About Luc Forsyth
Luc Forsyth is a freelance photojournalist and writer who specializes in social and humanitarian storytelling. This is his blog, a place to share photography, writing and ideas.
You can contact Luc at firstname.lastname@example.org
Luc is a collaborating member of the Ruom Collective. Bringing together journalists, researchers, videographers, and photographers, the collective provides an opportunity to exchange and share information - providing multiple perspectives and more depth to long-term documentary projects.
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Category Archives: Writing
ABP. Always Be Planting. The rookie trainer explained this acronym to a large group of us on one of our first nights in a tree planting camp. The idea was simple – never walk more than two steps without planting a tree, otherwise we would not be maximizing our earning potential. And although we enthusiastically mocked him behind his back for the cliché motivational speech (one I’m pretty sure he borrowed from Vin Diesel in the movie Boiler Room), his words turned out to be truer than I could have imagined at the time.
I started my tree-planting career eight years ago as a student in desperate need of a summer job. A classically Canadian experience, I had known people who had known people who had planted their way through university and decided to fill out an online application – the bare minimum of effort needed to start looking for employment without actually leaving the comforts of my bedroom. During the dark winter months I all but forgot about it until I received a call telling me that I had been hired. I wonder if I might have done something differently had I known then the powerful effect tree-planting would have on the next half-decade of my life.
Having never done any sort of manual labour before, I was totally unprepared for the realities of what awaited me. I excitedly told friends about the vast quantities of money I was sure to make and spent hours shopping for outdoor gear online. After all, I was a reasonably experienced camper and was in relatively good shape, so surely all I had to do was turn up and wait for the cash.
A few months later, sitting in the large mess tent listening to the trainer deliver his Always Be Planting speech, I looked down at my feet and tried to comprehend what I had gotten myself into. It was only a few days into the contract and I had already torn the skin off the tops of all of my toes and much of the surface area of my heels. My palms were blistered, split, and bleeding. My knees and shins were crossed with a myriad of wounds, ranging from superficial scratches to semi-dangerous infected lacerations. My lower back was vigorously protesting the 50 pound loads of saplings I forced it to carry on a daily basis and I could barely get out of my tent in the morning without swallowing a fistful of painkillers. The high-tech quick-dry pants I had diligently shopped for months earlier had torn from the knee to the crotch, and my underwear and thighs were plainly visible to any who cared to look. I was completely miserable, and out of my depth both physically and mentally. The only reason I didn’t quit was the presence of two close friends from university, hired onto the same crew as me, who would have abused me without mercy for the duration of the following school year for my weakness.
The contract ended just six weeks later, our camp having planted all 7-ish million trees assigned to us. Though six weeks may sound like a short time, there was no power on earth that could have persuaded me to sign on for additional work once we were given the option to leave. I wanted a bed and a shower and a week’s worth of sleep.
I had been an average first year planter. Though I was nowhere close to matching the production numbers of the best in our camp, I was deeply relieved not to have been one of the worst, one of the “pussies”. I had done what was asked of me and came out the other side feeling decidedly manlier than at any point previously in my life. I had seen bears in the wild, slept on the ground, grown the thickest beard of my twenties, and drank beer like a lumberjack on nights off. I was in the best shape of my life and had more money in my bank account than ever before. I felt hard and tough and alive, full of youthful bravado like I had accomplished something great, even though I had been gone less than two months. I knew without a doubt that I would be back the next year.
And I did go back, every summer for the next five years. I logged more than 15 months of total nights living in a tent and planted hundreds of thousands of trees. The money, much more than I could have earned at almost any other unskilled labour job, allowed me to travel widely. I began to refer to the time in between tree planting as “the off season”. I began so many stories with “this one time, when I was treeplanting” that my non-planting friends eventually forbade me from talking about it. The experience was so immersive and engaging, not to mention profitable, that it was hard to imagine stopping.
But a string of injuries, culminating with a broken arm in my fifth season, led me to throw my planting gear on top of a bonfire and publicly announce my retirement. I left the bush behind and began to travel more seriously, moving to Asia where I began to pursue photojournalism and writing full time. But even while living abroad and visiting some of the most overwhelmingly sensory places imaginable, I don’t think a day has passed where I haven’t thought of treeplanting, even if only fleetingly. Some days it will be a fond memory, of drinking cheap lager around a fire and telling war stories about hordes of mosquitoes or massive earnings. Other days they will be “thank God I’m not treeplanting right now” memories, usually brought on by particularly nasty weather when I am deeply grateful to have a roof over my head. Terrible speech aside, that training instructor was right: in my head, probably for the rest of my life, I will Always Be Planting.
