'It is better to be angry and active than angry and passive.' On the launch of his ambitious new series, 'This Empty World', photographer Nick Brandt talks to Thames & Hudson about apathy, 'environmental Armageddon', and why he chose to work in colour for the first time.
Nick, your photography has tackled the degradation of our natural world for almost two decades — yet things seem to be getting worse, not better, for our planet. How do you stay motivated in face of continued apathy and obstruction towards environmental protection?
It’s true — the apathy and obstruction that one witnesses on a daily basis, especially coming from mainly right wing politicians who appear to work at the behest of corporate and industrial lobbyists, can truly enrage and depress you.
But I come back to the phrase I use endlessly, because quite simply, I believe it: It is better to be angry and active than angry and passive. Once you become active, the despair feels less overwhelming. Your actions, no matter how small, can energize and focus you.
Your new series, This Empty World, addresses the rapid encroachment of human activity on the East African landscape, prompting what you call an ‘environmental Armageddon.’ You’ve been visiting the region for years: What kind of scale and speed of destruction are we talking?
By 2030, Africa’s population is projected to reach 1.6 billion, up from 1 billion in 2018. The countries of East Africa, where this series was photographed is one of the hotspots for that population growth and associated destruction of natural environments: all those people have to live somewhere.
Even though population increase is not such an issue in the Western world, I would use the phrase ‘environmental Armageddon’ for us too. The erasure of our biodiversity may be quieter, but it’s no less devastating. Bees, bats, birds and an astonishing number of other creatures that are at the essential core of a functioning ecosystem are being scraped off the face of the Earth.
This Empty World features many of the same themes and motifs as Inherit the Dust, but with a whole new ambition in production. Tell us a little more about the process behind each shot.
Each image was a combination of two moments in time, captured weeks apart, almost all from the exact same locked-off camera position. Initially, a partial set was built and lit on bare, dusty unprotected, and inhabited local community land. Weeks, even months, followed whilst the wild animals of the region hopefully became comfortable enough with all this strange new stuff to enter the frame.
Once the animals were captured on camera, the full sets were built by the art department team. The camera remained fixed in place throughout, in all but a few of the photos.
A second sequence was then photographed with full set and people drawn from local communities and beyond. The final images were a composite of these two elements. After that the sets were broken down and recycled to use for the next set.
You’re confronting man’s intrusions on the natural landscape, while also intervening on that same landscape yourself with these man-made sets. How did you reconcile that tension?
It was something I was very sensitive to. We always chose pieces of land for the sets that were already pretty eroded and bare — a section of plain 300 metres from a road, a dried up dam, or a denuded and overgrazed area close to a village. As well as being inhabited, this land is also unprotected.
This is also one of the reasons it took so long to get the photos — the animals are very wary of moving into such populated areas. It’s also why most of the series is nocturnal; the animals just don’t feel comfortable coming close during the day, when many more people, cars, motorbikes, and livestock are about.
In terms of the actual sets, all elements were recycled for multiple use. At the end, when the last sets were taken down, nothing was thrown away. Even small remaining pieces were taken by locals to repair their homes.
Once we left, the land was returned as much as possible to how it was before we arrived. Disturbed areas were re-seeded with grass. After the rains, there was no evidence that we were there.
The pictures are so intricate and elaborate that many might suspect they’re computer-generated. Why was it so important to you to construct everything by hand, when you could have achieved the same effect in Photoshop?
Because it would never have looked as good or worked in the same way.Yes, I could have made my life a lot easier by photographing the animals out in the wild, photographing pre-existing semi-urban locations, and then compositing those elements together in Photoshop.
But there was a clear technical superiority in photographing the animals, locations and people from the exact same camera position so that it all aligned perfectly. Doing this also made a critical difference to me in aesthetic and emotional terms. With so many of the elements in the same location, new ideas, unexpected incidents that I would never have thought of, revealed themselves whilst photographing.
The series involved some major firsts in your career — your first use of colour, digital, and elaborate lighting. How was it to make such big changes in your practice?
It was simultaneously scary and exciting to be working with such elaborate lighting. I had never even used a flash before. At the end of the project, I still hate using flashes, which we needed to use for the first stage with the animals, but I am now very comfortable with constant lighting, which was used on the second stage with the people.
I was also simultaneously excited and frightened by working in color for the first time. I wanted to use it as expressively as possible, embracing the man-made vivid reds and blues and oranges to evoke the unnatural light imposed on a natural world.
I’m struck by the recurrent presence of that garish lighting, as well as fencing, railing, and of animals stuck in, or on the precipice of, deep trenches. Can you talk a little more about this sense of exposure and entrapment?
Yes, many of the animals were photographed down in deep trenches, as if the earth was swallowing them up, as if this was to be their graves, whilst above, the march of ‘progress’ continues relentlessly on.
Your pictures present local people as equal victims, rather than perpetrators, of environmental degradation. Why?
Yes, I never portray the people in the photos as the aggressors, because they’re not. Environmental degradation and the impact of climate change will almost always affect poor rural people the most, due to the exhausted natural resources upon which they rely.The real villains – the majority of politicians, industrialists and their largely self-serving ilk – are all off camera.
You worked on Maasai community land, a rare example of peaceful coexistence between animals and people. What can we learn from their example?
I don’t think we fully appreciate until we stop to think about it. This is probably one of the last unprotected places where animals and humans — a sizable number of humans — live alongside one another. It’s something more and more rare in the 21st century. Considering their level of poverty, it is all the more impressive that mostly, the Maasai tolerate the presence of the animals amongst them.
What can we learn from their example? Well, in their case, more and more now see that there is an economic benefit to preserving the wildlife because so much of their land is so poor in other resources, and ecotourism provides that opportunity.
Many would argue that the assault on the African landscape simply follows an exploitative and capitalist model exported and propagated by Western powers. How do you negotiate this legacy as a white, western photographer?
Yes, most African people would probably say that Western societies trampled over their own natural world centuries ago in the interests of economic expansion, and that in Africa, now it is their long overdue turn to grow economically. Why should they be deprived of the comfortable lives that most people have in the West?
In many regards, it’s a reasonable argument. But protection of the environment and economic benefit can go hand in hand. In many areas of East Africa where these animals do still exist, ecotourism (and conservation) is often the only truly significant source of long term economic benefit for the local communities.
I would hope and believe that I negotiate this legacy in two ways — firstly, in emphasizing how much this natural destruction impacts and hurts local, rural communities. Secondly, through my conservation foundation, Big Life. Our whole ethos is that we employ and work hand in hand with the local community for the benefit of all.
Tell us more about Big Life.
The Big Life Foundation works to protect the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem, straddling southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.I never imagined that I would also become a conservationist, but the level of elephant poaching in the area was so appalling, with few existing organizations with the resources to stop it, that I felt compelled to do something.
I co-founded the foundation with Richard Bonham, a brilliant local conservationist. Initially, I was able to raise a lot of funds from generous collectors of my photos, and we gradually expanded from there.
Eight years later, Big Life protects over 1.6 million acres with more than 200 rangers in 36 permanent and mobile outposts. We are now the biggest employer of local people in the region.
With the aid of multiple patrol vehicles, tracker dogs, night vision equipment and aerial monitoring, we have also introduced a new level of coordinated protection that has brought about a dramatic reduction in poaching of ALL animals in the region, as well as numerous arrests of some of the worst, most prolific poachers. Please go to biglife.org to learn more.
Interview conducted by Eliza Apperly.
See more of Nick Bradnt: This Empty World.