When walking in dense, ancient woodland, most people have the same feeling. There is silence and safety.
Contrast the experience of entering a ‘clear cut’ area of woodland, as increasingly found in Sweden’s forests – and many other places around the world. After clear cutting, forests are flung apart, ripped from the ground, and scattered. The earth and any visitor standing on it is left with little but churned soil and an indifferent, open sky.
Some have conjured even more disturbing visions. “Many people who come here from Germany and France say they are reminded of the devastation of Chernobyl,” reports photojournalist, Marcus Westberg. “These are places which are completely devastated and devoid of meaningful life. And they are all around us, growing in number every day.”
Marcus, who works for numerous NGOs and publications and also counts multiple photography awards to his name, has supported many environmental campaigns over the years. So, after working on assignments for others, it was perhaps inevitable that one day, he’d set one for himself. Now determined to tell the story of Sweden’s unrelenting deforestation, Marcus explains this current project as “the only ‘personal’ photography project I've ever had, and one that I've been coming back to for over three years.”
“My wife is German, I’m Swedish, but we live in Portugal. Just before the pandemic, I decided to take her up north in Sweden to see the Northern Lights. Of course, we had terrible luck with cloud cover. But we took snowmobile tours through a couple of forested areas and met people and guides who spoke about deforestation, plantations and the loss of forest biodiversity. It had quite the impact.”
It’s easy to swallow the line that Sweden is the greenest and most sustainable country in the world,” Marcus continues. “But when you see industrial deforestation in real life, it opens your eyes to the reality of it and from then on, it’s impossible to ignore. The big issue is not really growing trees and chopping them down, it’s the destruction of intact forest ecosystems and replacing them with new trees – which are in turn chopped down as soon as they reach maturity.”
Now, says Marcus, there is hardly any of the ancient forest left, especially outside national parks. With the vast majority of the wood destined, not for ‘long life’ products like timber, but for single use paper and biofuel, “it’s only a green industry if you’re talking about the colour of the trees,” Marcus explains. “And this is especially true when considering how trees capture and store carbon. On the top level, if you burn the trees, carbon gets released – and even if you then plant new ones, they’ll take time for them to grow large enough to capture carbon from the atmosphere to the same degree.”
“The even bigger problem associated with clear cutting is below ground. The process literally ploughs the roots out of the earth – and in forests like those in Canada, Sweden and Finland, the vast majority of the carbon is in those roots and mycelia. A 10-year-old pine plantation, or even a 100-year old one, can’t make up for that historic capture, and it means that the forestry industry is by far the biggest carbon emitter in the entire country – yet they count as carbon neutral, because they get to count every standing tree in benefit!”
The loss of older forests and the reliance on plantations to fill the gaps affects the entire ecosystem in these places, Marcus reports, and while the public tend to concentrate on large mammals and birds, these aren’t the species most at risk – initially at least.
“The main difference between a healthy forest ecosystem and that of a new plantation is that all the trees are the same age, and you don’t have a lot of dead wood lying around,” he explains. “In a natural forest, you have trees at every stage of life; saplings, mature trees, those that are standing but dying, and those which have fallen and are rotting. A dead pine or spruce can provide food for lichen, fungus and insects for hundreds of years, and that life is at the base of our food chain.”
Working with Sony Alpha, Marcus’s photography is capturing the situation in an honest way and helping create consciousness of the dangers of clear cutting and industrialised logging. It’s also presenting a counterpoint to the narrative of big business. “The forestry industry in Sweden is comparable to big oil or big tobacco in the way they run very smart campaigns,” he explains. “For a long time, there was one called ‘the Swedish forest,’ with beautiful photographs at bus stations in the bigger cities, showing a healthy forest surrounding one tree stump. On that stump were products and there was a caption explaining ‘forests are the sustainable alternative to oil and plastic.’ It’s a complete lie. Less than 3% of logging in Sweden isn’t clear cutting. My pictures tell the story of the other 97%.”
“It took me a while to figure out how to depict the scale of the destruction in the right way,” he continues, “because shooting from the ground, you don't really get a sense of the scale of the areas involved. And from the air you’re somewhat detached from the devastation and miss out on the ground level scale. Some of the tracks made by the clear cutting machines are bigger than I am! You have to climb through them.”
For Marcus, there is no doubt that photography is making a difference. Armed with his Sony Alpha 1 bodies and lightweight but fast zooms and primes, Marcus is able to capture the hidden clear cuts he finds on hikes away from the main roads, and his pictures have found their way into mainstream media, helping shed light on the problem and showing the duplicity in government and industry messaging.
“When I thought about photography as a tool for change in this fight, it was clear to me that it needed to do more than just be unique or aesthetically pleasing. That’s helpful for winning competitions – and some of these clear cutting images have raised awareness that way – but it’s highlighting the collective threat that truly matters. I also wanted to ensure that the images were useful to the people and organisations dedicated to protecting our forests.” Today, many Swedish NGOs are making use of his clear cutting images, and at a recent EU conference about forestry practices, thirty large prints were exhibited outside the meeting space.
“It’s only through a combination of dozens of images that it is possible to show the full extent of what’s happening,” Marcus continues. “It’s not a story you can tell with one or two photos, because the effect is so widespread. Besides, the more we can show, the more difficult it becomes for the industry or politicians to explain away what they're seeing as aberrations. This is happening everywhere.”
“Switching to Sony Alpha at the early stages of this project was hugely helpful, particularly as I often work in low light but still need high resolution images in order to make large prints. So, working with Sony Alpha 1 bodies was a no-brainer. Small, lightweight and silent doesn’t hurt, either, when you don’t necessarily want to be seen or heard.”
“And, while some of the shots are eye catching examples – like the not-so-subtle irony of a floorless bird box left on a dead stump, and the ‘nature conservation’ ribbons that the loggers leave on lone trees to show they’re in line with deforestation limits – for the most part, I’m interested in making a volume of images that can convince the public of the peril we are facing. Like a healthy forest, both the number and the variety of images is what’s important.
“There are people who have dedicated their lives to protecting Sweden’s forests. I am a relative newcomer, and I am reluctant to take credit for the tireless efforts of others. Nevertheless, this is the closest I've ever come to feeling convinced that my images really are helping to make a tangible difference,” Marcus concludes.