Founder Jack Gescheidt answers commonly asked questions:
Well, for starters, what exactly is, “The TreeSpirit Project?” And why is it a “Project?”
The TreeSpirit Project, or “TreeSpirit” for short, is my way of drawing attention to trees, highlighting the crucial role they play in our lives, both globally and also personally. Humans and trees have been interdependent for thousands of years, and today as much as ever. Yet, because they can seem ubiquitous, they can be taken for granted — and then we will deforest this country, and the planet. Read TreeSpirit’s mission..
TreeSpirit is many things, including 1) the large, growing collection of photographs of humans communing with trees; 2) the memorable experiences participants have while making them, and: 3) artistic and activist advocacy for preserving and appreciating trees, forests and the natural world. Read participant Testimonials.
The dramatic images of people being unusually vulnerable in trees can also draw attention to specific trees and forests at risk, so some photos I call “political” or “activist” photos that have a specific purpose the aesthetics are in service of. Read TreeSpirit’s mission.
Who is Jack Gescheidt? How long has Jack been doing this? And how long has he been a photographer?
I’m Jack, and I wear several labels, including environmental artist, environmentalist, and, since 1987, professional photographer. I was born and raised in New York City and upstate NY. Both my parents, Alfred Gescheidt and Rae Russel, also born and raised in NYC, were professional photographers all their lives. I moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1996.
TreeSpirit began in 2003 as a labor of love, and continues to be to this day. Both creatively and practically, it’s constantly challenging, exhilarating and a learning process in more ways than I ever imagined. As it continues to grow, I must too. Read more about Jack.
What gave you the idea for TreeSpirit?
I was inspired by one remarkable coast live oak tree, “The Grandmother Tree,” likely over 250 years old, in the woods of Marin County in 2003. I was moved emotionally in her presence and was compelled to capture something of what I felt. Read the full account.
How do you find all these people to be in your photos? Why don’t you call them models?
The very first participants were friends who’d been in naked in-line skating photos I made years earlier. Then I found many more eager participants in a Marin County, CA dance community, today called OpenFloor.org, where I learned to dance (recreationally, therapeutically; not professionally).
Within a year the collection had grown to dozens of images and people heard of TreeSpirit in the news, on the web, and via word of mouth. Today, thousands of people around the world view the large and growing collection of photographs on this website. People join the TreeSpirit email list to be notified of future photos near and far from them. (“Sign up, stay informed” via the green sidebar button, top right.)
I use the term participant instead of model because they’re ALL regular people and volunteers, not paid professionals. And people don’t pose in the typical sense, putting on airs, or promoting a product. Instead, they are courageously bare, revealing their feelings, and genuine in their affection for trees.
Hundreds of people have enjoyed the safe, exciting experience of being part of a TreeSpirit photograph. Each receives a digital copy of the photograph he or she is in. Of course, professional models are welcome to join in, as are self-identified naturists (who instantly seem to understand what I’m up to), but the majority of participants are ordinary people who come for the fun of it, many bravely posing nude for the first time.
Why are the people naked? (C’mon, isn’t this really just to get attention?)
There are many reasons for the nudity, all of which came before TreeSpirit got ANY media attention:
• People —and therefore the photographs — appear more timeless when stripped of the cultural and historical cues clothing provide. It’s harder to tell if a photograph was made five or fifty years ago.
• People are more “present,” in the meditative sense of this word, when naked. They’re far less likely to be distracted, daydreaming, or thinking about anything else while with the tree(s). This is increasingly true in our modern, technological era with increased pressure and habit to multi-task;
• When naked, people feel more alive, sensitive to the elements, the ground, the air, the warm sun or cold wind;
• Without clothes, people are literally more vulnerable, and therefore pay greater attention to their surroundings, the bark of a tree, sharp rocks, ants, bees, insects, all of nature. And thus more connected to their feelings, or fears;
• Naked people are almost always harmless to trees and other species. We humans often do more harm in groups, and in protective clothing, even uniforms — but not when stripped of our habitual fabric, layers, societal roles, tools and technology.
• People are unified as one unclothed group, not seen as individual personalities to which we are all so conditioned and accustomed. They become simply people with a tree(s). This is especially true in large, group TreeSpirit photos;
• Most of us have been taught and to be ashamed of our own bodies, a tragic and harmful cultural conditioning. Participating in TreeSpirit photo can be a liberating, even healing experience. READ TESTIMONIALS.
• And finally, yes, naked people ARE attention-getting. In most modern cultures, especially (my) American culture with its Puritan roots, we are extraordinarily conditioned to be clothed at all times, especially in public. Therefore naked bodies are immediately dramatic.
