An Interview With Photographer, Activist and Humanitarian Nick Brandt

by Cynthia Biret

This Empty World, the latest exhibition by acclaimed photographer Nick Brandt (at Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles, through 27 April), is a captivating account of wildlife colliding hard against an endless tide of human encroachment and unchecked corporate development. Once roaming free upon endlessly expansive and entirely majestic lands, these now endangered animals find themselves wandering amid stands of cement walls, their destinies perilously disrupted by ditches, bus stations, construction sites, highways, dried river beds and, of course, people. So many people. Everywhere, locals — whose mere presence carries with it an indeterminable fate of doom — stare away from these gorgeous creatures, grounded as they are in their own sense of isolation and despair. When their eyes do seem to meet, at least in Brandt’s photographs, the encounter is altogether fruitless, for the two are equal victims of a global environmental destruction that churns-on despite local action.

All images © Nick Brandt, Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery

Brandt’s masterpiece images reflect the ambivalence of a world looking away from its own shadows. The images themselves are monumental achievements in that they were created with cleverly calculated placements of sets built to match the position and lighting of wildlife crossing the savannah. Animals as sentient beings control the narrative, and their silent, near-hopless attendance reflects our own dire state of existence, for if their own paths come to closure in a long lost Eden, so surely will ours.

Standing in front of Brandt’s large-scale prints, it’s as if one bears witness to an enormous and expeditious cry for change. If the people and the elephants, giraffes, hyenas and other animals are victims, then it is up to each and every one of us to remediate the damage.

This Empty World will haunt you long enough to remind you that it’s not too late to wake up from the dystopia of our own disconnected lives. Bridging art into action, the Big Life Foundation, co-founded by Brandt and award-winning conservationist Richard Bonham, dares to shine a light into the desperation of an ecosystem betrayed by the industrial world.

. . .

CYNTHIA BIRET: You have directed music videos with some of the biggest names in pop music. When did you start taking photos for conservation purposes, and what was the motivating factor?

NICK BRANDT: It wasn’t photos for conservation. It was photography simply to express my love for the animals and the natural world and my concern that it was disappearing so fast at the hands of humankind. The conservation aspect came later, in terms of making work that dealt more directly with the destruction and the speed at which it was happening.

BIRET: What was the turning point?

BRANDT: The initial impetus was the escalation of poaching. This kind-of kicked in around 2009 and 2010, which is when I co-founded The Big Life Foundation. Subsequent to that, it became more obvious that it was much more than poaching, which led to the body of work that are Inherit The Dust and This Empty World.

BIRET: When I first saw your exhibit, I noticed an impressive amount of detail, technically interwoven with a powerful emotional structure. While looking at people’s faces, I was moved by how much their expressions reflected the emotions of many across the Western world concerning the disappearing wilderness and wildlife.

BRANDT: This project could have really been photographed anywhere in the world, as mankind is rapidly invading any remaining wilderness with human development. It just so-happened that I photographed it in Africa, because it’s the place I know best. But I could have photographed it in Borneo, for example. I could have photographed it in South Africa, or any number of places where humans are destroying and degrading the natural world.

BIRET: It is also interesting to note that the locals depicted in your photographs are victimized along with the animals. They are actually not to blame.

BRANDT: Yes, it’s very important, and that is something that you clearly see when you are looking at one of the prints of the exhibition. One of the things that I find incredibly frustrating is that 99.99% of people now look at your work on a computer bay, or at worse on a phone, where the subtlety, the details and the complexity are totally lost. This means that you could view these photographs and misinterpret what the people in the photographs are there for. You could look at these people in a very small size and believe that they are the aggressors. Whereas when you’re looking at the print in the real size as you saw them, which isn’t actually the actual size, it’s more like a medium size; but when you’re looking at these prints you can really comprehend that those people are not the aggressors. Hopefully what you get from these photographs is that these people are also frequently the victims of environmental degradation. And when this human environmental destruction and degradation occurs, usually it’s the rural people who are the most affected because the natural resources which they rely on are so denuded and diminished.

BIRET: Big Life Foundation, which you co-created, offers hope with actual results in helping with the arrest of poachers.

BRANDT: This goes back to how much art can affect change. In this day and age there is so much noise that we have to get through, there is so much that needs attention. How do we get people to pay attention to this and this and that! And it becomes kind of overwhelming for me. But if you choose to try and make a difference in whatever you are passionate about, it actually energizes you. I would not be taking these photographs or have started the foundation if I thought that all hope was lost, even if inevitably there will be battles that will be lost or won. In the area where the photos were taken, I do believe that it is a battle that can be won; and I chose to focus on those areas because otherwise the outcome would be bleak.

BIRET: Your work focuses on the Amboseli ecosystem.

