Nick Brandt, Bus Station with Lioness, 2015
Pisani – This Empty World is your first body of work in color, having shot previous series in black and white film. Are there specific reasons for the introduction of color in your work?
Brandt – For both Inherit the Dust – shot in black and white – and This Empty World – shot in color – there was really no choice. Each project had to be shot that way:
With Inherit the Dust, the original portraits of the animals were unreleased photographs photographed on medium format black and white film and then blown up to life-size panels set in the landscapes. For those photographs to appear truly integrated within the landscapes developed and regraded by man, the only option was to photograph in black and white.
With This Empty World, I wanted the invasion of humankind on the natural world to be felt as viscerally as possible. So, it felt only visually and emotionally appropriate that the unnatural, often garish, and sickly colors of the modern human world be imposed on the natural world. I don’t believe that we have ever seen animals in the wild photographed in that kind of light.
Pisani – In your series, Inherit the Dust, you create photographs and install them as big as 8-meter panels (26 ft). What is the significance of creating such large, physical photos for the landscape? Do you think their size works in relationship to the presence of animals in their natural landscape?
Brandt – The photo panels in the landscapes are merely the size of the animals in real life. If it’s a group of rhinos, then the photo of them is automatically 30 feet long. If it’s of a lion, then it may only be 6 feet. The photo panels need to be the size of the animals in real life, so you better sense their former presence, like ghosts in those now-degraded landscapes.
Pisani – Your work often uses the silky tones of grayscale from soft lighting provided by natural weather. Would you say it is important for you to shoot in smooth or flat light such as this?
Brandt – Any scene is instantly transformed in terms of look, mood, and emotion by the sky overhead and accompanying light. None of the photos in either series would work in hard sunlight. The soft flat light imbued by overcast skies creates a melancholic, somber atmosphere that I believe is completely necessary for the works photographed in daylight.
Pisani – Your animal portraits, placed in the middle of a bleak terrain, seem to long for nature, for the color of green pastures; do you feel this is fair to say about the objective of your photographs?
Brandt – I’m not sure it’s an objective, but yes, of course, I long for a return to an unspoiled natural world. Who wouldn’t?
Pisani – In contemplating the urbanization of Africa, do you think it’s fair for Westerners to comment on what happens with the African landscape? Is it possible for society to combine prosperity, progress, and the natural world to thrive together?
Brandt – As I’ve written before, many Africans would say that Western societies destroyed most of 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 ways, 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 – 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.
This line of argument for preservation is more pragmatic than poetic, but it’s the most effective argument in the 21st century. Somewhere like Kenya, the tourism industry is the second largest sector of Kenya’s economy, and it would collapse without those animals. Few would come to visit a world of livestock and dust.
As an aside, I have no patience for the specious argument that outsiders are somehow not allowed to critically observe developments in other societies and cultures. So for example, I think an African has every right to come to America and criticize everything here from the unending lifeless, joyless, nationwide homogenous urban and suburban spread, to the processed junk food, to the excessive material waste, to the environmental horrors being committed to the planet by Trump and his Republican cronies and henchmen. I could go on and on, but hopefully, you see my point.
Nick Brandt, River Bed with Elephants, 2015
Pisani – There is a willingness in your photographs to work without the use of photoshop, capturing real-life scenarios rather than digital manipulation after a shoot. Why would you say this is important?
Brandt – For me, there is a clear technical superiority to photographing all the elements for real as much as possible in situ, in front of you, without moving the camera. It’s not just that the final images are much truer and organic in the integration of their elements; it’s also that this visual truth imbues the images with more emotional resonance. And critically, by everything being there in from of me on the same location when photographing, new ideas, unexpected incidents that I would never have thought of, reveal themselves while photographing.
Pisani – In Inherit the Dust, graphic panels of animals are placed in the landscape. In your most recent series, This Empty World, you fabricate contemporary urban scenarios and combine them with real animals to produce images that present wildlife as well as people in these new urban settings. What is the symbolism of presenting both people and wildlife in these environments?
Brandt – What you see in the photos in This Empty World is, for me, is symbolic of this invasion of the remaining natural wilderness by humans, as the animals are wiped out in the rapidly decreasing number of places they can live.
The images from this series were all photographed on inhabited, eroded Maasai community land, without protected reserve status, close to Amboseli National Park in Kenya.
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. Weeks, even months, followed whilst the animals that inhabit the region hopefully became comfortable enough 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 blended the two elements.
Pisani – Would you mind expanding on the relationship between the last two bodies of work?
Brandt – Both series of work address the most serious problem, facing the health and further existence of animals and the natural world in Africa today:
The escalating destruction of the African natural world at the hands of humans, showing a world where overwhelmed by runaway development, there is no longer space for animals to survive.
By 2030, Africa’s population is projected to reach 1.6 billion, up from 1 billion in 2018. The countries of East Africa, where these series were photographed – is one of the hotspots for that. All those people have to live somewhere.
The people in the photos are also often helplessly swept along by the relentless tide of ‘progress.’ They are never portrayed as the aggressors because they’re not. Environmental degradation 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 kind – are all off-camera.