One goal of The TreeSpirit Project is to spread a message of humanity’s interdependence with nature, and the critical role of trees in our lives. If I could achieve this goal as effectively with people dressed in seersucker shirts and OshKosh overalls, I’d plan that shoot tomorrow. But yes, people can surely connect and commune with trees while clothed — but the photos won’t look as dramatic and tender and so on.
Do the people climb the trees naked, or climb up and then undress?
This varies, depending upon the tree, the climber, the air temperature, how public the location is, and the duration of the shoot. If it’s warm and the tree is smooth-barked or easy to climb—a “walk-in” or “walk-up” tree—a participant might enjoy being clothing-free the entire time. If it’s cold or the tree is abrasive or requires strenuous climbing, then clothing may be kept on until we’re ready to shoot. In urban settings, or in the cold, we typically do a “dressed rehearsal” first, then people stay out of frame, disrobe, then step back in.
Isn’t all this dangerous? Don’t people get injured?
No, and no. In the first ten years of TreeSpirit photographs, with over a thousand participants, here’s the injuries list: some poison oak; a half-dozen skin rashes from ginkgo fruit (who knew?); and one sprained ankle when a man jumped down from a tree, five feet off the ground, at the end of a shoot and landed wrong.
Driving a car to a tree location, or anywhere for that matter, is far more dangerous. That many people ask this question is evidence of how removed from —and afraid of — nature our society has become in just a few generations. Lions and tigers and bears — oh my! As if the woods are filled with peril compared to our city streets. (As if we haven’t eliminated most animal threats in our fear, emotional disconnection and ignorance.)
Another TreeSpirit goal is to invite people back to the joys of playing in the natural world. It’s fun, it’s healthy, it’s free— and safer than driving on a highway…
Like so many people, I’ve always loved being outdoors; at the ocean, in a silent desert, in the mountains. But I feel the strongest attraction for and the most “at home” in woods and forests. The inspiration for TreeSpirit photographs came from an oak tree, and for now it feels right to stay focused on trees. The more attention I give them, the more I see in them, or perhaps more accurately, the more I feel for them in their presence. (I believe this is how attention works; what I give attention to expands in my awareness.) From a different perspective, it doesn’t matter what my entry point into appreciating and glorifying nature is since all of nature is interconnected. We people are part of nature too, of course, and we enter philosphical and metaphysical territory where the meaning of words falls short. (Not to worry, just step outside and hug a tree.)
How long is a typical photo shoot?
This also varies tremendously, and depends on the location, air temperature, whether we have a permit, and the number of participants. Some photographs have taken as little as 15 minutes (with only 90 seconds unclothed); others up to 5 hours with a 10-mile round-trip hike to the location. Some photos are made languorously in remote, private settings; others feels stressful with authorities looming.
Very typically, preparation for a photograph, especially large group ones, take countless hours over days, weeks, even months. The photo session itself takes mere minutes and always seems to end too quickly.
Do you get permits for your photographs?
Oftentimes not. State and national parks have rules and regulations against nudity, although nudity is not technically illegal in most places. “Lewd” or “indecent” behavior IS. This subtle yet profound distinction is often lost on permit-issuing authorities, esp. in city, state and national parks. They have no incentive to grant non-commercial (i.e., art photography) permits, and every incentive not to. The issues and controversies swirling around nudity in American culture could fill this website (and may merit future expansion and exposition).
Have you ever been arrested?
No. I’ve had authorities (usually police and park rangers) on the scene on many occasions. I’ve been detained and ticketed for “photography without a permit,” and for “assembly without a permit.” I’ve never been arrested, nor ever ticketed for nudity or “indecency.” I occasionally and peacefully challenge some rules and regulations. I focus on and often exercise my American rights of freedom of assembly, of free speech, and of peaceful demonstration (which can include making an artwork), especially if trees or forests are at risk of being cut down foolishly, which is to say without regard for environmental concerns or the tremendous community value and service of our silent friends, the trees.
The routine, unconsidered felling of trees, and stands of trees that so tirelessly and silently exist to our great benefit is sadly commonplace.
I always respect police for doing an important, often difficult job. The same cop I might wish wasn’t at my TreeSpirit location one morning might bravely save my life in another situation that night.
Asking permission or requesting permits is a delicate and complex issue. I may decide it’s wisest to play by the rules. I may decide to challenge a local ordinance against unauthorized public assembly or public nudity. In these situations I do no physical harm to trees or people or property. I consider the respectful, nonviolent practices of two of my role models, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, as beacon examples for my behavior.
