Nick Brandt’s project Inherit the Dust may be his most intense one yet. Pictures of proud beasts, blown up to vast proportions and placed in what was once their natural environs – now decayed and brutally exploited ruins.
Text: Ida Therén
Photo: Nick Brandt
“Quadruped. Very intelligent. Made tools. Mourned their dead. Extinct in 2031 due to poaching.”
That’s the definition of the word elephant in Swedish artist Johannes Heldén’s recent book Astroekologi (“Astro ecology”, 2016). His dystopian vision may be closer and closer to becoming a reality.
One of the people fighting back against the eradication of these and other majestic animals is photographer Nick Brandt.
In the past, he has created a sort of trilogy piece on the destruction of the vast tapestry of African wildlife. His book and exhibition Inherit the Dust, in turn, are almost a memorial of the animals disappearing across the continent.
– It feels a lot better to be angry and active, than to be angry and passive, he says.
His photographs of regal wild African animals have garnered a lot of attention, in part because they show animals as present and aware, rather than as mere objects to be observed. In Inherit the Dust, he has blown up previously unpublished snaps of animals from eastern Africa and transposed them into their natural habitats – except that the spaces where they used to roam have now been taken over by mankind.
Brandt believes that we are too shortsighted in our ideas of what intelligence is. He points to different kinds: Emotional, instinctive, and – animal. In the future, he believes, we will look back at the present with disgust, and regret how we treated animals. We will be able to better understand the feelings and thoughts of other creatures. Brandt himself is a vegan, and an animal rights activist.
– Because animals don’t speak human, we don’t understand them. If they did, this world would be a much better place.
At the same time, he acknowledges that we are going to have an even harder time sharing the earth and its bounties, and the struggle for survival will be intensified. The people at the bottom of the hierarchy will, as ever, endure the most hardships.
Going, Going, Gone
Early on in his work on Inherit the Dust, Brandt was worried that he might be overreaching in his ideas about how quickly the rich and diverse animal life was being wiped out. Instead, he soon realised that it was in fact going much faster than he could have imagined. There were times when he returned to an area after a few months, and a previously vibrant spot would be changed forever.
The extermination of animals in Africa isn’t just about poaching, or about any one group’s intense lust for animal parts and products, Brandt points out. It’s about all of us. The impact that humans have had on the climate, and the limited resources that we all have to share.
– With every generation, we accept and adjust to a diminishing of nature. Our grandparents would look at the world that we find normal, and be horrified.
The pieces in Inherit the Dust make it clear that animals aren’t the only losers when ecosystems are destroyed. Underpass with elephants and glue-sniffing children show children as young as six or seven, passed out from the seductive numbing fumes. Only one scrawny child seems to notice the elephant, a haunting floating reminder of how the space looked only a few years earlier.
– When we’re born, we have a natural connection to nature. But as we grow up, we tend to lose it, and sometimes we never get it back.
Brandt has faced some criticism along the lines that as a privileged white man, he shouldn’t be working against development and growth in Africa, where many people are just dreaming of a better life. Those critics, he suggests, are missing two vital points. One is that most large mammals are already gone from Europe and North America, whereas in Africa there is still a chance to prevent a total eradication. The other is that animal conservation can be a financial boon for the locals.
– Africa still has an opportunity to be a super power when it comes to nature tourism.
Most places where these animals live are partially deserts. Without the animals, there isn’t much to do or see. At the same time, a lot of the world’s middle class travellers want to come see these amazing creatures, says Brandt. That means an opportunity for a whole infrastructure of accommodations and guides, which would provide work for people living in the area. The numbers paint a stark picture: One slain elephant will fetch 20,000 dollars. An elephant left to live can create 1.6 million dollars for the local economy in its lifetime.
Community and Conscience
The earth’s human population is growing so quickly that there are almost no places left where humans haven’t invaded nature in one way or another. For animals to be able to survive, it’s necessary to have a strong relationship and cooperation with local communities – which is a big part of Big Life Foundation’s work, the animal protection organization Nick Brandt runs in Kenya.
– Most African governments are too quick and too generous when it comes to giving parts of their country away at a low price. Just because you’re building a factory, doesn’t mean the local community will benefit.
It took Brandt seven months of location scouting before he could start planting his giant prints, mounted on re-enforced panels, and then get to shooting. At times, he had a team of fifty people, who could wait for days until the right light and the right melancholy clouds came along, and with them the feeling he wanted to capture and evoke.
Nick Brandt uses analog film rather than working digitally, which he justifies as “film turning him on”. Against better judgment, he admits. His love for the medium has taken its toll in extra labor and large amounts of cash. Similarly, using actual physical panels to implant his images adds something more than just pasting them in later with the click of a mouse.
– Serendipity will always give you more than you could ever put together in Photoshop.
Nick Brandt is an English photographer whose themes always relate to the disappearing natural world, before much of it is destroyed by mankind. From 2001 to 2018, he has photographed in Africa. In his celebrated trilogy, On This Earth, A Shadow Falls Across The Ravaged Land (2001-2012), he established a style of portrait photography of animals in the wild similar to that of the photography of humans in studio setting, shot on medium format film, attempting to portray animals as sentient creatures not so different from us.
He is co-founder of Big Life Foundation, fighting to protect the animals of a large area of Kenya and Tanzania.