The beauty of happenstance

Nick Brandt – “Inherit the Dust”

“Inherit the Dust” by Nick Brandt
(Right) Wasteland with rhinos & residents, 2015 & (Left) Wasteland with elephant & residents, 2015

New York, September 12 2016

Today I read the news that the International Union for Conservation of Nature passed a motion urging every country to close their legal markets for elephant ivory. Whilst non-biding this is a landmark agreement. The USA and China, the two largest markets, have already committed to ban ivory.

This uplifting news reminded me of Nick Brandt’s work and his mission to promote wildlife preservation in East Africa. In July I had the opportunity to visit Stockholm for a day. My flight back to New York had a 23hrs layover in Sweden. I planned my short visit; one of the places I visited was Fotografiska, the Swedish Museum of photography. As I walked in my heart started pacing faster, I stood speechless in front of the work of Nick Brandt in the exposition “Inherit the Dust”.

Nick Brandt is an English photographer. Born in 1964 in London, he first studied painting and then Film at the at Saint Martin’s School of Art.  In 1992 he moved to United States to work in the music industry.  He was working, as music director for well-known artists when he discovered a new passion.

It is hard to believe that a successful Los Angeles Music Video director is now an activist for wild life protection in East Africa. The pivot occurred in 1995 when Brandt was directing the video “Earth Song” for Michael Jackson in Tanzania. He fell in love with the wild animals and their environment East Africa.

In the years that followed Brandt looked for ways to express his new found love  for wildlife. In 2001 he began his venture project: a book trilogy to document the threatened wild life in decaying East Africa: “On this earth” (2005), “A shadow falls” (2009), and “Across the Ravaged Land” (2013). Brandt’s true passion is reflected in each of his books.

Nick Brandt had a different approach to photographing wild life. He used a Pentax 67II with medium format Black and White film with only two short prime lenses. To capture his photograph he had to be very close to the animals. When you look into his work, you see photographs of wild animals taken in a similar fashion to portraits of people. In the photographs you get the sense that Brandt get to know his subjects intimately on an almost mystical dimension.  In one of the presentations of his series “Across the Ravage Land”, Brandt explains how during 3 weeks he followed the elephant to capture “Elephant on Bare earth, Amboseli 2011”. He wanted a portrait that captured the creature’s magnificence and struggle for survival. An Elephant with tusks as big as his represents tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Chinese market.

In 2010, Brandt co-founded Big life foundation. The foundation is now protecting 2 million acres of wild life in East Africa. It is protecting part of the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem and employing hundreds of Maasai Rangers. The foundation is also supported by local communities in the area.

After finishing his book series: On this Earth, A shadow Falls, Across the Ravaged Land. Brandt went back to Africa to photograph the fast growing devastation of the ecosystem in Africa.  “Inherit the Dust” depicts this new chapter of the East African wildlife tragedy.

This fast change for Brandt is the result of miss-managed economic growth at their expense of the environment. African animals or the product of them are in high demand on western societies.

Underpass with Elephants (lean back, your life is on track), 2015

Brandt’s idea was shoot life size panels with photographs of animals in those places they used to live but have since disappeared from.  He started by printing life size unreleased photographs in California and then he and his team shipped them over to Kenya. They scouted the locations, sometimes for weeks, and built the panels on site, so each photograph would fit into the environment it was originally shot. After the panel installation he would wait for the decisive moment and take a panorama photograph. “Inherit the dust” shows how animals and humans alike are victims of the destruction of the environment.

Each of the photographs in the panels was originally rejected for his book trilogy. In the context of his new project, the photographs gained another dimension. The life size prints seem to interact with their surroundings like a ghostly presence. For example: In “Quarry with Giraffe, 2014” the photograph was originally dismissed due to its composition and the direction in which the giraffe was looking.  The print however gives the photograph a new life. It blends with its environment and creates a new scene where the giraffe overlooks the construction works destroying its inhabitant.

Quarry with giraffe, 2014

In “Road junction with Qumquat & Family, 2014”. Brandt had originally rejected the photograph because the baby elephant is not facing the camera. He explains how in a family portrait you usually want all members to be facing the camera. Once more, the photograph takes a new meaning in this changed environment. The family of elephants is surrounded by construction trucks driving by. The parents seem to be protecting the baby elephant of the massive construction happening around.

Some people doubted the authenticity of Brandt’s work, suggested it might have been created in Photoshop. Thanks to behind the scenes photos taken clandestinely by one of his assistant these accusations were refuted.

Why did Brandt go through the trouble of creating the panels instead of blending them in Photoshop? In a presentation with Andrew Revkin, he explains: “There is nothing like shooting for real, it is the beauty of happenstance of unexpected things to happen”.

There is a lot more to say about Nick Brandt’s work and the positive change in Eastern Africa through his photographs. His work helps the rest of us realize the true cost of our comfortable western lifestyle, and makes us aware of our responsibility in this unraveling tragedy as well as one man’s ability to help enact change.

I would like to believe that Nick’s work helped bringing awareness of this issue to the public and promote action on the part of the IUCN.

Whilst the IUCN motion is a seminal moment for the wildlife preservation cause, the fight is not over yet. Some countries like Japan and Namibia have already objected the decision and no guarantee was given on enacting a worldwide ban.

It is still our responsibility to promote awareness of the issue and engage people to take action and continue pressing governments to end the legal and illegal trade of elephant ivory.

If you would like to help, share this article on social media and donate or encourage others to donate to Big life foundation. No donation is too small.