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Nick Brandt's best photograph: elephants and building workers share a crowded Africa by Dale Berning Sawa (The Guardian)

Poaching in southern Kenya is largely under control now, thanks to the numbers of rangers in place, but there is a bigger issue these days: the invasion of humankind into the wildlife habitat and the conflict that ensues. There is only so much space for people and animals to coexist. That is what I wanted to depict in This Empty World, my series of shots taken in southern Kenya in 2017.

Each work is a composite of two images: the animals photographed first and the humans second, shot weeks apart. We worked on Maasai community ranchland, near Amboseli National Park. I needed a location that had both wildlife habitat and unprotected land inhabited by people. I also wanted it to be extremely denuded, due to overgrazing: the dust was important from an aesthetic point of view.

The shots were planned ahead of time but only half-staged. 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. Luckily, we had nine other cameras set up across the region.


All the set elements were recycled, with almost zero waste

Conceptually, I needed images of animals appearing to be in a state of alarm or melancholy. I wanted the final pairings of humans and beasts to convey a shared sense of loss. In this shot, there is an obvious sense of displacement and alarm, which is exactly what is happening all across Africa. Ancient paths that wild animals have taken for centuries are suddenly being blocked by roads, factories, and all manner of human invasion.

Once we had enough animal shots, the art department built the full set. This one was by far the most elaborate: we used it for half a dozen images. We’d come across a scene just like this when location-scouting around Nairobi: a highway overpass under construction, with staggered heights.

These men weren’t actors, just normal people from Kibera in Nairobi. 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. Other than that, I placed the men then let them get comfortable, or bored, as the night went on, unaware of what the final image would be.

The lighting deliberately mimics the light of a phone in the darkness. I’d never seen wild animals photographed in this kind of sickly, industrial, dystopian light. There were wonderful surprises in the final editing stage: the guy resting his head on his hands, in what I read as an expression of quiet despair; and the exchange of looks between the mother elephant and the man to her left. He’s looking at her with curiosity rather than alarm. Conceptually I would have selected a frame where she is leaning away from the men – yet, instinctively, I went for this one, where she’s leaning towards them. I like how each individual is doing something different. It’s like a Renaissance tableau.

These men are not the aggressors: 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.

In a spirit of conservation, we ensured that no trace remained of the shoots. All the set elements were recycled, with almost zero waste. And when we were done, we had biologists seed the ground with local grass.

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