Interview with Nick Brandt (July 2016)
Nick and I have been exchanging emails for some time now, working towards finding a time to fit this interview in. Nick, as I'm sure many of you will know, has been working on a new book 'Inherit the Dust' as well as preparing and printing large prints ready for several exhibitions around the world. It is, therefore, with great appreciation that I am able to bring this to you.
It's difficult for me to pinpoint when I first became aware of Nick's work but I think it must have been around the time 'A Shadow Falls' was published in 2009 (the second book in the trilogy; On this Earth, A Shadow Falls, Across this Ravaged Land). His work, with its unique perspective on the majesty and vulnerability of the animals of Africa, resonated strongly with me; I'm not alone in this of course.
Nick's exposure to the animals in their environment in East Africa's Amboselli region, brought him directly into contact with the impact that poaching was and is still having. It's often the poaching of elephants that people were most exposed to in the media but the poaching wasn't just confined to elephants; rhinos, lions, and plains animals such as giraffes ad zebras are all facing incredible levels of population decline. Extinction is now a very real possibility. As he explains on his website, "I realized that I could no longer watch the destruction of this extraordinary ecosystem and its animals. So in September of 2010, I co-founded Big Life Foundation with highly-regarded conservationist Richard Bonham."
I have been a contributor to the organisation for a number of years now and it's been an inspiration to see the difference it's making. These animals have no voice, so it has to be up to non-profit organisations such as Big Life to protect them, as well as influence governments to recognise the destruction taking place and make the necessary changes and investment required to assure the future of these animals. Furthermore, as well as protecting the animals, Big Life has provided livelihoods for its rangers, many of them would-be poachers.
Before you read this interview, I urge you to take 6 minutes to watch this video made by Nick in 2014. You may find some of the scenes distressing but it will help you understand the importance and necessity of the work they are doing. You might find some of the statistics shown within this short film hard to believe.
After seeing the video and reading the interview you may feel moved to help. A link to the Big Life Foundation is available at the end of this interview if you'd like to learn more about their work and perhaps contribute to their efforts.
First of all, many thanks Nick for finding the time for this interview. I know it's been a relentless 2015 and 2016 for you.
1) When you press the shutter button, what is your intent?
It depends on what I'm photographing. So for example, if it's the portrait of a wild animal (but I don't photograph them anymore, haven't for three years, and have no plans to again), then I'm waiting for that moment where they seem to be presenting themselves for their portrait, where I can capture the feeling of them being sentient creatures not so different from us.
2) Is the intent different now from what it was shortly after the Big Life Foundation was established?
The intent is no different. I want to take a photo that satisfies me, that works for me, and if along the way, people are affected by my concerns, then all the better.
3) Why do you believe that your work has achieved the international recognition that it has?
Oh boy. It’s not really for me to answer that. But I would venture to say that I photographed the animals the same way I would humans, as I see them as not that different from us. I was always (pleasantly) surprised when people say they read a sadness into the portraits. I like that people feel that, as hopefully that stems from a sense that these animals are being wiped out.
But the recognition, as such, has come from more than animal photos - the photos of the rangers have been some of the most responded to, for example.
4) Your work goes beyond the realms of documentary photography into fine art; how much do you visualise the end result when you compose and shoot? How much to you plan before you even venture out into the national parks?
It varies. Obviously, with the arranged photos, which is now all I shoot - Inherit the Dust, the rangers, the petrified birds, the trophies - these are pre-visualised and arranged. Of my old work, I had certain specific plans and ideas in terms of landscape, light, and body posture of my subjects. But sometimes, of course, great things will catch you unawares too, for which you had no plans.
5) Photographing the disappearing animals and natural world of Africa must be as personally rewarding as it is frustrating, angering and saddening? Are there times you lose faith?
Sure, absolutely. But then you realise that this is getting you nowhere. It’s a cliché, but you have to keep fighting and believing that you can make some kind of difference in some way.
6) You obviously came to recognise individual animals, especially amongst the elephants I imagine. Do you ever form emotional attachments to any of them or is it always more of a collective sense of admiration and concern?
I formed emotional attachments to a few to the extent that the idea that they would be killed by poachers unsurprisingly stressed me out even more than other animals being killed.
7) Did you know right from the outset what the tone of the three books would be? Did your visit in 2010, during which you noticed a significant change for the worse, influence Across This Ravaged Land into darker territory than previously envisaged?
The idea that it be a trilogy only came to me during the second book. Fortunately the title of the first book - On This Earth - enabled me to finish the sentence with the second and third books.
But even though I tend to be quite pessimistic, the speed of devastation and disappearance was far worse than imagined. Remember that it wasn’t until 2008 that the dramatic escalation in poaching due increased demand from the Far East really took off.
So yes, seeing the escalation upon starting the final book led to photos like those of the rangers holding the tusks of elephants killed at the hands of man.
8) With On this Earth, A Shadow Falls, Across This Ravaged Land, did you achieve your original objective(s)?
I hope that I captured a couple of aims of the work: an elegy to a world before it was gone, and a feeling that these animals are sentient creatures not so different from us.
