Blog Arts

NICK BRANDT:

 THIS EMPTY WORLD
 INHERIT THE DUST
 ON THIS EARTH
 A SHADOW FALLS
 THE RAVAGED LAND

Robynne Limoges / London Comments / for the3ninesarts.com

Skull and Giraffes ©Nick Brandt

We have been forewarned by many that 'photographs lie'. It is an interesting starting point for a theoretical conversation just as is the conversation about documentary photography and art, art and propaganda, photo journalism and conservation.
For Nick Brandt what is essential is that we understand that his latest wall-sized images do not lie. They are not contorted by digital virtuosity. Until this last series, the use of any Photoshop was anathema to him, and in his interviews he never fails to mention his frustration and some fury that people look at the work he has created over the decades and that has required such patience, and they surmise that what they are seeing is Photoshop utilised by a master.
Brandt has produced an enormous body of photographs which have a very specific purpose: to wake us up and shake us up to what is happening on a daily, hourly basis: the absolute devastation of Africa's wildlife and the degradation and destruction of human communities in East Africa. He has assigned himself the task of recording a last testament to the wild animals and the co-existing communities before both are totally destroyed by human greed, capitalism run amok and government betrayal.
Brandt's transformative experience came in 1995 when he was in Africa shooting a music video. He remarks in one interview that he didn't start the rest of his life as a photographer, but as a conservationist, for whom stills photography would be his means of communication. From that point on Brandt shot exclusively in Africa. From that point on, Brandt photographed the disappearing wildlife of Africa.
Nick Brandt's most current work, This Empty World, is the most apocalyptic of his several series. He refers to the Africa as evidenced in this work as an environmental Armageddon, because the landscape of East Africa is incapable of accommodating the enormous increase in human population without the total destruction of the natural environment, which in turn, cannot sustain its population.
This Empty World is Brandt's first series in colour and perhaps is all the more shocking for it. He shows us night dioramas that give us a frisson of unease, if not out-and-out fear of a world gone night time, full-time. His empathy and compassion is not limited to the wild animals he so reveres, but also to the humans who are forced to live in unalleviated misery. 

©Nick Brandt
©Nick Brandt
©Nick Brandt
©Nick Brandt
©Nick Brandt

Brandt describes the process: "Each image is a combination of two moments in time... almost all from the exact same locked-off camera position." It was a process of gargantuan scale. First, locations on inhabited local community land that was already eroded and bare, disused, overgrazed was chosen. As animals are particularly wary of entering inhabited land, Brandt knew his best chance was to photograph the project at night, when animals might more naturally cross or approach. The sites would be chosen as those where animals would naturally pass through, to a former river bed or a waterhole. In some cases it took weeks or months before a wild animal would venture into the setup area.
Once the animals were captured on camera (Brandt bemoans the fact that he was forced to use flash for this phase), the full sets were built by the art department team: petrol station, a scaffolded construction site, urban strip malls, etc. Each tableau was flood lit. Then final shots were taken from the same camera position, adding people (members of nearby cities and towns) to complete the heartbreaking dramas. Only the compositing of the separate, already aligned photographs was done with the aid of Photoshop.
Brandt's messages are not just about environmental degradation but of spiritual abasement also. The animals and the people seemed locked in states of toil without hope, heavy in the present because of the barrenness of the future. We witness entrapment, alarm, isolation, bone weariness.
There are two very important things to note. At the end of each sequence, all parts of the sets were struck down and recycled for multiple use. Nothing was thrown away. Brandt says that even small remaining pieces were taken by local people back to their homes to use. Secondly, once Brandt and his team left, the land was returned as much as possible to their pre-arrival state. If areas had been disturbed, they were re-seeded with grass. The rainy season would return the land to itself.

Brandt stresses that never has he portrayed the people in his series as aggressors. Because they are not. They are impoverished victims of climate change and exhausted natural resources, irresponsible politicians. They are the victims of corruption, political betrayal, thoughtless urban expansion, crime, and the total lack of the resources to improve their lives. Brandt has immeasurable respect for the Maasai community and their attempts to live peacefully with the animals whose habitat they share and for their willingness to participate with him in his work. The Maasai not only have an inherent respect for the wildlife but they are also aware that the health and well being of wildlife are the only real means to help them sustain themselves through ecotourism.
The world that is possible in This Empty World is truly terrifying. It is the end of the road, unless the path of human intervention, interference and economic inequity changes direction radically and permanently.
I want to introduce you briefly to Brandt's earlier work, because I feel it is necessary to describe his progression toward Inherit the Dust in order to do justice to his life's work and the lives of his subjects.
In the immediately preceding series, Inherit the Dust, Brandt first achieves life-size scale and the landscape of human interaction. Scale is of critical importance to Brandt. For this series Brandt was able to produce life-size images of animals who had previously inhabited certain areas in East Africa. He constructed enormous frames on which the images were fixed and installed them billboard fashion on land that was now ravaged, but as recently as 10 to 20 years ago had been populated by wildlife. These works are cinematic in scope and possess a devastating emotional impact. One of the most mournful aspects of all the various attempts at 'development' that we are given witness to, is that none possesses beauty, there is no tranquility and with our hand across our eyes to shade our view from the sun, there is no heroic horizon line. It is a landscape after landscape of torment.

