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  • by Denise Roberts

TJ Watt: For the Forest

“These photographs will either serve as tools

-of preservation or live on as legacies of what

-unique and astounding places we once had.

-My fingers are crossed for the first option.”

---- TJ Watt

TJ Watt offers an invitation. The invitation is not to look at the two-dimensional surface of his work but to walk in, place yourself deep within the photograph, smell the fresh, moist air, and stare up at 1000-year-old trees in one of British Columbia’s old-growth forests. Watt creates space for the viewer to enter by using leading lines from the foreground that weave the viewer through the trees and deep into these ancient forests. There is a figure in many of his images to give the work a sense of scale and to encourage viewers to see themselves in the image. There is a hyper-realism to these richly textured works, accentuated by the sharp focus and majestic light. Watt encourages us to linger over the details, as our eyes explore the textures and hues of the trees, along with the mosses, lichens, and other plants that have taken root on the surface of the bark. Looking at these photographs gives one a sense of the fertile ground that nourishes these plants and the complex ecosystem that has evolved naturally for thousands of years.

The endangered old-growth forests on Vancouver Island are some of the last remaining temperate rainforests left on Earth. Watt describes his exploration deep into British Columbia’s backwoods as transcendent. “When you walk through these forests, there is a different rhythm and a rekindling of a connection to something more primal, complex, magical,” he says.

“I’m always amazed by the scale; trees the size of your living room, everything is draped with mosses. It’s like stepping into another world. It’s peaceful and humbling.” One of Watt’s goals is to capture the scale and serenity of the forest and bring it back so that others can appreciate the forest’s beauty and complexity. “If I can’t physically take someone there, then the next best thing is to allow them to step into the scene through the window of a photograph. You are much more likely to stand up and try to protect a special place if you can sense it, feel it, and develop an emotional connection with it,” Watt claims.

British Columbia’s old-growth forests are under threat. Watt uses existing satellite imagery to understand the impact of logging, farming, and urbanization. “According to 2006 data, approximately 75 percent of Vancouver Island’s productive old-growth forests have been logged, including 90 percent of the valley bottoms where the biggest trees grow and the richest biodiversity is found,” he explains.

The Upper Walbran Valley is home to some of the finest remaining stands of endangered old-growth red cedar in British Columbia. Footpaths wind through the most magnificent ancient forests. But the forest is far from safe, and Watt states that “active logging is taking place nearby.” Logging the last remnants of old-growth habitat has implications for science, medicine, and countless species of animals and insects, not all of which are known. Watt uses photography as a way of mapping and recording how plant and animal species rely on these areas for survival.

Watt also uses photography to educate viewers about nature’s life cycle. He points out that a forest contains a continuous circle of life. “The big cedar has broken off and died, and its hollow stump can provide shelter for animals like cougars, wolves, deer, and bears. The log will also store large amounts of water in the dry summer months, which helps new trees to sprout,” he says. Watt also points out some of the misconceptions about the forest: “It’s a human bias that if we don’t use the tree for lumber then it just goes to waste, when in fact, the tree continues to play an important role for plants and animals even when it dies.”

Watt is a co-founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance, a grassroots environmental organization working to protect British Columbia’s endangered old-growth forests and forestry jobs. Some of his photographs tell the story of the destruction and devastation that is occurring in the ancient rainforests he is trying to protect. He uses photography as a way to educate, inform, and inspire governments and citizens to act.

Surprisingly, Watt is not entirely against logging. However, he wants a re-examination of logging practices and government protection of ancient forests. Currently, only about 6 percent of the Island’s original productive old-growth forests are protected within parks, and he would like to see this number increase. “There is an inevitable transition to logging second-growth forests as the old-growth runs out. We desperately need to protect what little we have left to ensure the survival of endangered species, fight climate change, and for the simple fact that these are some of the most magnificent ecosystems in the world” he suggests.

According to Watt, “Old-growth forests support a larger diversity of plant and animal species, whereas the much younger and simpler second-growth tree plantations typically lack a complex ecological structure.” For example, “Old-growth forests have trees of all ages, anywhere from one day old to possibly more than a thousand years old, which creates a multi-layered canopy. As older trees die and fall over, it allows more light to reach the forest floor and nourish plants, whereas the even-aged second growth stands block out much of the light, allowing fewer plants to grow.”

Watt uses photographic comparisons to illustrate his point: “You see a significant difference between a forest that’s been evolving for thousands of years and a tree plantation. These photographs will either serve as tools of preservation or live on as legacies of what unique and astounding places we once had. My fingers are crossed for the first option.”

We featured TJ WATT and this article in our FALL 2011: Our Changing Planet – Issue 32. If you’re looking for eco photography inspiration, you can find it HERE.

Check out what TJ Watt has been up to lately at:

To learn more about the Ancient Forest Alliance, go to

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