However, it nagged at me that the trilogy had not captured that in as direct a way as it could just how fast the natural world in Africa was being wiped out.
9) You planned to have a break after working on the three books. Did that happen?
No, I ended up having no break at all. I kept thinking about all these places where these animals had once roamed but no longer did. I had come to realise that the situation was about much more than poaching. It was about the sheer number of us spreading, expanding across former wilderness.
So that idea - about all these places where these animals had once roamed but no longer did - became the genesis for Inherit the Dust. Once I had the idea, I was hell-bent on producing it and getting it out there as fast as possible.
10) The public face of your work for Big Life is obviously the photography but I imagine you are involved in many other ways. If so, tell us a bit about that.
No the photography doesn’t really come into it, only in so far as it brings people to Big Life, and enables me to make contact with wealthy collectors of my work, some of whom have been extraordinarily generous in their donations. Big Life only exist because of one amazing collector getting us going with $1m in the first two years. I still handle most of the direction for fundraising appeals and messaging.
11) By your own admission you deal in a dark subject matter. I believe it takes an admirable person to live with and manage the thoughts and feelings that the conflict, death and the relentless struggle must bring. Big Life is making a difference but does it take its toll, mentally? What strategies do you have for coping with it? Where do you draw your strength?
For the first three to four years of Big Life’s existence, my life was basically around the clock shifts between the photography and Big Life. In the last year or so, with real support in place for the first time, I have been able to pull back and concentrate more on the photography. A huge relief.
I draw my strength from knowing we are making a big difference. It’s far better to be angry and active than angry and passive.
12) In 2013 you stated that the U.S. was the second largest importer of illegal wildlife parts. The hypocrisy of the US trying to apply pressure on China back then would have been obvious. Have things changed at all?
The second largest importer, yes. But all the ivory factories are in the Far East. An estimated 70% of the demand is still from China. Also the Chinese seem to be intent on annihilating all animal forms on the planet, in the oceans and on land. Nothing seems safe.
But things have improved in terms of the banning of importation of ivory in both the US and China in the last year. We’re hopeful that some point soon, China and maybe Hong Kong will ban the sale of ivory altogether.
13) The statistics around the vast numbers being killed are truly shocking and the complete extinction of many magnificent species is now a very real possibility. Big Life is making a difference at source, so to speak but, while the demand from China and the Far East persists, the potential reward for the poachers may continue to outweigh the risks. What more needs to be done to drive the cultural changes overseas and who needs to do it? What more can we do? Is extinction for some of these animals inevitable?
There are surprisingly few groups dealing with suppressing the demand, via education of the public. The most effective, in my opinion, is Wild Aid, who have done an incredible job so far of campaigns that show people, for example, that ivory does not happen by elephants naturally losing their tusks and some little African feller coming by and picking them up. It’s violent and brutal, with elephants often still alive whilst the chainsaw cuts through their faces to get at the tusks.
Extinction for many of the individual populations is inevitable, tragically. It’s a Sophie’s Choice situation, where you choose your battles as to which ecosystems and the animals within, that you attempt to save.
14) There’s a very interesting essay from “Across The Ravaged Land” entitled ‘I Am the Walrus’. In it you say, “everything I do seems to be perversely, masochistically designed to increase my chances of messing up and losing the maximum number of shots in the process.” At the time you were describing your almost masochistic ‘auto-nothing’ approach to photography. Do you think you thrive on adversity?
Hmm. I’m really not sure. I need to ask my wife and get back to you. I think I think that any original work requires a shitload of more than normal effort, which by its nature encompasses all manner of adversity.
15) I went to see an exhibition of Sebastião Salgado’s work last year and noted that, despite a recent resurgence in interest in using film amongst photographers, he shoots with digital cameras now. From everything I’ve read so far, it’s clear that shooting film is, for you, the only medium that captures the timeless feel you like and the opportunity for happy accidents. Are you still using exactly the same gear you mentioned in your essay? Are you not tempted sometimes to shoot analog and digital? Do you think digital has nothing to offer you?
I’m very tempted to shoot digital because I’d love my life to be less stressful and expensive. I tried several times. But each time, I didn’t like it. As you know from my essays, it has left me cold, uninspired. Even the diminished area of frame size - 6x4.5cm - as opposed to my medium format cameras that are 6x7 - frustrates me in its diminished field of vision.
However, a new project may come along in the future where it’s an aesthetic or practical necessity.
16) If you’re shooting either with a 50mm or 100mm lens, you’re certainly up close and personal. I understand the intention was to capture the spirit of the animals but has close proximity ever influenced the end result? For example, were the elephants sometimes aware of you and therefore behaved differently? Did the animals sometimes interact with you?
I don’t believe that any animal has behaved differently, or interacted with me, no, nor did I think close proximity influenced the end result beyond the obvious.
17) Tell us something about your creative influences. Are there filmmakers and/or photographers you admire or are influenced by? Who were your earlier influences?
