Vancouver Island photographer receives grant named after Jeopardy! host for before and after logging photos

Photog wins Trebek honour

Victoria photographer TJ Watt, whose photos documenting the loss of old-growth trees have been seen around the world, has won a grant named for former Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

The Trebek Initiative grant will support the continuation of Watt’s “before” and “after” series, which depicts 800-to-1,000-year-old red cedars in the Caycuse Valley of southern Vancouver Island next to images of the stumps left behind after the trees are cut.

Watt, always in the same red jacket, stands next to the trees and their stumps, providing scale for the enormous trees.

Watt said he is humbled and grateful to have received one of the initial grants from the Trebek Initiative, which was awarded for the first time this year f­ollowing Trebek’s death last November. He is also named a National Geographic Explorer and a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Explorer.

Watt, 37, said he has dedicated the last 15 years to documenting B.C.’s ancient forests in an effort to save them from logging.

“A lot of that time is spent alone, either in really rainy, miserable, clearcuts or off in faraway forests. You can feel like you wonder if anyone’s paying attention or watching, but I think this grant award and those naming recognitions really show that the world is watching,” said Watt, a co-founder of the non-profit Ancient Forest Alliance, which works to protect B.C.’s old-growth forests from logging.

His series of before-and-after images, published while protests against old-growth logging on southern ­Vancouver Island grew into Canada’s largest act of civil disobedience, was seen by millions on social media and ­recognized by multiple international ­photography contests. About 1,100 arrests have been arrested in the Fairy Creek area near Port Renfrew since May for attempting to block logging crews from cutting down old-growth trees.

“When people saw those photos, it was just outrage. There’s no way to spin it in any positive way,” Watt said. “And I think it really held the government’s feet to the fire to actually move and take some some real action to protect old-growth forests.”

Watt took his “before” photos in the spring of 2020, carefully recording the location of each tree and noting how his camera was set up so he could return and replicate the image when only stumps remained.

“I was literally standing on the edge of existence where you have massive stumps on one side and a 12-foot-wide tree on your other side with a chainsaw sitting beside it, knowing that the next day that tree is going to be cut down,” he said.

Watt has already taken his first “before” images of giant red cedars and Sitka spruce trees with support from the Trebek grant. The success of the series is bittersweet for Watt.

“I would consider myself successful if I put myself out of a job,” he said. “We just don’t have the time to do this forever. The old-growth forests are already in a crisis.”

The Trebek Initiative grant supports emerging Canadian explorers, ­scientists, photographers, geographers and ­educators to explore unique ecozones, conduct research on wildlife, wilderness or water and document Canadian ­geography.

Trebek, who had a passion for geography, served as honorary president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society from 2016 until his death on Nov. 8, 2020.

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