Recently I returned to Canada for the first time in several years, exhausted and emaciated from 9 months of non-stop intense work and travel. Directionless and searching for a new project, when my photography mentor (Zoriah Miller) suggested that I focus on something that I had a personal connection to and document it extensively for a long period of time, there was really only one subject that made sense. So after a frenzied email exchange, and the generous support of friends still in the industry (John Holota and Matt Hudon especially), I find myself once again going treeplanting – though I will be joining the camp in a working embed capacity, and thankfully wont actually be planting any of the trees myself.
Over the coming days, weeks, and months (probably about five of them) in the forests of northern Alberta I’ll try to get as up close and personal as possible and document the experience that influenced me, and many other young Canadians, so profoundly. It is a truly epic visual environment and one filled with intense human drama, so it promises to be an interesting few months.
I’m sure there will be a direct correlation between my level of misery and your enjoyment of the posts (this is almost always true), so at the very least you can be glad you aren’t there with me!
I could feel the burnout coming for weeks, but when it finally hit me it was so overpowering that I completely shut down in a matter of days.
A travel burnout is not a new sensation for me. Typically I crash either mentally or physically (or both) every three months or so, but this burnout was, to date, by far the most savage. It’s hard to say why this particular episode was so devastating; maybe because I have been pushing myself harder than ever before to continually produce new material, or maybe because of the strain of living on such a tight budget for so long. Maybe not seeing anyone in my family for nearly two years, or the unfortunate stress created by not seeing my girlfriend for long stretches of time finally caught up to me. Whatever the reasons, when I burnt out it came on hard and fast and without mercy.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of breaking down completely, but the word that sums it up best for me would have to be weary. Weary of everything, from eating to walking, to taking buses, to haggling over the price of a taxi. Weary of being perpetually homeless and usually fairly dirty. Weary of the endless communication problems, the high frequency of illness, the need to vigilantly watch over my possessions, and the constant lack of creature comforts. Weary of life.
It happened just as I was finishing my story about Tibetan refugees in exile in India (which will begin to appear on the site over the coming days and weeks). A pervasive and persistent feeling of malaise settled over me like a toxic cloud. Sitting in a café in Darjeeling with a friend, we started planning the logistics of a one-month visit to Nepal when I realized that I had no desire to go whatsoever.
There was no reason not to; Nepal was less than 30 km away and the costs were well within my budget. I just did not want to do it. It had nothing to do with Nepal, which I am sure is an amazing place, and one that I plan to visit sooner rather than later. But the thought of starting again in a new country and going through the exhausting process of searching for a story, recruiting local translators and gaining the trust of subjects seemed like it would break me completely. Even though I had been traveling for nearly seven months, I realized I had not actually taken a vacation in almost two years – and as anyone who travels seriously can tell you, there is a big difference between travel and vacation.
I spent a few more days in Darjeeling, thinking carefully about the next step. My biggest fear was that if I pushed any harder I would begin to hate what I was doing, and for someone still establishing himself in a very competitive industry, that seemed like a seriously bad idea. So I dropped everything, took an overnight train back to Calcutta and booked the cheapest one-way ticket to Bangkok I could find. From there I met some friends in the tiny rock climbing community of Tonsai beach and didn’t emerge for several weeks.
I dropped everything. I didn’t write, I didn’t take photos, I didn’t think about stories or grant applications or contest deadlines or the cost of repairing my 70-200mm lens. I basically thought about hammocks and fruit shakes for nearly a month. And it was glorious.
Refreshed and re-invigorated, I’m writing this from an island in Malaysia where I’m sleeping on a friend’s boat as I prepare to head slowly back to Canada where I will embed with a tree-planting camp for nearly four months to document one of the most unique jobs in the world, one that holds a special place in my heart. I’ve wanted to do this story for over five years and it’s exciting that it’s finally happening.
Over the coming weeks I’m going to post more from my project about Tibetans in exile, as well as share some of the images from the past eight months that didn’t quite fit with whatever story I was working on at the time, but are interesting nonetheless.
“Knock knock,” says my door in two gentle syllables. I roll over in my bed, the sheets so soaked with sweat there is an audible squelching sound.
