Two photos of destruction occupy my mind. They show no corpses, blood, gestures of desperation, or homes in ruins. Instead, the destruction takes the visual form of a landscape, with the reference imprinted in a surface pattern or abstraction across time. This photographic method could be even termed ‘aftermath photography’: the photos abstract from the traumatic historical events taken as subject matter. In both cases, the photographer has arrived on the site years or decades after the conflict.
In the photo by Patrik Rastenberger eucalyptus trees are planted where a natural forest once stood. Eucalyptus forests grow rapidly, and the wood is ready for harvest every 10–15 years. That makes them attractive in places such as Chile, where this photo was taken. Here, eucalyptus is an invasive species supplanting natural forests. The leaves that fall from eucalyptus trees are acidic, killing the species-rich undergrowth as they decompose. Also, they need vast amounts of water, so the area grows drier and habitats change. Such overexploitation of resources and cultivation of nonnative species at the expense of variety are among the greatest factors in erosion of biodiversity. Biodiversity involves genetic development of the species tapestry over time, into rich and resilient ecosystems, and it is often measured in the species count: 1 in this photo.
The second image was captured by photographers Sanni Seppo and Ritva Kovalainen, long-time forest activists in Finland: Photography is their main weapon against state forest policies that entail a shift from natural forests’ diversity to managed ‘fields of wood’. Their long-term projects have investigated clearcutting of natural forests and its effects at ecosystem level, in how both biodiversity and human lives suffer. Such images portray another face of climate change and habitat destruction/fragmentation: we zoom out to sterile manmade lines, stark patterns in biodiversity’s decline.
Both photos represent forests, but they do far more when read in the context of reduction of biodiversity. They are two ways of answering the question I pose of how to visualise lost diversity and richness, now replaced with a diversity-poor monotone. How can we show the absence of thousands upon thousands of species, which once inhabited these forests and composed a rich ecosystem? The invisible massacre in our environment.
The battle over knowledge and its control and distribution has become a defining development of our time. However, the question about photography is an old one: how photos visualise something that cannot be seen and, further, how we read in them something that is absent.
Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger is a Professor, Ph.D. in Exhibition Studies and Spatiality / Praxis-studies at the University of the Arts in Helsinki.
In our very first issues, we invited different people to write about an image they found memorable, under the headline ’Sinnbilde’, a column inspired by FOAM Magazine. Now, in Objektiv’s 10th year, as the ocean of images continues to swell, we’re reigniting this column online.