BRANDT: There was no financial support or governmental infrastructure to allow any kind of meaningful conservation to happen there. The government of each country only protects the specific national parks, and when the animals leave these areas, which happens 80% of the time, they are totally unprotected. In those areas there is nobody, and it became absolutely obvious to start protecting animals there. There is no point in attempting to protect animals in a specific area if as soon as they walk out of there they get killed! In an ideal world you just keep on working continuously, expanding the area of protection so wherever the animals walk they are still in zones where they don’t get killed. But obviously there are budget limitations.

In that particular area, there was also the support of the government and the local communities. This is the only way conservation is feasible in the 21st century: when you have the support of the local community; and the only way you get support of the local community is through meaningful employment and meaningful economical benefit that comes through a comprehension that these animals will provide people with a long-term livelihood. And at the time the animals had no protection, but now they do.

BIRET: Does an elephant bring more money to a local community if he is alive? Obviously for poachers it’s a different story.

BRANDT: It’s $21,000 for the country where the animal lives.

BIRET: Was it complicated to create and bring your foundation together?

BRANDT: I was incredibly lucky how this all came together. Number one, I was able to raise money from wealthy collectors of my photographs, and we were able to catch long-term poachers who had been able to get away with mass killings for quite some time. That success story then generated more funding from other sources. What is also helpful is having a partner in Rich Bonham, who is one of the greatest conservationists in East Africa. We just make a very good team.

BIRET: Did you ever feel threatened on the ground? Was there some immediate danger in what you were doing?

BRANDT: For Richard, yes. Not for me.

BIRET: Do you want to talk about it?

BRANDT: It’s too long of a story.

BIRET: Let’s talk about your methods of working. How did you decide on the idea of photographing the animals and creating the backdrop for the photographs?

BRANDT: The idea was, I wanted to create images that were symbolic of the remaining natural wilderness — smashing together animals with human development, that was part of it. I felt that it had to be photographed in color because I wanted that sickly unnatural light of the modern human world to be imposed, blasted upon the natural world to heighten the sense of dystopia, to see animals that we have only seen in natural light being lit by these kind of garish, sickly tones of the modern human world. And then I wanted to photograph the animals as very diminished; the antithesis of how I had photographed them in prior years. For example, there are quite a few photographs of the animals in trenches, hopefully making you feel that the animals are being swallowed up by the earth; or perhaps you think they are in their graves as the tide of human progress sweeps over them.

In terms of photographing everything in the same location, that was very important to me, because, first, there is a greater sense to everything being in the same place, shot in the same camera position, with the same lens and the same height with the same light, etc. etc. Secondly, I found that the emotional aesthetic and emotional integrity that comes from everything being photographed on the same exact spot, which allows me to have a better comprehension of how it’s all coming together.

All this is very expensive because I’m building all these sets, and we were photographing on Maasai lands that were unprotected yet populated and very heavily eroded, so it was an extremely daunting challenge to hope and expect for these animals to be comfortable enough to find their way in front of the cameras. Sometimes we waited many months for the animals to cross; that’s why there are so few photographs during the daytime. However, even at night it was quite a challenge.

BIRET: The photos bring a sense of urgency. It’s as if the animals have come across a place where there are too many humans, too much development, and there is truly nowhere for them to go.


BIRET: How many different sets did you have, and how did you decide on the number and variability of the sets?

BRANDT: I think there were seven. It was a matter of practicality and finance: how much we could build in the time we had, while hoping that we could find enough variety within each set to get the number of photographs we needed. And sometimes we would only get one or two, like with the Whistling Thorns or with the River Bed; and for others we would get more. With the Bridge Construction or the Roundabout, there is only one photograph of the entire set. It was not what we had originally planned, but that’s what we were able to capture. We were totally reliant on which animals would come to camera. And then at a certain point I had to basically just decide, okay, that’s it, I’m out of time. We have to move to the second stage because the rains are coming, and once the rains arrive, then it’s all over; we can’t shoot anymore because of the terrain.

BIRET: Yes, the terrain changes.

BRANDT: A) The two worlds would have blended together and B) We wouldn’t be able to get anywhere practically

BIRET: How long did it take you for the sets and for the photos?

BRANDT: We were there for six months. Two months of night shooting; four months of waiting for the animals; and two additional months of night shooting with people.

BIRET: Was it difficult to get the locals involved, or were they excited to participate in this project?

BRANDT: My crew came mainly from Nairobi, and they were just excellent. The cast was mainly from local communities, mainly from Nairobi. There was enough of a variety of different tribes. They were doing it for money, of course.

BIRET: How close were you able to get to the animals? You used camera traps, I assume.

BRANDT: Yes, which I have never done before, but it was the only way possible for this particular concept. This left me very out of control, which was hard, but when we got to the second stage with the people, everything was completely in my control.

BIRET: What else do you want to raise awareness for, besides poaching?

BRANDT: This series of work is far more of a consequential problem than poaching, which in East Africa is more under control now than it was eight years ago. Now the massive problem is the rapidly disappearing amount of space in the wildlife habitat as the population of humans continues to explode.

