In the context of its photography missions, the Yves Rocher Foundation commissioned Guillaume Herbaut to explore the gorgeous yet tragic forestland of Eastern Europe. A look back at the road trip of a lifetime
You’ve just completed a report about the Yves Rocher Foundation and its tree-planting programme in Ukraine, Romania and Hungary. How did you approach this commission?
Commissions always add extra pressure. But when I saw the level my colleagues were working at before I’d even started, I felt the pressure even more! I loved the fact that I was being sent on a road trip rather than being restricted to just one country. It was a real challenge: striking the perfect balance between taking photos and finding the time to travel. We sometimes had to travel at night so we could work during the day, before heading straight off again afterwards. We travelled over 5,000 kilometres in about 20 days.
As a photographer, you don’t really specialise in nature or the environment. What did you discover while working on deforestation?
I’ll be honest: before working on this project, I wasn’t interested in forests at all. Like every other city dweller, a tree was just a tree to me. I didn’t try to understand or find out more. I discovered that behind this ‘straightforward’ ecological subject, behind the issue of deforestation, is an entire web of criminal networks and murky financial interests, and that the people fighting these forces are often threatened themselves, with some even facing assassination attempts. I was really shocked to learn that in Romania, the equivalent of three football stadiums of forestland is lost every day to illegal deforestation. I was also shocked when we went to areas where amber prospecting and trafficking is rife.
Part of your report was shot in Chernobyl, a region you know particularly well. Did you learn anything new about it?
In 2011, the American magazine Wired asked me to do a piece about the environment in Chernobyl. So I was already quite familiar with the subject. For that part of Ukraine, it was more about taking what I already knew further. I saw an amazing difference in the vegetation flourishing there, gradually sprawling over the roads and even taking over houses that were inhabited when I was there last by people who have now gone elsewhere.
As a photojournalist, you mostly work with the French and international press. How did it feel to be working with the Yves Rocher Foundation?
I love what they do. I really do. When you’re working on the ground as a journalist, you often see private institutions or NGOs taking a short-term approach, looking for fast results and solutions to the specific issues they’re focusing on. But I noticed that the organisations with which the Yves Rocher Foundation works take a much more long-term approach, thinking 30, 40 and maybe even 50 years ahead. So the results may seem less flamboyant, but it’s much more humble, and most importantly of all, much more effective. They’re fostering a real sense of hope, and that’s very rare.
Several thousand people will see your photographs. What message(s) do you hope they take away with them about the work being done to combat deforestation across Eastern Europe?
I think it’s crucial we start thinking about where our products come from. We already do this with food, and that’s fantastic. The first step in stamping out this scourge is to demand to know where the products we buy come from and, in particular, how they are produced. Wood, like meat, requires traceability. Also, we need to realise that by establishing good forestry policies, governments can accomplish wonderful things. My report ends in Hungary, where incredibly positive things have been done for the environment in recent decades. If they can do it, others can follow suit too.
In the East, forests make resistance
Discover the photographic mission
of Guillaume Herbaut (Eastern Europe)