The plight of our envirmonment has become more and more prominent in our daily lives as we have seen the impact that global warming and deforstation has had on our planet. But for many, documenting this has not just become a passion but has been a lifestyle.
One of these came in the form of prominent artist Ali Shokri. Born in Tabriz, Iran, Shokri spent the last 16 years working on a project called The Tree. Throughout this extensive period, he has visually documented and captured the plight of our trees and the impact that our pollution and consumerism has had on it.
When commenting on this project, Ali Shokri commented: “To me, each tree, like a human being, has a tale to tell. When a tree dies, a whole story is interrupted, a destiny is altered for the worse. I feel as if the trees, bundled at the back of trucks, are cursing us with their broken hands, wounded faces, and severed roots. Perhaps this is how we are led towards damnation, little by little stripped of our humanity when man’s “abounding foliage moistened with the dew” is reduced to ash and smoke.”
We sat down with the artist to discuss, his passion, career highlights and his extensive body of work.
How did your love for photography start?
When I was a little kid, I absolutely loved to be surrounded by nature, whether it was standing on rocks or climbing the trees. As I was so curious, I did some dangerous stuff that I only now understand just how dangerous they were! Perhaps I didn’t notice the danger or I was just that bold. But, my adventures always paid off as I continually came back with great stories to tell my older sister. But of course, being able to capture these moments forever would become my new way of re-telling these stories.
Thankfully, after a few years, I could finally buy a camera. I wanted to record what I saw in nature. Especially when I went to my ancestral homeland. I really wanted to bring back some photos and show them to my family. So, I started to photograph my passions. Funnily enough, even back then I knew that I will one day be a nature photographer. Simply put, I was in love with nature. This sensibility is something that I very much inherited from my father. My father also loved nature and trees in particular. It is from there where everything really started.
What made you choose landscape and nature photography and not venturing into other subjects?
What has kept me in the same subject for so many years has to be that same love of nature. From the moment I held the camera in my hands, I just felt that I had to be in a forest, on mountains and to capture these amazing spaces forever.
I had an indescribable feeling when I took my camera and walked through the fields or between the trees in the forest. A deep sense that can’t be put into words. That’s why I decided to continue to work with trees, I never get unsatisfied by them and my continuance love for them is still growing day by day. I hope to continue with this subject, with the same feeling for decades to come.
How did you start the 16 years trees photography project and why did you choose trees above all other elements of nature?
Actually, the subject of trees doesn’t just represent a tree for me. For me, and my family, trees are a very important element in the natural world. To me, it represents growth, beauty and living as a whole. When my father would come home from work, before he saw his children, he took care of trees, looked for branches and if a branch was broken he even blamed us. That’s why I felt so strongly about trees. I felt that, like my father, I need to protect trees, so I did and will continue to do.
Trees always have a way of reintroducing them as a subject to me. I always find something new, be it discovering a new species of tree, new places in which to find them, the way they make me feel and so on. In some conditions, I saw them sad, uncomfortable and even oppressed. Sometimes I saw them failed, afflicted, it is as if at times they want to say something or send a message. I saw some of them in love, sometimes they stand solitary amongst crowds. So, I am always looking for a message. To have a deeper connection with trees, and as time has passed, I know more and become even more connected to trees.
In regards to your body of work, mostly to highlight the deforestations and the plight of the trees, what would you want the result of it to be?
Throughout the course of my life, I have visited many woods and gardens. Today when I go to the same places, I see many of trees are cut, broken or simply do not exist anymore. Instead of gardens, there are houses with fences and there is no reminiscence of my childhood. I hope when people look at my photos, they will start to think again about trees and how we can protect them for our children. I hope we save the same trees for our children, to climb up, play under, make memories around and most importantly to be healthy and be able to breathe healthy air.
Having documented the change in nature for so many years, do you have hope that we as humans can still turn it around?
Nature has been so damaged. I marginally have hope that it can be turned around. It’s like a human that has had to fight so many illnesses and has become old and frail. The devastation has been so noticeable that it almost seems as if we have deliberately tried to ruin nature. We have aged our environment. If I am honest, I do not believe we can go back to where it was. It’s too late. But, we can stop damaging and we can try to slowly rebuild something we not only destroyed but desperately need to survive.
You were a TED talk speaker in Baku, how did this come about and what did you take away from it?
It was 2010. I was sitting at home, editing photos, when I received an email saying that they wanted to host a talk in Baku. The idea of speaking posed a bit of a challenge as I was not fluent in Azerbaijani at the time. But, as I was speaking about my passion, trees, I decided to take the plunge and just go for it!
When I was there, I found myself so calm, almost as if I was back in the woods. I simply closed my eyes and let my heart speak. I simply said what trees wanted and needed to say. I talked about their oppression, their plight and their fight for survival. I spoke about the destruction that we human have brought on to them and their environment. My hope was that at least those who sat there would start to see trees with affection when they went back to their daily lives.
What I took away as a TED talk speaker was the friends that I met there. They have been encouraging me to continue with my plight and to spread the word. Following this experience, I returned to my home with so much energy and with a much greater resolve to continue my project – the Passion of Trees.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
The highlight has to be when was my book The Passion of Trees was published by Matador publishing in UK. For me, it was so important, because I could finally say to the world “Trees are treasures. We have to value them.”
Has COVID affected your work in any way, either negatively or even positively?
In a way, I have always anticipated something like COVID-19. When we damage trees, we damage nature, and it won’t sit idly by. I believe that whenever we tamper with the balance of nature, things always start going wrong. We have to be more cautious. If our nature hurt, we hurt too. I think that COVID-19 has brought with it a good massage. It shocked people and sent a message: let’s back to nature, stop the destruction we brought on and let’s restore life as it should be.
For someone whose dream it is to make a living as a photographer, what advice would you give?
For someone who wants to be a photographer I have to say, a photographer must have perception, be energetic and a keen eye.
I suggest for those who want to become a photographer, to read poems, novels and see great movies. We have eyes, ears, hands, we have everything. Only once we bring all of our senses together, we make good art.