Underwater logging in Panama

Underwater logging in Panama” is a work that took me almost all 2013 to complete. I did a first shooting session of about 15 days in March to get the first batch of pictures, then another session in October to set up the resulting exhibition (at the Alliance Française du Panama) and shoot some more pictures, in hope of continuing the work…

Underwater logging in Panama(Les bûcherons aquatiques du lac Bayano au Panama)” m’a occupé une bonne partie de 2013. La première session d’une quinzaine de jour en mars m’a donné de quoi produire une exposition à l’Alliance Française du Panama en octobre, j’en ai profité pour retourner sur le lac pour une deuxième session, dans l’espoir de continuer ce travail…

Official press release of the exhibition, October 2014: “This exhibition presents Canadian company CoastEcoTimber’s work salvaging dead (but still standing) trees in Lake Bayano, in northeast Panama. This 350 square-km man-made reservoir takes its namesake from the 16th century runaway slave Bayano and provides 10% of the Panama’s energy demand through the country’s second-largest hydroelectric plant operated by AES. French-born photographer Arnaud De Grave worked and lived with the diver-loggers for two weeks, sharing their daily activities on and under the water. Arnaud’s work illustrates some important aspects of CoastEcoTimber’s efforts in the environmental, social and ethical aspects of forestry certification. The photographer’s modus operandi is inspired by ethnographic photo-reporters and is based entirely on analogue photography developed and printed by hand in a darkroom.” The pictures presented here are desaturated digital shots of the actual fiber paper prints (30x40cm) of the exhibition.

An article was written and published in the newsletter of the Faculty of Forestry at UBC Vancouver, issue 25#2, summer 2014. It can be read and downloaded on the Branchlines’page at the website of the faculty [direct link to the pdf]. The text is reproduced at the bottom of this page together with some pictures of the exhibition at the Alliance Française du Panama.

Arnaud would like to thank everyone who, one way or the other, helped him for this project.

Cette exposition présente le travail de la compagnie canadienne CoastEcoTimber dans leurs action pour récolter les arbres morts (mais toujours sur pied) dans le lac Bayano, au nord-est du Panama. Ce lac de 350km-carrés doit son nom à un esclave qui s’est évadé au 16ème siècle. Il a été en créé en 1976 comme réservoir pour un barrage hydroélectrique, maintenant géré par la compagnie EAS il est responsable de 10% de la production électrique du pays. Arnaud De Grave a travaillé et vécu avec les plongeurs-bucherons pendant deux semaines, partageant leurs activités quotidiennes sur et sous l’eau. Son travail illustre certains des aspects importants des efforts de CoastEcoTimber dans les domaines de la certification de l’industrie du bois : l’environnement, le social et l’éthique. Son travail photographique est inspiré par le photo-reportage ethnographique et les photographies sont issues d’une chaine entièrement analogue : depuis la prise de vue avec du négatif noir et blanc, en passant par le développement et le tirage en chambre noire. Les photos ici présentées sont des photographies digitales dé-saturées des tirages (30x40cm papier baryté) de l’exposition.

En bas de page vous pouvez trouver le texte d’un article publié dans Branchlinesle magazine de la Faculté de Foresterie de UBC Vancouver ainsi que quelques photos de l’exposition à l’Alliance Française du Panama.

Arnaud voudrait remercier toutes les personnes qui ont facilité d’une manière ou d’une autre la réalisation de ce projet.

UBC Vancouver, Faculty of Forestry’s Branchlines

volume 25#2, page 9

“I have to admit I knew nothing about underwater logging before my photo trip to Panama. However, I had done some homework before stepping onto a barge on Lake Bayano with a group of divers/loggers and their massive chainsaws. My experience tells me that it is better to arrive with a fresh and open mind rather than with pre-conceived expectations. The project required 2 trips to Panama. In March 2013 I spent 2 weeks taking photographs and 6 months later I returned to present my work in a photo exhibition at the Alliance Française du Panama.