BIRET: It’s an overpopulation issue.

BRANDT: Those people have to go somewhere. Between farmlands and factories and roads and new towns and railway lines and everything else, people have to go somewhere, even if it’s not the fault of the locals, as seen on the photographs.

BIRET: Do you think that an intervention from external powers would make a difference?

BRANDT: The only way forward with conservation is a holistic approach that involves local communities, so that the animals and the humans living in the same place both flourish.

BIRET: Who are your heroes, your role models?

BRANDT: Heroes are really anybody who tirelessly works against the odds to try to make a difference. Jane Goodall, who at the age of 80 is still traveling 300 days out of the year, just plugging away, for example. Or animal rights activists trying to highlight animal farm abuse. The list is endless! They are all heroes in my eyes because they work really hard to maintain a positive outlook, fighting against industrial lobbyists and politicians who are basically working for these industries and corporations. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s America or Kenya or wherever else in the world. The USA is one of the worst countries in the world for compromised democracy, in terms of people having a voice in the face of corpocracy, and the people who get up every morning fighting that fight, I think it’s heroic. Because they are not doing it for the money, that’s for sure.

BIRET: You once brought up an interesting point, which is that we can identify with dogs and cats, but we don’t think of wildlife in the same way.

BRANDT: As well as factory-farmed animals. There are just two sets of rules for an animal: either it’s a pet, or it’s an animal that gets eaten. As a vegan, I find it incredibly upsetting that there is a mass genocide about factory-farmed animals and I am very specific about factory-farmed because those animals are spending lives of absolute misery for the sake of cheaper and more convenient meat. Just about anybody in America would be horrified at the idea of eating their dog; but then what is the difference between eating your dog and eating a pig? And it should be nothing to do with intelligence, by the way. The point is that you don’t assign more value to the life of Albert Einstein than to the life of an autistic child. Just because Einstein is more intelligent, he doesn’t have any more right to life than an autistic child. It’s completely a species argument, to try to justify any kind of treatment for what’s not intelligent in our eyes, even though there is an intellectual intelligence, and there is also an instinctive intelligence. For instance, in the middle of the Savannah, who is most intelligent: a human or a lion?

As you can see, I am very passionate and angry about this. Is it just because a cow is less expressive emotionally in ways that we humans can comprehend? Just because cows don’t sort of wag their tails and curl up next to you in an adorable way; because they are less emotionally expressive and don’t “speak human,” they are assigned much less value. It’s an abomination!

BIRET: And it’s in complete disregard of future generations and the world we are leaving them, all in the name of so called dominion and progress.

BRANDT: You know what the line in the Bible that has caused so much damage: “And man shall have dominion over nature.” There are plenty of other lines in the Bible that talk of protection of the Earth! People conveniently take lines out of the Bible that suit their selfish justifications.

BIRET: And suit their economical sense of their selfish satisfactions, because many of these animals end up in the landfill anyway due to overproduction. What I find really interesting today is that you cannot just be a documentarian anymore. You cannot just take photos and hope that things are going to change. You also have to become active with a movement that helps bring change.

BRANDT: I think so. People do just document, and I think that is kind of a waste. You need to express something about what you’re documenting; it could be an issue that’s minor, but just express something beyond, “oh isn’t this just…”

BIRET: Would you like to talk about your upcoming project?

BRANDT: I’m going to start something next year about climate change in America. I think I have said as much as I can say about East Africa now, and I think climate change is the biggest consequential crisis that is facing mankind. I want to address that in a way that I have not already seen done by anybody else. It’s the way I approach every one of my projects.

BIRET: Your artistic sensitivity is very provocative. Is there anything you wish to add?

BRANDT: In a kind of idealistic, crazy and probably naive world, you would like to think that some set of politicians or industrialists would see your photographs and see the light and change their ways. In the absence of that, it really is just a case of hoping that the work becomes part of a growing sense of awareness and increasing dialogue that eventually -although there isn’t any time for “eventually” — eventually reaches a saturation point and starts having some kind of meaningful impact. The problem is always related to some form of politics, and the insane shortsightedness of looking for short-term profit over long-term environmental benefit that instead would, and always has, led to long-term economical benefits.

BIRET: In this sense, it doesn’t seem that these wild animals have many years left. Their lifespans might end within a couple of generations.

BRANDT: Not even that. Ten years!

BIRET: This is within everybody’s lifetime pretty much! Then it comes down to keeping the courage of forging ahead and not giving up regardless of the direness of what we’re facing and what the animals are facing. One last word about This Empty World?

BRANDT: All the elements of the sets were recycled, ultimately to go into the next set and the next, and then back into the supply chain. The ground where we shot we seeded after the shoot and after the rains you can’t actually tell that we were over there. We recycled back into the supply chain and the land was returned to its former state.

BIRET: Thank you.


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