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Self-described dirtbag photographer Steve Pearce and canopy scientist Dr Jen Sanger travel the world as The Tree Projects. Together they climb and document the world’s largest trees through an ingenious system of suspended cameras.

Words by Max Olijnyk

Photography by Jen Sanger & Steve Pearce

Steve Pearce was the wildest housemate I’ve ever had. He was an amazing skater and a great mate, but had a tendency to take things a bit far on a regular basis. I remember walking out of my room for a glass of water one morning to find him in our kitchen sitting astride my bike, screaming and swinging a running garden hose above his head.

These days, Steve climbs huge trees and takes amazing portraits of them with his wife, canopy scientist Dr. Jen Sanger, under the name The Tree Projects. I caught up with him recently and found him just as energetic as all those years ago, but with a focus for it all.

The Trees Project© The Tree Projects. Eucalyptus regnans in sunrise mist, Styx Valley, Tasmania.

Max:

What do you do?

Steve:

Our main product is giant tree portraits taken using complicated rigging that suspends cameras in place between trees. We use those photos as a guide to show people how big trees are.
Everybody is the same; they look up at a big tree and they see the exact same thing: a big tall trunk and the first branch, and they go, ‘Wow, that’s huge’. But the trees are always so much bigger than you can imagine, so our goal is to reveal that, then use the power of that image to promote conservation and science as a legitimate way to spend one’s life.

Max:

What led you to starting The Tree Projects?

Steve:

Jen and I have known each other for about eight years – we met bushwalking in Tasmania. We were both fist-shaking hippies, trying to make change by blockading and stuff like that, but it wasn’t leading to a happy life. This is a way for us to do something for the environment that fits in well with our skillsets.

The Trees Project© The Tree Projects. Tasmania tree portrait.

“A lot of photographers take photos for other photographers – you know, great composition and all that. But what’s the message, what are you talking about?”

Max:

How did you devise the technical aspect?

Steve:

A photographer named Michael Nichols did redwood and sequoia portraits for National Geographic in 2009 and 2012, and there was a fellow before him named James Balog who did giant redwood portraits using field cameras back in 2002. It was basically multiple cameras side by side, as if you’re scanning a tree top to bottom. We worked out how to do it with good old Aussie ingenuity and a dirtbag approach to some complicated problems.

Max:

How do you choose your subjects?

Steve:

It varies – we’ve photographed trees in New Zealand, Tasmania, Taiwan and the United States – wherever the wind takes us. If someone contacts us and wants to make it relatively easy for us to come and shoot a tree, then we’re there for sure. Nothing will stop us apart from our own financial limitations.

The Trees Project© The Tree Projects. Taiwan tree portrait.

“I’m not a fan of anthropomorphising trees, but you do end up saying things like, ‘This eucalypt is a bit of dick. He doesn’t like me’”

Max:

What is the optimal way to view the images?

Steve:

Museum exhibitions are the best, because it has the most impact. We had something like 300,000 visitors through our Tasmanian exhibition at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery over a summer. The internet’s a great way to engage with a really broad audience in a casual way, but in a museum setting you can communicate more in-depth.

Max:

How large are the prints you exhibit?

Steve:

No more than two-metres high, because the whole purpose of doing what we do is to remove the perspective. We could print them twenty metres high if we wanted, but then you’re just reintroducing the same problem of having to look up and losing the sense of one-on-one scale.

Max:

It’s cool, almost like looking at a tree as a person.

Steve:

Well, once you’ve climbed into enough trees, you get to know their individual characters. I’m not a fan of anthropomorphising trees, but you do end up saying things like, ‘This eucalypt is a bit of dick. He doesn’t like me,’ and you’re scared all the time while you’re up there. Other trees are really amicable to climb, and the impression you get is like, ‘Wow, they really get the vibe’.

© The Tree Projects. Yoav Bar-Ness climbing near summit.

Max:

Have you had many hair-raising moments on a climb?

Steve:

After a while you begin to understand the dos and don’ts. The main one is, if you don’t feel good about it, don’t go up the tree. We operate very slowly, so we don’t push limits and have accidents. As a normal human being suspended by what is essentially a bit of string 80 metres off the ground, it’s always kind of terrifying, but overcoming that fear is part of the experience.

Max:

How long is the process of photographing a tree?

Steve:

The shortest time we’ve taken is three days. Finding the tree is the hardest part. It’s not just the subject tree you’ve got to look for, it’s the situation around it. You need a clear line of sight in a vertical column that you can fit your camera on, then this magical tree to hold that line up. It’s all got to line up perfectly.

The Trees Project© The Tree Projects. Dan Haley and the long ascent.

Max:

Could you use a drone?

Steve:

If someone wants to pay for a professional drone and a pilot who’s happy to fly through a very tightly packed forest environment where GPS signals are very bad, then go through the permitting, we’re happy to use it. Also, what we’re looking for is not photo but the photo. There is an element of waiting for the right moment that our process allows.

Max:

What are your plans for the future?

Steve:

We’ve just bought a van we’re going to fix up then drive out to Western Australia to photograph some big trees over there for a few months. Our other targets are China and Borneo. Another dream goal is that once we have ten or twelve trees, to get these trees projected on buildings down an esplanade in a city at the trees’ natural scale.

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Max Olijnyk

Max Olijnyk is a Wellington-based writer, editor, photographer and ageing skateboarder. His work has appeared in Acclaim, The Age, Broadsheet, Monster Children, Smith Journal, Turbine Kapohau and Vice. His first book Some Stories was released in 2016. He also makes really good jeans and bread.