Ironically, for me, this was the ultimate physical representation of what love and suffering is and somehow also a metaphoric depiction of our real relationship with trees. This illustrates, in a smaller scale, what is happening with the great forests around the world. We are tearing apart essential forests, ruining them for ourselves as well as a number of other living species. In addition to that, our uncontrolled waste is destroying the rest of the planet. Non-recycling products, such as plastic bags, are contaminating the environment and the oceans at great speed. We are not taking enough efficient measures about it, and it is extremely sad and drastic.
To finish this introduction on a positive note, here is what happened when I took the photo of “The tree of love”. I decided to go to the park without my assistant, as I found nature very relaxing and meditative. It was a good occasion to reenergize in a beautiful environment, away from the city’s turmoil. When I found the tree, its dimensions and majestic look struck a note with me again. First, I walked around it to find what would be the best angle for my photograph. It was quite windy that day, so I ended up spending a great deal of time trying to get the right shot, because the plastic bag was flying away. Without help, I had to go back and forth from my camera to the tree to place the bag to the right spot. Each time, I was getting closer to the tree, I couldn’t avoid looking up and admiring how gigantic it was. When touching its scars with my hands, I was shocked how severe and deep they were. Throughout all these years it had been unjustly wounded and scarified by so many individuals and I could now somehow feel the suffering it had to undergo. I was starting to feel so much respect and empathy for this giant who had been standing here quiet and proud for so long. I felt that I was no longer taking a photograph of a tree, but instead a portrait of a person. A person with a face, with a skin, with a real story, which spanned generations—alive for longer than any human had lived.
All of the sudden, a group of a dozen frisky kids broke the peaceful environment and rushed to the tree to climb all over him. I froze, as my new friend was unfairly harassed before my eyes. He was helpless and I did not know what to do. I love children and thought that I was probably doing the same fun things when I was their age. Luckily, not long after, a gardener came over and saved the poor giant from this mayhem. He told the youngsters that the tree was alive and that it was bad for him to have anyone climbing on his branches. When they were gone, he looks at me and asked if I didn’t mind explaining the same thing if more children were trying to climb. By the way he worded his request, I could really feel that the man was also somehow considering the giant as a person. I understood that if you spent enough time with the tree and care about him, you could then feel his soul and even become friends. This was a very powerful connection between a human and nature.
The experience was definitely unforgettable and made me strongly believe again how important it is to teach people this appreciation. Awareness is key, because it is easy to make mistakes and take things for granted, therefore spreading the word is everyone’s duty. And if we do so, there are great chances that things will get better. Protecting Mother Nature can be achieved if we all make an effort to respect her. Let’s work on it together, not tomorrow but now!