By Bill Dobbins
Nick Brandt established a new standard with his portraits of African wildlife over the years. His intent, he has explained, was to present them as fellow sentient beings, with consciousness and personalities, and worth of being both respected as individuals and protected against the serious threats that face them.
FROM WIKIPEDIA: Born in 1964 and raised in London, England, Brandt studied Painting, and then Film at Saint Martin’s School of Art. He moved to California in 1992 and directed many award-winning music videos for the likes of Michael Jackson (“Childhood“, “Earth Song“, “Stranger in Moscow“, “Cry“), Moby(“Porcelain“), Jewel (“Hands“), XTC (“Dear God“) among others.
In 1995, Brandt was hired to direct the Michael Jackson music video “Earth Song” which meant going to do the production in Tanzania. “I fell in love with the place, the animals, the natural world, as so many do,” Brandt explained. “and I became frustrated that I couldn’t express my feeling about this place and the wildlife through the film. But I realized there was a way to do this through photography. So animals were my first love and photography was simply the medium I used to present them as sentient beings just as we are.”
Brandt soon realized there were extensive threats facing Africa’s wild life. Poaching was a major one. For example, the wholesale slaughter of elephants for their ivory. Elephants are wonderful, intelligent, social animals which are being hunted and poached at a pace that makes them vulnerable to species extinction. It looks as if there may come a time in the near future where the only elephants you see are in zoos or specialized wildlife preserves.
Unless something is done to put a stop to this tragedy.
SOME FACTS: Based on statistics released by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), there were at least 20,000 elephants killed world wide by poachers in 2013 for their ivory tusks. The number of elephants killed was slightly down from the 22,000 elephants killed in 2012 and the 25,000 poached in 2011.
At the end of 2013, there were an estimated 500,000 African elephants living in the world. 95 percent of the elephant population has been killed during the last 100 years.
The ivory is collected from elephants in Africa and sold in markets in Asia. According to Cites, there are 8 countries that are heavily involved in either buying, selling or providing illicit ivory. The countries are Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in Africa, and China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam in Asia.
The three African countries accounted for 80 percent of the major seizures in Africa in 2013.
Above from Havocscope
But there is another threat: loss of habitat. “There used to be 27 million elephants with a range that was almost the entire continent of Africa,” Brandt explains. “Now there are some 300,000 remaining. But efforts are underway to protect elephants from poaching, to establish safe havens for them in the wild and to fight the export and sale of ivory, which is a primary reason for the slaughtering of so many elephants.”
Brandt worked to bring attention to the plight of these animals with his first photographic project starting in 2001, which was a trilogy of work to call attention to the vanishing natural grandeur of East Africa. Unlike the typical sort of nature and travel photos, polished and colorful, Brandt’s images were stark, graphic and treated his animal subjects as historically important icons, as if creatures long gone from history and whose passing was an occasion for mourning.
One of the reason his photos of animals were so striking was his “up close and personal” technique. Brandt worked using a Pentax 67II with two fixed lenses, on medium-format black and white film without telephoto or zoom lenses. “You wouldn’t take a portrait of a human being from a hundred feet away,” says Brandt, “and expect to capture their spirit; you’d move in close.”
But his photos in the Inherit The Dust projects are very different from his animal portraits. On subsequent trips to Africa Brandt watched as traditional habitats for wild life were increasingly overrun and destroyed by “development,” often resulting in desolate and despoiled landscapes that were once the home to thousands of African animals.
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
Nick Brandt says, as a basically pessimistic person, he always realized his work would be an elegy to a vanishing land. But he didn’t appreciate exactly how quickly this process would be taking place! This change has become extensive and seems to be continuing to accelerate. So Brandt decided to call attention to the scope and devastation of this change with the new photographic project he titled Inherit The Dust.
“If we follow our present path of development and destruction,” warns Brandt, “in just a few years time, rural African children will be as uncomprehending that elephants and giraffes once roamed the fields in front of their home, as we are that woolly rhinos once lived where our nearest shopping mall now stands.”
He has decided to called attention to the seriousness of this situation by placing large format blow ups of his animal photos in areas that were once their home and are now too often filled with things like trash, garbage and other ugly effects of “civilized” development.
The problem is not just loss of overall habitat but separation and isolation of areas inhabited by wild life. Many of these animals, especially elephants, have wide ranging territories, enabling them to forage extensively for food and to find water. Too often nowadays there are many small areas available to them but they are not connected by any corridors that would allow wildlife to travel from one habitat to another.
Like many others, Nick Brandt is appalled by these developments. But he believes in positive action, not giving up hope. “Just like climate change,” he says, “we can fight to mitigate the worst of all this. So my photos are meant to inspire and motivate, not to depress and create a loss of hope. Because there is indeed much to hope for.”
His photographic work on behalf of Africa and its animals has been an ongoing process. A book of the photography, On This Earth, was released in 2005 and constituted 66 photos taken from 2000–2004 with introductions by the conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall, author Alice Sebold, and photography critic Vicki Goldberg.
The photo book Inherit The Dust, highlighting the drastic changes in landscape and habitat, was published in 2016.
FROM AMAZON BOOKS: Three years after the completion of his trilogy, On This Earth, A Shadow Falls Across the Ravaged Land, Nick Brandt returned to East Africa to photograph the escalating changes to the continent’s natural world and its animals. In a series of epic panoramas, Brandt recorded the impact of man in places where animals used to roam, but no longer do. In each location, Brandt erected a life-size panel of one of his portrait photographs–showing groups of elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions, cheetahs and zebras–placing the displaced animals on sites of explosive urban development, new factories, wastelands and quarries. The contemporary figures within the photographs seem oblivious to the presence of the panels and the animals represented in them, who are now no more than ghosts in the landscape. Inherit the Dustincludes this new body of panoramic photographs along with original portraits of the animals used in the panoramas, the unique emotional animal portraiture for which Brandt is recognized. There are also two essays by the artist: a text about the crisis facing the conservation of the natural world in East Africa, and behind-the-scenes descriptions of Brandt’s elaborate production process, with accompanying documentary photographs.
Nick Brandt’s Big Life Foundation is one of the important organizations intent on reversing the forces that have been causing such diminishment of the African animal populations. Protecting over 1.6 million acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem of East Africa, Big Life partners with local communities to protect nature for the benefit of all.
Since its inception, Big Life has expanded to employ hundreds of local Maasai rangers—with more than 30 permanent outposts and tent-based field units, 13 Land Cruiser patrol vehicles, 3 tracker dogs, and 2 planes for aerial surveillance.
Co-founded in September 2010 by Brandt, conservationist Richard Bonham, and entrepreneur Tom Hill, Big Life was the first organization in East Africa to establish coordinated cross-border anti-poaching operations
Nick Brandt is adamant in his belief that something can be done to resist and even reverse the poaching and destruction of habitat. To help him, readers are urged to donate to the Big Life foundation and to buy Brandt’s books
In addition, you are urged NOT to buy any ivory products. There is a huge market for these in places like China, but they get exported to the US as well. In my personal view, there should be no trading in “vintage” ivory either. Ivory belongs in museums, not in personal collections.
Any time you see ivory, just picture a magnificent elephant, perhaps a mother with calves, certainly with close family attachments, lying butchered on the ground, the meat being left to rot, killed for tusks to sell to the ivory trade.
Shocking. Not to be tolerated. A call to action.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
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It took a lot of people, planning and work
to photograph Inherit The Dust.