“Knock knock KNOCK,” the door repeats more urgently. I know from the soft light filtering through the flowered curtains that it is morning time, and therefore on the other side of the door there will be an elderly woman holding a tray with a soggy fried egg, a banana, and a cup of instant coffee. It is breakfast time at the YMCA Yangon and from the screaming pain in every joint and muscle in my body I can tell that the dengue fever has not yet passed.
Knock knock knock. Pause. Knock knock knock knock knock. I know from experience that this will not stop. I have been to the front desk three times to request that I be taken off the breakfast list, and each time they nod earnestly and tell me it will be done. I have said the same thing directly to the women who bring the food as well, and they give me the same nod. I have been staying in the same room for a total of two weeks now and have refused the breakfast every morning but one (the first), and yet they persist.
Knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock. My head is throbbing and I slept for perhaps two hours the night before, so intense was the pain from the dengue. I attempt to say “no” as loudly as possible, but all that comes out is a pathetic guttural moan. The knocking continues with renewed vigor, the little old woman in the hallway emboldened by the sounds of life from within.
I drag myself out of the bed with herculean effort. Since I the fevered sweating began I have been sleeping naked in an effort to conserve the three pairs of underwear I currently own, so I drunkenly grope in the semi-darkness for something to cover myself. I find a towel and tie it around my waist, and then swing the door open. I know for a fact that I looked utterly insane at this moment because I looked at my reflection soon after. My hair, uncut for three months, is matted to my head in damp curls and my eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. It has also been three or four days since I’ve had enough energy to shower, so I almost certainly smell horrendous.
To her credit the woman doesn’t flinch in the slightest. She simply extends the try towards me, sad looking egg forward, and says “breakfast!”
I am furious, livid, raging. I want to scream obscenities at her at the top of my lungs and ask her what makes continue knocking after the first twenty-five go unanswered. I want to smash the tray out of her hands and slam the door in her face. But instead I say “No thank you.” Despite the fact that I have had the same interaction with this woman for approximately thirteen consecutive mornings, she looks confused. Unsure of what to do she extends the tray towards me again, hopefully.
“No thank you. Very sick. No breakfast tomorrow. No breakfast next day. Breakfast never, OK?” The fever makes it difficult to take anything more than a very shallow breath, so I have to speak in measured tones to avoid using too much air.
“OK, bye-bye!” she answers brightly and moves on to the next room, occupied by a French girl who hates the breakfast service as much as I do. This encounter will be repeated tomorrow, I have no doubt.
I close the door and take stock of my room. I have refused the cleaning staff entry since the dengue set in and things are beginning to deteriorate. The bed sheets are twisted from my fever induced squirming and the pillowcases have circular yellow stains from where my sweat has seeped into the cotton fibers. A vomit crusted waste bin sits beside my bed. Empty water bottles litter the floor, and several of them are filled with a yellowish liquid.
I started peeing into the water bottles on the second day of being ill when I lost the strength to walk down the hall to the bathroom. I stack them in rows against the wall and wait until it rains, at which point I dump them out the window onto a tin roof, and watch the rancid liquid run into the gutters.
There are empty wrappers from all sorts of strange Asian junk food items. It’s a shame, since there is so much good food to be had on the streets here, but I don’t have the energy to walk more than a hundred meters. The effort of climbing the three flights of stairs to my room leaves me gasping, and my head spinning. I am subsisting almost entirely on the kinds of foods I refuse to eat normally; I spent the whole of yesterday slowly picking at a foot-long cake, dubiously named The Strawberry Cream. It’s strange to me that I can be so sick and yet still be hungry. If someone had put a McDonald’s cheeseburger beside my bed in the night I would have eaten it for breakfast.
I have been living like this for six days now. It began very suddenly while I was out making pictures of a traditional Burmese martial art, my temperature soaring wildly over the course of an hour. I barely made it out of the taxi on the way back without throwing up. That night was a hellish combination of sweat, nausea and retching, and the second night was no better. The third morning was promising; I felt fine, if still below average, and went out for tea and lunch to celebrate my victory over what I assumed was a stomach bug. But later in the afternoon the true evil of dengue began – the physical pain. It’s as if all of my bones were trying to twist themselves apart and no bodily position, sitting or lying, offers any relief. Each breath feels like my lungs are expanding into fractured ribs. This lasted most of that day and through the night. When I woke up the next morning, I again felt fairly good, though a headache persisted. And then, by the evening, the pain returned. Up and down, peaks and hellish troughs.
