A single picture can change the world, but can it save the planet? This is Nick Brandt.

Yousuf Karsh, Robert Capa — Nick Brandt. The art of photography is subjective. How we view the world is personal, and unique to us. How we interpret other people’s visions, as reflected through the medium of photography, is also subjective.

Every so often, though, an image — or a series of images — speaks to a deeper, more meaningful truth. A universal truth.

The debate over climate change — how is this even still a debate? — remains divisive and fractious, driven by monetary considerations, to do with jobs, the world economy and old-fashioned human greed. It takes a lot to cut through the clutter in a world connected through social media and motivated by instant gratification.

Thankfully, the power of a single image — an unforgettable moment, frozen in time — still has the ability to shake us out of our complacency.

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

Africa, a continent of shit-hole countries, to quote one world leader whose name is widely known but I prefer to think of as El Mamón (thank you, Dave Eggers), is a study in contradictions, not unlike most places, but on a grander, more epic scale. The cradle of humankind — if one is to believe evidence of early archeological digs in East Africa’s Rift Valley, which I do — is home to natural beauty on a scale unsurpassed virtually anywhere else on planet Earth in the early 21st century, but it is also home to overcrowded cities and a seething, steadily expanding sea of humanity, reflecting a youth bulge where the majority of the population is under 25. The population of Africa surpassed one billion people in the year 2009. The annual growth rate is more than 2.5% a year, with a doubling time of 27 years, according to United Nations estimates from the UN’s  Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs.  Today, Africa’s population is estimated to be 1.3 billion people, 17% of the world total. If the population continues to expand at the present rate — a big “if” — the UN estimates the continent’s population will reach 2.5 billion by 2050, or 26% of the world total.

The population growth is the natural result of a decrease in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy, coupled with a corresponding healthy fertility rate. So much for the “civilized,” Western notion of Africa as a basket-case continent, riven by famine, disease, conflict and pestilence.

Climate change, on the other hand, is real, and affects impoverished, overcrowded communities in the equatorial tropics more than in the more sparsely populated — relatively speaking — countries of the far northern and southern hemispheres.

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

How to convey this paradox of conflicting realities in a single photographic image with the power to both inform and move is no easy challenge, and most photographers don’t bother.

Which is where Nick Brandt comes in. He is neither a nature photographer nor a documentary news photographer, but rather a visual artist who combines elements of both. 

Nature purists argue against “posed”    animals (Brandt actually doesn’t pose his animals but rather takes photos in the wild; many of the animals in his most recent book,  This Empty World, published just last month, on Feb. 5, were photographed in the Maasai tribal lands outside Amboseli National Park, on Kenya’s border with Tanzania, where the dry, dusty plains look onto Mt. Kilimanjaro, a majestic backdrop for some of the most iconic images of wild Africa taken anywhere on the continent. (Mt. Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” to the locals, is also evidence of the more obvious effects of climate change, owing to its ever-shrinking glacial ice cap, but that’s a story for another day.)

©Nick Brandt

©Nick Brandt

Photojournalists who focus on hard news argue against staged photos, as news, by definition, is about what happens in the moment, in the blink of an eye. Brandt does stage the people in his photos, building entire sets  — for This Empty World, a gas station, an industrial rock quarry, a dusty river bed — and posing his people there, but in a “green” way, deconstructing and dismantling the sets afterwards, so that any evidence of human interference has vanished entirely — we were never there. The animal images are superimposed over the staged people photos, and the result is both eerie and unsettling, and yet strangely real.

And powerful. Brandt’s images in This Empty World, and in his earlier black-and-white work, Inherit the Dust,  are — to these eyes, anyway — some of the most powerful images of human-wildlife connectedness and conflict it’s possible to imagine. The fact that Brandt, while respected among his peers, isn’t a household name on the art and gallery circuit is not just confounding but profoundly annoying to anyone who cares about the future health of the planet. I admire the David Attenborough nature programs immensely, for their pristine beauty, a soothing balm for troubled times and immensely — and deservedly — popular. But Brandt’s work, to me, is just as profound, but in a different, perhaps more meaningful way. Where Attenborough inspires us to action through natural beauty, Brandt demands that we sit up and take notice, and realize that this is happening right now and that it may already be too late to do something about it.

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

This Empty World has only recently been published, so there is renewed media interest in Brandt’s work. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this week — Brandt distanced himself on his Facebook page somewhat from the published version, as it appeared in a first-person format, as if he had written it himself, with all the inevitable perils of entire thoughts edited out to fit a proscribed space — Brandt revealed some of his innermost thoughts behind his creative process.

The theme emerges again in this reasoned essay/review in the arts journal Brooklyn Rail.

“These men weren’t actors, just normal people from Kibera in Nairobi,” Brandt told The Guardian. “I didn’t direct them, except for the two guys on their phones. Wherever you are in the world, you see people staring at their phones.”

The animals were filmed in their natural state, with the final composite image edited later.

“The (animal) shots were planned ahead of time but only half-staged,” Brandt said. “We built a partial set and installed a camera that was triggered by motion sensors each time an animal came into the frame. And then we waited. Weeks, sometimes months, went by before we would capture one. There were times I wondered if the project would work.”

Clearly, it did.

“These men are not the aggressors,” Brandt continued. “Their communities are as badly impacted by the destruction as the animals. The villains are off-screen, typically industrialists and politicians, responsible for runaway development in the interests of their own short-term gain. 

“Every environmentalist I know in Africa who has seen the images has written to say: ‘You have absolutely nailed what is going on.’”

#Truth. And amen.