Inherit the Dust book jacket ©Nick Brandt
Construction Site with Rhinos ©Nick Brandt
Underpass with Elephants (Lean Back, Your Life is on Track)©Nick Brandt
From Inherit the Dust, ©Nick Brandt
Wasteland with Cheetah and Children ©Nick Brandt
Road to Factory with Zebra ©Nick Brandt

Brandt's Homeric effort to force our acknowledgement and ownership of the destruction of East African wildlife began with his On This Earth trilogy: On this Earth (2001-2004), A Shadow Falls (2005-2008), Across the Ravaged Land (2010-2012).
For those of us who have had the privilege of experiencing the Maasai Mara, (and other areas of East Africa) it is easy to believe that it is still paradise. And if one shutters one's peripheral vision, it really is. Its monumentality and profound beauty will leave you changed forever. Brandt talks about On this Earth as the first stage of the development of his consciousness. We see just that sightline: awesomely beautiful, stark but rich, replete with some of the most heroic species the world has known.

Cheetah & Cubs, Maasai Mara, 2003 ©Nick Brandt
Elephant Herd, Serengeti, 2001 ©Nick Brandt
Hippos on the Mara River, Maasai Mara, 2002 ©Nick Brandt

The second book, On This Earth: A Shadow Falls, comprises photographs taken between 2005-2008. The images are elegiac poems, still full of breathtaking beauty, but veiled by deep melancholy. There is no doubt he and his portrait sitters mean to speak earnestly to whatever moral conscience we might still possess about them and what we are allowing to happen to them. It is stark, haunting; much more than a cautionary tale.
Brandt explains the reasons for the portraiture method he uses: "I'm not interested in creating work that is simply documentary or filled with action and drama, which has been the norm in the photography of animals in the wild. What I am interested in is showing the animals simply in the state of Being. In the state of Being before they are no longer are. Before, in the wild at least, they cease to exist. This world is under terrible threat, all of it caused by us. To me, every creature, human or nonhuman, has an equal right to live, and this feeling, this belief that every animal and I are equal, affects me every time I frame an animal in my camera. The photos are my elegy to these beautiful creatures, to this wrenchingly beautiful world that is steadily, tragically vanishing before our eyes."

Elephant Drinking, Amboseli, 2007 ©Nick Brandt

(By the time Brandt returned to visit him again, he had been murdered by poachers) 

Portrait of a Lion in Profile ©Nick Brandt

(On the 18th evening of watching and waiting for the quintessential portrait of this lion, a storm came up and the lion finally raised his head)

Rhino on Lake, Lake Nakuru, 2007 ©Nick Brandt

In the last of Brandt's trilogy On This Earth, The Ravaged Land, he reveals the darkest side of East Africa's once great animal population, as mankind and animal are juxtaposed forcibly and with deadly consequence. He introduces humans into his photography. They, too, are the victims of the proliferation of poachers, who murder relentlessly for the profit of third parties, of government corruption, of political and economic mismanagement.

The people featured in these two images are Rangers employed by the Big Life Foundation, which was begun by Brandt in 2010 and originated in Kenya. Headed by conservationist Richard Bonham, the foundation now contributes to the conservation and protection of animals from human massacre. They concentrate their resources in especially critical areas that are outside current declared reserves. The Foundation oversees some 1.6 million acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem of East Africa. It employs more than 200 rangers in 36 permanent and mobile outposts. It is the largest employer of local people in the region. Rangers use multiple patrol vehicles, tracker dogs, night vision equipment and aerial monitoring and were the first to institute a new level of coordinated cross-border anti-poaching operations.

Ranger with Tusks of Killed Elephant ©Nick Brandt
Rangers Holding the Tusks of Killed Elephants, Ambroseli, 2011 ©Nick Brandt
Skull and Giraffes ©Nick Brandt
Nick Brandt, Self-Portrait

Although the images of Nick Brandt are devastating, they are of vital importance, not just as monumental art, but as testimony to our unwillingness to solve an issue that will haunt us for generations to come. Brandt's images reveal the lack of political will to save Africa's wildlife and its impoverished communities. They reflect the horrific decision of CITES to stage a one-time ivory stockpile sale, which did nothing but fuel the appetite for more ivory. They reflect the absence of imagination and humaneness to work with local communities to protect them and preserve wildlife, not only for its sake but for the income from tourism that should be invested right back into the local communities, but instead goes....somewhere else....to someone else.
I am lucky enough to have see Brandt's work in person. It is splendid, heroic, deeply beautiful work. I am fortunate to have been able to go to the Maasai Mara at an earlier time. It is my hope that the Big Life Foundation will flourish (https://biglife.org) and that Nick Brandt's astounding body of work will serve as the fulcrum for a new, serious conversation about the future of wildlife.

Gabrielle Duplantier
Chema Madoz, Fotógrafo y Artista Visual

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