Lake (Lago) Bayano was created over 75 years ago during the construction of a hydro-electric dam. The 353 km² lake became the second largest artificial lake in the world, second only to Lago Gatun, famous for the Panama canal. Although submerged trees die, some of the hardwood species are preserved and can be harvested. Underwater logging is done in various parts of the world including Canada, Ghana (with the largest reservoir by surface area in the world), and Panama, the focus of my photo project. Following my usual modus operandi (see BranchLines 23#4 for an account of my previous forestry-based photography project) I was introduced to Alana Husby, president of Coast Eco Timber the company operating on the lake. There are many species of trees that can be salvaged. The locals spoke of one type of tree that they were quite fond of. They call it “espavé” (actually wild cashew Anacardium excelsum, an evergreen that can grow up to 45 metres tall with trunks as large as 3 metres in diameter). The legend is that during the Spanish conquest, locals or invaders would climb these tall trees to look around: “Es para ver” (it is to see, in Spanish), hence the name.

Coast Eco Timber is FSC controlled. All of the workers are locals living in a nearby village. Many of them are indigenous Kunas from Panama and Colombia famous for their attire and textile making activities. Alana arranged for me to live with the workers and I commuted with them to the lake every day, where we would load the barges with the equipment necessary for the day: scuba-diving gear, compressed-air operated chainsaws, lunch boxes, and plenty of cold drinkable water. During my first trip, every barge had an engine and was manned by 4 workers able to harvest 6 or 8 trees every day. Later, the company evolved its operation by using air lines, rather than free-diving equipment and tow boats to separate the cutting of trees from the process of bringing them back to the beach. The new barges are non-motorized and towed to the site. The work is very physical and involves teams of 2 divers and 2 people on the barge taking care of the equipment. Once a tree is selected (by species and then by measuring the depth of the water as an estimate of length) plastic barrels filled with compressed air are attached to the trunk. Divers use air-driven chainsaws to cut the tree which is then pulled up, sometimes quite dramatically, rather like a humpback whale jumping out of water. It can take a long time to manage the finalized cut because of extremely low visibility below the lake surface. Once the trees are towed back they are sorted in preparation for a long drying period before going to the mill. Interestingly, Coast Eco Timber is working in collaboration with UBC’s Faculty of Forestry on determining the best drying techniques. The company owns a mill in Chepo, a nearby town, and has a showroom displaying large planks and high end furniture in Panama City. The wood is quite beautiful, full of knots and character. One thing that struck me is that there are complete ecosystems living on the submerged parts of the trunks. As a tree is brought out of the water there is an exodus of large cockroaches, bats, water-walking lizards (one nicknamed the Jesus lizard for its abilites) and a myriad of other beasts unknown to me. At one time I had a bat clinging for its life to my head. The bat managed to dry and then take off, only to be snatched in mid-air by a vulture-like bird. Such is life in the jungle. Each time I was in the water taking pictures with a Nikonos underwater camera (designed by scuba-diving pioneer Commandant Jacques-Yves Cousteau) I became lunch for fish which nibbled on me when I stopped swimming in order to frame a shot.
The exhibition consisted of 20 hand-made fibre prints (11”x14”), 16 (8”x10”) RC based prints and 2 large professional prints. The work covered documentary pictures of the workers in action as well as scenes of the daily lives of the workers. I also presented a slide show of over 100 digital colour pictures during the opening event of the exhibition. The exhibition (www.coastecotimber.com/en/press/item/145-fotos.html) was produced in collaboration with the Association Bricolages Ondulatoires et Particulaires (www.bop-photolab.org), Coast Eco Timber, EAS the dam company, the Alliance Française du Panama, UBC’s Faculty of Forestry and the Canadian Embassy. I am grateful to everyone for their help. One thing that made me happy was when the director of the Alliance Française told me that the cleaning ladies had spent a lot of time looking at my pictures and that this was the first time he had seem them paying attention to an exhibition. Maybe the pictures talked to them, made them proud of the work of these people, their people. This is all I hoped to achieve.”

Exhibition set-up at the Alliance Française du Panama

exposition à l’Alliance Française du Panama
  • Flyer Expo Panama
  • Second flyer expo Panama
  • Exhib Panama, set-up #1
  • Exhib Panama, set-up #2

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