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Survival Elements

Lauren Henkin’s photographs feature trees growing in unlikely places

Stephanie Butnick
February 08, 2012
Lauren Henkin
An image from 'Growth.'Lauren Henkin
Lauren Henkin
An image from 'Growth.'Lauren Henkin
An image from 'Growth.'(Lauren Henkin)
An image from ‘Growth.’(Lauren Henkin)

Today is Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish new years for trees. In addition to Monday’s suggestions of different ways to honor the holiday, it seems important to highlight a set of photographs examining the darker, more unyielding elements of nature, and the enduring struggle for survival and growth.

In 2004, at the age of 29, Portland-based photographer Lauren Henkin learned she had a growth in her abdomen. The tumor was benign, and though the doctor recommended surgery to remove it, Henkin resisted. By 2009, a different growth had taken over one of her ovaries, and she had to undergo surgery to remove the ovary. Still, she elected not to have doctors remove the original mass, which she describes as having become, strangely, an adopted part of her body. It took another year of increasing discomfort and illness for her to elect to have the mass removed.

In despair, she found inspiration, turning to her surroundings to make sense of what was going on inside her:

Sometime before the first surgery, I began photographing urban landscapes—trees, weeds, shrubs and other vegetation attempting to grow in unlikely places. At times invasive, at times reclaiming, at times succumbing, it was hard to know whether to champion these subjects or hone my garden shears. There is a fine line between what is deemed invasive and what is merely reclaiming a rightful environment. Who am I to judge, even when the domain is my own body? I never connected these urban growths to the ones in me. I was drawn to them because they persevere. They are survivors. Emerging through asphalt, suffocated by electrical wires, trapped between buildings, standing proud even in defeat, they are both accommodating and unyielding. I respect them.

Her images, profound and disturbing, feature trees growing out of dumpsters and brilliantly green vegetation clinging to massive concrete bridge supports. What better time than Tu B’Shevat, which honors nature and life and growth, to reflect on survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s what nature is all about.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.