“Life is for the living, not the dead.” — Dame Daphne Sheldrick 1934-2018

Damn. They say life goes on. And in my case, when I first heard Dame Daphne Marjorie Sheldrick, DBE (born 4 June, 1934) had passed away at age 83 from a longtime battle with breast cancer, it took me a while to realize that Ishanga, the orphaned elephant I sponsored in November, 2010 — rescued literally from the jaws of death after being surrounded by marauding lions in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park — is alive and well and repatriated back into the wild at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Ithumba Unit in Tsavo East.

Daphne Sheldrick may have lost her battle with cancer, but there are so many orphaned elephants — almost too many to count — that the Sheldrick Trust has nurtured back to health over the years and decades, thanks in large part to the many sponsors around the world who help with feeding and medical costs, that her spirit will survive for as long as there are wild elephants in Tsavo.

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

I’m not going to bang on much more about it here. I’ll leave that to others who knew her best, and those at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust on the outskirts of Nairobi National Park, home of the Kenya Wildlife Service — Kenyan-born armed rangers who every day put their lives on the line and wage war against ivory poachers in Kenya’s semi-arid thorn scrub bush and acacia grasslands with romantic names like Tsavo, Samburu, Meru, Amboseli and Nakuru. The Sheldrick Trust takes its name not from Daphne but from her late husband David, who was the founding park warden of  Tsavo, one of the last truly wild protected wilderness areas on the entire continent of Africa, and without a doubt Kenya’s most rugged, wild and untrammelled park, a vast  wilderness area so large, so dangerous and so genuinely wild that tourists only venture into those tiny pockets of pacified bush that skirt the Nairobi-to-Mombasa highway. These are true badlands, Kenya’s equivalent of Zakouma National Park in Chad or Gorongosa in Mozambique, where AK-47s are as common as bushbuck.

And yet those, like David and Daphne Sheldrick who lived there, soon fell under Tsavo’s spell.

Tsavo is where Denys Finch Hatton — played by Robert Redford in the Oscar-winning 1985 film Out of Africa — died after crashing his Gypsy Moth biplane in May, 1931, shortly after taking off from Voi, not far the Nairobi-Mombasa rail line that would famously become the site of the infamous “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” The man-eaters, a pair of uncommonly large, maneless male lions, killed 135 construction workers — the exact number is a matter of some debate — between March and December, 1898 and stopped construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in its tracks. literally. Tsavo has always been untamed.

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

David Sheldrick came to Kenya as an infant — he was born in Alexandria, Egypt; his father, who had served with the British Remounts in the First World War, settled in Kenya to establish a coffee farm — and died of a heart attack in 1977 at the relatively young age of 57. His widow Daphne created the Sheldrick Elephant Trust in his name.

David Sheldrick had served in the Second World War with the King’s African Rifles in Abyssinia, Ethiopia and then Burma. He was drawn to Tsavo’s rugged beauty and its reputation for unpredictability and sense of danger. It wasn’t long before Sheldrick saw the need for conservation and protection of the wilderness. Tsavo was home at the time to some of East Africa’s largest herds of wild elephants — it still is — but they were disappearing at a fast, and growing, rate. Illegal hunting and ivory poaching were rife, even in the early part of the 20th century.

Daphne Sheldrick recounts those early years in her 2012 memoir, Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story, and a portrait emerges, much as it does in Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Caputo’s hypnotic, addictive 2002 book Ghosts of Tsavo, not of an idealistic bunny-hugger but of a tough, uncompromising woman unafraid of using pithy language when she wanted it to stick, and who showed little fear whether facing a marauding lion, agitated elephant, bandits wielding automatic weapons — or an ill-informed writer visiting from North America with misplaced notions about cute animals and the supposed romanticism of post-colonial Africa.

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

I first learned of Daphne Sheldrick and the Sheldrick Trust from a 2006 segment of CBS’s 60 Minutes, as reported by the late, veteran war correspondent Bob Simon.

The publicity generated by Simon’s 60 Minutes piece wasn’t the reason the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi became a mandatory pit stop on the Nairobi tourist circuit, of course, but it played an incalculable role in introducing the very idea of an elephant orphanage to jaded TV viewers from all over the U.S. and Canada.

The Trust isn’t some misty-eyed vestige of post-colonial romanticism, either. One of Sheldrick’s greatest and most overlooked achievements was winning the trust, confidence and support of successive presidents of independent Kenya over the years, many of them veterans of Kenya’s protracted and often bloody struggle for independence from Britain. Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the son of Kenya’s founding father and co-leader of Kenya’s struggle for independence, Jomo Kenyatta.

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Enough background. I leave it here with some of Daphne Sheldrick’s reflections and musings from over the years, in her own words. The grace, dignity and respect for nature’s wonder shines through in ways both subtle and profound, and always heartfelt.

“To be a baby elephant must be wonderful. Surrounded by a loving family 24 hours a day.... I think it must be how it ought to be, in a perfect world.”

“Animals are indeed more ancient, more complex, and in many ways more sophisticated than us. They are more perfect because they remain within Nature’s fearful symmetry, just as Nature intended. They should be respected and revered, but perhaps none more so than the elephant, the world's most emotionally human land mammal.” 

“They, who have suffered so much at the hands of humans, never lose the ability to forgive, even though, being elephants, they will never be able to forget.”

“Life is for the living, not the dead, who belong to the past and are at peace and beyond all further pain and suffering 'somewhere in the great somewhere.”

                       —  Daphne Sheldrick, 1934-2018.                       

                            Pumzika kwa amani.

Daphne Sheldrick with 'Wendie,' May, 2011.  ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Daphne Sheldrick with 'Wendie,' May, 2011.  ©David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust