Documenting destruction from above
A young photographer highlights the environmental crises facing Indigenous communities at home and abroad.
In July 2019, Paul Wilson, a 23-year-old self-taught photographer and enrolled member of the Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon, flew his drone camera over a forested hillside near his family’s seasonal camp. He had been coming to the area, 30 miles northeast of Chiloquin — a treaty-designated space where tribal members used to hunt and forage — since before he could remember. Now, it was unrecognizable: The winter before, the land had been clear-cut. A key calving ground for elk and deer — a place where Wilson and his family had often hunted — had been destroyed.
Instead of stands of pine trees, grassy meadows and spongy marshlands, there were brush piles larger than buildings. “It was hard to fathom,” he told me. Only from the air, gazing through his drone camera, could he begin to comprehend the scale of the destruction. One photo he took shows a dusty brown circle stripped of living vegetation — nothing left but a lone pine tree where an entire forest once stood. “To see the extent that the landscape has been changed, and will be changed for decades — we’re at this really critical point where, if we don’t develop protections predicated on saving our last timber stands, we won’t have a forest,” he said.
A few weeks later, Wilson’s photos became part of the Klamath Tribes’ formal complaint against the U.S. Forest Service’s management practices in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. The tribes said that the clear-cutting violated the agency’s obligation to honor their hunting rights by preserving important elk birthing grounds and migratory corridors.
Tall and soft-spoken, Wilson radiates the quiet grandeur of his images, which celebrate the land and the stories it tells about his tribe and the other Indigenous communities that have too often been left out of the historical record. He wanted to depict his community from within, using the framework photographers know as “visual sovereignty.” For Wilson, who divides his time between photography and environmental activism, visual storytelling is a way to counter the losses he has witnessed, from the Klamath Basin all the way to Alaska and Patagonia. He is often immersed in the stories he tells. “I’m jealous,” he told me, referring to photographers who can separate their identity from their work. “I don’t get to step out of the frame.”