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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.