The importance of forests to our planet is more apparent now than ever before. It is trees that filter our carbon emissions out of the atmosphere and are thus key to counteracting the impacts of climate change. Over four years, Dutch photographer Jeroen Toirkens and journalist Jelle Brandt Corstius visited forests in the boreal zone for their Borealis project, seeking out the stories of the forests and the people who live there. Toirkens’ images bear witness to the ancient mythical appeal of forests, but they also show how the inhabitants of the boreal zone manage and protect their habitat. The major exhibition Borealis: Life in the Woods features all eight parts of the project, from loggers in Norway, scientific research in Japan and newly planted forests in Scotland to the final chapter in Alaska. It is on view at the Anchorage Museum Nov. 19, 2021, through Sept. 25, 2022. 


Toirkens and Brandt Corstius sought the stories and people of the forests, focusing on the boreal zone in the Northern Hemisphere, a chiefly coniferous circle that extends across Europe, Asia and North America. This forest is also known as the taiga. The boreal forest is the largest vegetation zone (biome) on earth and makes up around 29% of the total forested area. It is considerably larger than the Amazon rainforest. The trees of the forests convert carbon dioxide into oxygen on a massive scale. The average tree produces enough oxygen over a hundred-year period to allow a human being to breathe for 20 years.

There are various names for the boreal zone. The Americans and Canadians call it the Great Northern Forest or boreal forest (from borealis, Latin for northern), but the Russian name taiga is perhaps better known. It is the world’s largest vegetation zone, bigger even than the Amazon rainforest. Thirty per cent of all trees on earth are in the boreal zone. These trees are essential for maintaining the earth’s ecological balance, as they convert carbon dioxide to oxygen on a huge scale. Yet less than twelve per cent of the forests is protected, and they face a range of threats, including commercial logging, the vulnerability of newly planted trees, climate change and forest fires, as seen the past few summers in Siberia. 


Over four years, Jeroen Toirkens and Jelle Brandt Corstius took eight trips to the boreal forests. They encountered some extraordinary stories. In Russia they saw the damage that increasingly severe forest fires are causing in Siberia. But they also met Gennady Tugushin, a lumberjack who, though he is now retired, supplements his pension by working as a security guard for a logging company. He lives in the village of Berdishikha, just walking distance from the forest, but he can never get enough of it – as evidenced by the forest wallpaper in his bedroom. Marines from several European countries training in Norway showed Toirkens and Brandt Corstius how to use the resources in the forest. Tree branches can be used to improvise a shelter, and firewood can be gathered for cooking, purifying water and keeping warm. On the island of Hokkaido in Japan they met scientists researching how to preserve the forests for the future. Toirkens and Brandt Corstius had their most thrilling adventure in Canada when together with the Cree, a First Nation people of Canada, they travelled 160 kilometers through the primeval forest by snow scooter at a temperature of 40-45 degrees below zero. It was so cold that Toirkens was barely able to change his rolls of film, and his face began to show signs of frostbite. Brandt Corstius lost the feeling in his fingers, and he has still not regained it in one of his little fingers. In a cabin on Vogel Lake in Alaska, only accessible by floatplane, the two reflected on their adventures.


Toirkens and Brandt Corstius sensed a deep love of the forest in many of the people they met on their travels. This is certainly true of the people behind the Trees for Life charity in Scotland, which is working to revive the Caledonian Forest. The last ‘granny’ pines there often stand alone on bare rocks, but the rocky landscape typical of Scotland was once covered in pine forests. Along with their donors, Toirkens and Brandt Corstius supported Trees for Life in planting 360 trees in the region to compensate for the flights they had taken while making Borealis.


During their travels, Toirkens photographed in both black-and-white and color, but always with an analogue camera. He intuitively differentiated between the documentary black-and-white photographs and the more associative work in color. Every day he would also seek out the ‘tree of the day’, not just to photograph it, but to portray it as a character. It is these portraits that will surround visitors to the exhibition when they enter, as if they too are travelling into the forest before they enter the space where the accounts of travels unfold.


Borealis: Life in the Woods is organized by The Hague Museum of Photography (Fotomuseum Den Haag) in the Netherlands and the Anchorage Museum. The Borealis project receives support from the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York. Additional support provided by Jan and Jeri van den Top and the Mondriaan Fund. The companion book Borealis: Trees and People of the Northern Forest was published by Lanoo in 2020. 

Scroll to top