This is the glamorous state of life at the moment. According to the doctors I have spoken to, both in Yangon and abroad, I could be out of commission anywhere from a week to three. This means that the trip to Burma is essentially a write off photographically as my visa expires in a week. Perhaps I will miraculously recover and get a few more days of shooting before then, but it seems unlikely I will produce anything of substance. This is extremely disappointing, obviously, but maybe an important lesson about the nature of this work. Definitely this is an exercise in patience and humility.
Note: I wrote this for three reasons, the first being that I spend so much time exposing other people’s private lives that I thought it was important to be honest about myself and my situation. Secondly, to show just how decidedly unglamorous and unromantic this experience is. The idea of some globetrotting loner, with everyday filled with adventure and exotic experiences, is so very far from reality. And thirdly, and most importantly: I have been lying in bed for more than six days now and am desperately bored.
Last year I got burned. Hard. And it has taken almost eight months to fully recover.
How or why exactly is an extremely long story, and one which I am working on telling fully – but for now I cannot do this tale the justice it deserves. In a nutshell, my best friend and I tried to have a grand adventure, and it ended in misery. We signed on as crew of a small yacht with the goal of sailing from Malaysia to Madagascar, but 3 months later we ended up stranded in the Maldives, mentally and financially broke.
This experience dealt a severe blow to my confidence, and my willingness to take risks. I thought seriously about giving up on what I wanted out of life and settling for something comfortable and secure. I convinced myself that achieving your dream life was an illusion, and that I was misguided in thinking that I could live it.
But last month I got my inspiration back. There was no catalyst, it just sort of happened one day. I am now ready to take risks again, to get what I want out of life or go down trying. Insert more motivational idioms here.
So today I put a down a hefty deposit on a photography workshop with Zoriah Miller, one of my favourite photojournalists, and someone whose work I have been following for the last 3 years. I’m not sure how I originally found him, but it was well before I had decided to pursue photography as anything more than a hobby.
What inspired me about Zoriah was not that he took amazingly moving images (which he does), but the fact that he shares the process with others. There are so many amazing people found on the internet who create wonderful things, but there is no insight into the how or the why. Zoriah’s site, however, is an in depth look at how a dedicated professional works – and, more importantly, why he is compelled to do what he does.
I am not expecting Zoriah to make me a great photographer, or to spoon feed me a photo opportunity that will get me published on the cover of Time Magazine. But its a start, and a positive one at that. There is a long road ahead, and there is no magic bullet for how to get what I want. I could get lucky and be supporting myself fully from photography by the end of next year, but I sincerely doubt it. Probably it will be a drawn out affair, developing slowly over 5 or 10 or 20 years. I am not counting on retiring any time soon.
The website, the writing, the worskhop – they are all manifestations of me trying to set myself on a track towards getting what I want. So if you read any of what I post on this blog, you don’t have to remind me that I am not a professional. My pictures are not the most moving frames you have ever seen. The material I have now is not going to change the world. I know all this. But I will get there.
If you need to hear this stuff from someone else, listen to this guy. He’s completely wired, but his words are still great. He’s high on dreams!
Himba women are red. That was my first impression driving into the small village outside of Uis, a small community in central Namibia. Their hair, their bodies, even the earth they built their villages on – all red.
During the first few weeks in Namibia, I had noticed these red women sporadically. In the gas station; walking through the aisles of the supermarkets; sitting at the side of the road. It seemed completely bizarre to see a woman of Amazonian presence, red from head to toe (including lengthy red dreadlocks), casually buying a tin of snuff from the local grocer. And while I eventually stopped gaping every time I saw them, the curiosity always remained.
So when a man stopped Brad, my traveling companion, and I on the side of a dusty road in Uis to ask us if we would like to drive out to visit one of the remaining Himba settlements in the area, we jumped at the chance. Well, in truth we initially feared a scam, but once we were told that the only payment required were some sacks of corn meal and a few kilos of sugar (no cash) we decided to take him up on his offer.
The village was an hour away, down a bumpy access road. Among the dung and thatch huts sat a large circle of women and children, all of them red. After giving them our ‘gifts’ we were given free range of the village, and spent the day trying to communicate with them through music, photos, and sign language.