How do you find your trees?
At first I found trees where I live in the San Francisco Bay area. Now, TreeSpirit’s many friends around the country, and the world, inform me of specific trees to consider for future photographs, often via email. The internet and digital cameras make tree-finding and location scouting in general a thousand-fold easier than in years past. (Yikes; I was a pro photographer before either existed).
I also offer a “reward” to anyone who finds a tree I end up making a TreeSpirit photograph with: a Fine Art Print from that event as a thank you.
And if someone knows of an environmental hotspot where staging a TreeSpirit photo might help, I welcome the suggestion, HERE.
Do you choreograph the photos, tell participants what to do?
Although I almost always have some idea of what I want to do, I consider the process collaborative. I welcome creative input from the participants who are having fun or feel emotionally connected to the trees in the moment. I often guide people, or make subtle adjustments that work for my camera’s position. This is how serendipity and synchronicity, can work magic—and often has for TreeSpirit. Being less controlling also encourages people to play, which is especially fun in and around trees outdoors, and something we all do instinctively as children.
A lot of the people in the photos seem very fit. Is this a requirement? Do you require certain body types, or physical conditioning, or modeling experience?
With rare exception, ABSOLUTELY NOT. In fact I welcome and appreciate and PREFER bodies of different sizes, shapes, ages, color and physical ability. My only real requirement is that people feel drawn to trees, and to participate. Look carefully at the group photos in particular and you’ll find many bodies that aren’t particularly muscular or curvaceous, two common associations with our culture’s narrow conception of beauty. Context can create beauty.
I find all people beautiful when they feel emotionally connected to the trees—and the joy being alive in nature. This is what so often moves me to exclaim, “How beautiful!” or somesuch during a photo. And of course muscular and curvaceous bodies of both genders are beautiful too! I enjoy celebrating the human body and the human spirit in relationship with trees and nature in all conceivable varieties.
Do you have to be able to climb a tree to participate?
Usually not. I let people know in advance if a particular photo necessitates climbing, or a strenuous hike, or if a site is wheelchair accessible, and so on. Each photo and site is unique.
How long do you plan on making TreeSpirit photographs?
I honestly don’t know. I’m not much of a planner, really; never have been. As long as I’m excited to do so, I’d guess. Recently I’ve been invited to make TreeSpirit photographs in exotic, tropical locations…aboard cruise ships !. This isn’t something I’d envisioned and is another example of serendipity at work.
Often the idea for a new TreeSpirit photograph comes in an instant, but may takes months or even years to create…and I have so many new ideas. Hence the cliched expression, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration?” Perhaps, like any artist in any medium, I’ll simply one day lose the inspiration or be inspired to create something entirely different.
I see most TreeSpirit photographs are Black & White, but some are color. How do you choose? Which do you prefer?
I love B&W photography and was taught it first, by my parents, Rae Russel and Alfred Gescheidt, themselves both professional photographers. They both shot both color and B&W too. I use both and consider them different, powerful tools to work and play with. If I want to emphasize line and form and shape, as with the image “Granddaughter”, I may choose B&W. If the color of a scene feels especially powerful, I may choose color, as I did for the photograph “Hilltop Worship”.
Is there a TreeSpirit movie or coffee table book in the works?
Yes, a TreeSpirit movie is in development: “Out On A Limb” is the working title of Navyo Ericsen’s and Reverberance Media’s documentary film about the making of TreeSpirit photographs and stories of the volunteer participants. Exciting stuff! TAKE A LOOK!
A book of TreeSpirit photographs, and the story behind their making, is a natural but not yet hatched. Publishers or agents can Email Jack.
How is The TreeSpirit Project financed?
TreeSpirit time, travel and expenses are paid for in several ways: with my other professional photography income (see JackPhoto.com), the generous support of friends and fans who believe in the Project; sales of TreeSpirit Fine Art Prints from the website Gallery; conventional art galleries, and items like posters and calendars in the TreeSpirit website store. All proceeds from these sales go to supporting The TreeSpirit Project artwork creation and its mission.
TreeSpirit’s slogan says, “A celebration of our interdependence with nature” — doesn’t this imply that people and nature are two separate things?
It sure does—and this puzzle merely reveals the limitation of language. We are are all a PART of nature; nature means everything. If you know a better way to convey this reality within the limitations of language, please write me how…
In the meantime, I’ll keep making photographs and hosting experiences in nature which invite people (and me) into the exhilarating fun beyond words, talk, and even thought. The Persian poet Rumi, aka Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, (translated by Coleman Barks) put it beautifully:
There is a way between voice and presence
where information flows.
In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.