Certainly many that I admire, but not consciously influenced by. In painting, everyone from Bruegel and Bosch to Corot and Bacon. In photography, the great black and white portraitists like Edward Steichen, Arnold Newman, Richard Avedon, but also other photographers like W Eugene Smith, Bill Brandt (not related), Sally Mann, Robert Parke Harrison.
18) Your new work Inherit the Dust is published now and is a very intentional and charged body of work. How did you arrive at the concept; was there an inspiration?
It’s easiest for me to quote in fragments from the essay in the book:
I grew up in England, home of the elk, lynx and brown bear, of the wolf and wolverine and cave lion, of the woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Of course, this was before my time. For each of us, wherever we live on the planet, animals such as these walked in the very place where we now sit. But of course, most of these animals are long gone.
Meanwhile in parts of present-day Africa - albeit fewer parts by the day - sometimes even more extraordinary animals DO still roam. But the destruction of these animals, of these African places, is not happening in the past, but in our own immediate present. Keep going at this pace, and the unique megafauna of Africa will be rapidly gone the way of the megafauna of America and Europe many centuries ago.
This was the genesis for this body of work. Genesis. We are living through the antithesis of genesis right now. All those billions of years to reach a place of such wondrous diversity, and then in just a few shockingly short years, an infinitesimal pinprick of time, to annihilate that.
And East Africa is a microcosm of that. It just happens to be the microcosm where I photograph, and about which I know most.
However, perhaps the majority of us still think that the destruction here in Africa is to do with poaching, feeding the insatiable demand for animal parts from the Far East. Actually, it’s much more complex and monumental than that.
Mainly, it’s about all of us. Significantly, it’s about the terrifying number of us, and the impact of the very finite amount of space and resources for so many humans.
So I conceived this project in early 2014 - to photograph life-size panels of animals in locations where animals such as these used to roam but, as a result of human impact on the environment, no longer do.
19) None of the human subjects engage with the photographer (or the large panels) in almost all of the images. Is that deliberate; what is the message there?
Yes, it was deliberate for all but the last four images. With all the photos, I deliberately spent a minimum of several days in each location, waiting for cloud cover, and in the process, during that time, the local people became completely accustomed to both the crew’s presence, and the presence of the panels. The aim of this was that they should be oblivious to the panels, so that the animals effectively became ghosts in the landscape, which is of course, what they have in reality become.
20) I recently bought a book of Henri Cartier-Bresson's work and I think the images are reminiscent of some of his work. By that I mean, capturing the perfect placement of elements in the scene but in a way that seems entirely natural; the decisive moment. I feel that really strongly in Underpass with Elephants, for example. How much was actually staged or choreographed in these images, specifically in the case of the human presence in the images?
Interesting, because I feel, sadly, that we are reaching a crossroads in the Decisive Moment in the field of art photography, because with digital technology, now you can just roll video, and pluck out a still frame that has the high-quality resolution of a still.
I discovered early on in the production that allowing action to unfold naturally was superior to me attempting to stage it. In the instance of Underpass with Elephants, all the people you see in the photo are homeless people that live under that bridge. Almost everyone in the photo was just getting on with their days, even if that meant being high on glue sniffed from those bottles attached to their faces.
The exception to this is the baby on the left, who was encouraged to look at the elephants. It was the one time that I wanted someone, specifically a child, to see the animals - the notion being that when we are born, we all have an instinctual connection to nature, that is often, usually lost as we grow up.
21) Will this work evolve in to a second book? If not, what’s next for you?
No, that’s it. This body of work is done (although I could keep going). I’ve no idea what will be next, but this time, I really do want that break.
22) You stated earlier that you have no intention of capturing animal portraits so what now, in 2016, is the primary motivation behind your work? Is it the need to further the cause of Big Life Foundation or the need to create meaningful art?
My mission in life, as I see it, is to continue to highlight the wonders of the natural world, of animals, and the planetary destruction of that. I just have to keep finding new ways of expressing that, that stimulate and inspire me. And yes, at the same time, continue to do what I can to protect one critical part of the world through Big Life Foundation.
Thank you very much Nick.
If you'd like to see the fabulous images from Inherit the Dust, you can see them full screen online at http://inheritthedust.nickbrandt.com.If you're inspired by Nick's work and want to help the Big Life Foundation make a very real difference, you can learn more about them at biglife.org.
Back in May I had the good fortune to catch the London exhibition that featured several of the large prints from Inherit the Dust. Other exhibitions around the world are available, with the largest being in Stockholm until September 2016. I recommend the venue and, of course, seeing the full size prints.
The full list of exhibitions is available on Nick's website.
The new book, Inherit the Dust, is available for purchase.
Oversize 'coffee table' books with some images opening out to as wide as 40" / 100cm
13” H x 15” W (33 x 38cm)
124 pages, 68 photos, Tritone
Available now on Amazon.com at http://goo.gl/qB06yW.
SIGNED COPIES available at PHOTOEYE for $65 at http://www.photoeye.com/ds643a.
In UK, buy the book on Amazon at http://goo.gl/eXub0f, £45.
You can follow Nick on Facebook.