The Himba are descendants of the Herero, sheep herders who were displaced from their traditional lands by an intertribal conflict. The Himba are nomadic, moving their cattle from place to place in search of grazing lands. The ‘village’ we saw was actually just a temporary camp that they would inhabit until their cows had eaten all the grass in the area. The men mind the herds during the day while the women stay in the camp to do domestic chores and prepare food.
Their striking redness is a product of ochre and fat, which the women rub on themselves and in their hair to protect themselves from the sun as they churn milk into sour yoghurt. It gives them their distinctive colour (and unforgettable smell!). From what I could see, the men were not similarly dyed, but I never found out why this was a specifically female habit.
I took a series of portraits of some of the Himba, which you can see HERE.
This is an article I wrote for a Korean magazine about Same World Same Chance. This is a writing component to what was mainly a photographic project. Click HERE to see the image gallery.
In 2006, two young Canadian university graduates, Kim Hurley and Marissa Izma, landed in Africa with vague notions of making a difference in the world. They had no clear idea of how they would do this, but after several months they found themselves in the small community of Kibombomene, Zambia.
“We just wanted to be rural because the media portrayed such a negative image of Africa and we just needed to see it for ourselves,” Says Izma. From this, Same World Same Chance was born – a completely independent, education based, community development organization.
Four years later, Izma still lives in Zambia while Mrs. Hurley has returned to Canada to raise funds. On the project site, a two-room schoolhouse, a library, staff housing, and an organic farm now stand where before there was only a diamond shaped plot of wild brush land.
In a time when people are becoming increasingly mistrustful of how NGOs spend their funding, Same World Same Chance is a prime example of how compassion and drive can still be an effective force for social change.
“I have personally seen some NGOs running in Zambia that are misusing funds, [and] it makes me angry because S.W.S.C. strives on making our priority that every cent gets spend in the best way possible,” Izma states, though she makes it clear that she has also seen a lot of money being spend in the right way.
Relocating permanently to a small village in South-Central Africa has not been easy, however. According to Izma, “The biggest challenge has been integrating into a rural community and into a culture that is so different from my own. It has been important though, because we knew that we had to immerse ourselves within the community to discover who the notable members were. We needed to know who could trust us, and who we could trust so that we could work together. Without the community of Kibombomene, the project is nothing.”
Education in Zambia, especially in rural areas, is sub-standard to say the least. While there was an existing primary school in the village before S.W.S.C.’s arrival, whether or not the teachers would show up was a daily question. When and if they did, their effectiveness (and often their sobriety) was dubious. Local children would attend this school for years under the impression that they were receiving an education that would help them further their lives. But when it came time to write the national exams, many would find that they were unable to read the questions.
Izma and Hurley hope that SWSC’s free secondary education program can be part of a solution. “We want people to graduate from here and movie into the world and create more positive change.”
But they also believe in helping Kibombomene help itself: “It’s not about graduating and leaving the community to find a better job in the city.” Besides paying the salaries of two local teachers and funding an organic farming project, SWSC has established a local manufacturing industry which now makes and sells tailored bags and blankets internationally. All proceeds from this venture are put back into the project, and therefore the community.
A health committee has been created to give free medical services to the village residents. Led by Candance Ngungu (a Canadian nurse who came to the project as a volunteer and ended up marrying a local man), the fledgling clinic will be invaluable for Kibombomene’s people, who have no real access to a hospital. In a country where AIDSand malaria are ongoing threats, having free professional medical assistance could mean the difference between life and death.
Potentially the most exciting aspect of SWSC is how ambitious it is in the scope of its long-term vision. When it reaches maturity, the project site will be home to six classrooms, a nursery, a trade school for continuing education, a boarding house for up to 200 students, a full health center, a community assembly hall, and eventually even roadside restaurants and shops so that the operation can be truly self sustaining. Staff numbers are steadily increasing, with volunteers expected from Canada, the U.S., Germany, and Japan.
Though the future looks bright for SWSC, this project remains an intense labour of love, and would not exist without the persistence and dedication of its leaders. “This isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t perfect,” says Izma, “but I never have to force myself out of bed in order to do it. That makes it all worthwhile.”
SWSC cannot exist without independent support. To donate, buy locally produced goods, or explore volunteering opportunities, visit www.sameworldsamechance.org.
Luc Forsyth is a photojournalist who spent time at the SWSC site in April 2011. To see more of his work, visit www.lucforsyth.com.