Nick Brandt established a style of animal portrait photography in the wild similar to that of photographing humans in studio setting, shot on medium format film, attempting to portray animals as sentient creatures not so different from us.
Elephant Footprints on Lake Bed, Amboseli, 2011
Footprints belonging to a lone big male elephant walking away across a stark lake bed (out of the safety of a small park) towards the distant hills – the final photograph in my 10-year trilogy showing the rapidly disappearing natural world of East Africa, On This Earth, A Shadow Falls Across The Ravaged Land.
These footprints left me wondering: Did the elephant ever return? Is he still alive today? Or is he dead, speared by a farmer for raiding his crops, or killed for his ivory, with the tusks that grew out from his great beautiful head now carved into some trinket in the Far East?
Construction Trench with Jackal, Kenya, 2019
The photograph is part of the series, “This Empty World”, which addresses the escalating destruction of the African natural world, showing a world where, overwhelmed by runaway development, there is no longer space for animals to survive.
Each image is a combination of two moments in time, captured weeks apart, almost all from the exact same locked-off camera position:
Initially, a partial set is built and lit. Weeks follow, whilst the animals that inhabit the region become comfortable enough to enter the frame. Once the animals are captured on camera, the full (recyclable) sets are built. In all but a few of the photos, the camera remains fixed in place throughout. A second sequence is then photographed with full set.
Reflections about Compassion
I grew up in England, home of the elk and brown bear, of the 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, even more extraordinary animals DO still roam. But the destruction of these animals, of these places, is not happening in the past, but in our own immediate present.
If we follow our present path of development and destruction, in just a few years time, rural African children will be as uncomprehending that elephants and giraffes once roamed the land in front of their homes, as we are that woolly rhinos once lived where our nearest shopping mall now stands. 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.
Genesis: we are living through the antithesis of genesis right now. It took 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.
However, most of us still think that the destruction 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 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.
When many of us think of East Africa, we think of vast, unspoiled wilderness. It’s inconceivable that there may no longer be enough space for both animal and man. But this romanticized view is out-moded. There is almost no park or reserve big enough for the animals to live out their lives safely. And outside of those often surprisingly small areas, the animals are being relentlessly squeezed out and hunted down. With the current accelerating explosion in human population here, the wild spaces are disappearing at incredible speed.
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 economically grow. Why should they be deprived of the comfortable lives that most people have in the West?
In many regards, a reasonable argument. But perhaps to state the obvious, protection of the environment and economic benefit can go hand in hand. In many areas of East Africa where these animals do still exist – poor but still teeming with natural wonders – ecotourism is often the only truly significant source of long term economic benefit for the local communities. Take away the animals, and there is usually little left of economic value.
The damnation of animal life, the debasement of human life, the destructive conjugality between the two: It is not just the animals who are the victims of environmental devastation, but also the humans now inhabiting these landscapes.
So how does hope fit into all this?
It goes without saying that this work aims to raise awareness of the ongoing destruction, and in so doing, viewers can choose to be inspired or energized to act. All is not lost. We can still mitigate the worst of what humankind is doing. I don’t just take these photos as a defeated testament to the finality of it all.
As personal evidence of that, in the area where the photos were This Empty World were taken, in 2010, I started a non-profit organization, Big Life Foundation, that today employs over 300 local people, including 200+ rangers who protect 1.6m. acres of wild ecosystem. In many areas of East Africa where these animals do still exist – poor but still teeming with natural wonders – protection of the environment and economic benefit for the local communities can go hand in hand.
All of us, in ways small and large, can play a part in a better more humane, compassionate, and sustainable path to life on this planet. And therein lies hope.