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.
Pisani – How different is the process for you as a photographer by using camera traps in This Empty World? What is the difference for you as a photographer from looking through a camera’s viewfinder to capture your shot in your previous work to now waiting for animals to walk into the camera trap shot?
Brandt – Initially, I thought that I would have a hard time accepting using camera traps due to what I perceived would be lack of control, but so much about the shots was staged with the lighting that I quickly became accustomed to accepting that the animals were just one part of the composition, and I still had considerable control with the final image, in terms of the sets and human cast.
Pisani – In comparing the majestic portraits of A Shadow Falls to the socio-political undertones in This Empty World, the lighting and the narrative are less romantic and much more sobering. How did this commitment to deal with the harsh realities of environmental degradation lead to a move from an enchanting aesthetic towards conceptually layered, discussion sparking images?
Brandt – I stopped taking those ‘majestic’ portraits eight years ago, in 2012, moving on to much darker imagery. I felt I had no choice – it was irresponsible to continue to show a world unencumbered by human destruction. I also no longer felt artistically stimulated, taking the portraits, even though melancholy in tone.
Nick Brandt, Quarry with Giraffe, 2014
Pisani – This Empty World contains portable constructions and sets, how long did each of the images take to create from beginning to finish?
Brandt – We often had to wait as long as five months for animals to enter the frame to be captured by the camera traps. Then there was a mad rush to build the sets as fast as possible and shoot the people in them before the rains came in mid-October.
Pisani – Did you develop the series organically after you began, or was it all planned before shooting?
Brandt – The only thing that was really planned before shooting was what the set would be – e.g., a bus station, a bridge overpass construction, etc. That dictated the placement of the lighting into which we hoped the animals would eventually be photographed.
Then during most of the shoots, I deliberately allowed people to just hang around, get bored, so they would not even know when they were being photographed. I find that what happens in real life is generally more surprising and interesting than what I might come up with ahead of time in my imagination.
Pisani – What were the physical implications of working on This Empty World? Dealing with natural weather patterns, your proximity to villages and interactions with locals, or leaving equipment in-situ, for example.
Brandt – It was all very complicated and challenging every step of the way.
Because we were shooting on public land, often very close to roads and villages, it took so much longer for wary, apprehensive wild animals to come by and be photographed.
The camera and lighting equipment was obviously left out 24/7, so it was always watched over by local guards from ½ km away. The weather was a challenge because I could only photograph daytime shots in cloud (rare), and at night, we contended with very harsh dust storms as a result of the land being so eroded from over-grazing.
Pisani – Your passion for the environment has led you to co-create a non-profit organization. Big Life Foundation has generated dramatic positive changes for the conservation of wildlife and currently protects about 2 million acres of East African wilderness. Considering your proximity to the issues facing these animals, how do you feel your Foundation affects the potency of your work?
Brandt – The messages of both the work the Foundation does and my photography are very much interlinked. The challenges facing Big Life are currently the same as those you see in This Empty World – the invasion of humankind on the remaining areas of the natural world and its animal inhabitants.
Pisani – As you mentioned, a productive way to combine the protection of the environment with economic growth is ecotourism. Do you believe fine art can stimulate dialogue and enhance ecotourism? Can fine art influence policy decisions?
Brandt – I wish. But no, I don’t. It’s hard enough getting anything through to the politicians and their industrial masters, never mind via fine art.
Pisani – At what point does ecotourism have a negative impact? I.e., The problems with the large numbers of visitors in the Galapagos.
Brandt – As there are fewer and fewer places left in the world to go see an astonishing relatively undamaged natural world, so the number of people visiting them exponentially grows.
Now, ultimately, ecotourism is a net positive. Most of these extraordinary places would have been wiped out long ago, but for the pragmatic benefit of economic income that they bring to each country. They would now be overgrazed wastelands or farmland. So, keep that in mind.
But yes, within that there can and sometimes is a negative impact. Ideally, the model of high cost, low quantity tourism is the necessary model.
Pisani – In your exploration of East Africa, you have been a central artistic force in warning us of how human actions affect the landscape and upset the natural balance. Would you like to explore any different areas dealing with climate change throughout the world?
Brandt – My new project is about climate change in California, where I live.
I could choose to photograph this project pretty much anywhere on the planet that climate change is taking its toll on both human and animal and natural world. But I have chosen to set the new project in America.
This is where the greatest number of both potential influencers and destructive obstructionists live, and if, through this work, they gain an additional layer of understanding of the repercussions, the work can perhaps have the greatest impact.
Pisani – What would you ultimately hope your photographs can accomplish with an audience?
Brandt – You always hope that the work will have some kind of impact. But one has to have a bit of realism. So, I hope that the work can, at the very least, be an incremental cog in the wheel of change – towards a greater awareness of just how much unique life and wonder we are losing on the planet.
And this awareness will lead to action – that people will take steps in ways both large and small to correct the course we are on.
Nick Brandt, Wasteland with Cheetahs and Children, 2015