When people think of Africa, they still think of these sort of vast, open plains of animals,” Nick Brandt said. “They think of wilderness.”
To Brandt, nothing could be further from the truth. The renowned photographer, whose fifth project, This Empty World, came out this week, has tackled the uncomfortable friction between the natural world and the human world for decades in his work.
This collection steps up the urgency several notches with photographs that are cinematic, disturbing, and almost absurd, juxtaposing the wild with the civilized in a way that often doesn’t compute for the viewer, particularly one unused to how animals and people inhabit the same spaces in eastern Africa.
For Brandt, that juxtaposition was troubling—and simultaneously, inspirational. In 2010, Brandt founded the Big Life Foundation, an organization he hoped would be able to help preserve Africa’s wildlife while aiding locals. Big Life employs hundreds of park rangers in the Amboseli, a vast, 2-million-acre region overlapping Kenya and Tanzania, where poachers have made local elephant populations nearly extinct.
Indeed, much of Brandt’s work highlights these elephants, bewildered, confused, and frightened, as their normal habitat.
But while poaching is a huge issue threatening local wildlife, Brandt says his work showed that more than poaching, the lack of sufficient space for humans and wildlife to co-exist is troubling.
And he doesn’t blame humans.
“It’s very important to understand that the people in the photographs are not the aggressors,” he said. “It’s not just animals that are victims of environmental degradation. It’s also the rural poor. Environmental degradation hits the rural poor the most.”
In this way, Brandt’s work doesn’t see the human as an enemy.
“What I hope comes across is a shared sense of melancholy and loss in both people and animals,” Brandt said. “There is a sad coexistence at the whim of greater forces. For these people it’s their destiny, and it’s out of their control as well, as development sweeps through these areas.”
“The population of Africa is estimated to be 1 billion [people]. It’s estimated to go to 1.6 billion by 2030,” Brandt pointed out. “There simply isn’t enough room, especially in East Africa, for animals to co-exist with human beings.”
The stunning cinematic quality of the visuals were captured with digital photography, a first for Brandt. “It was a practical necessity,” Brandt said. “I wanted everything you see in the photographs to be shot in the same spot.”
Animals were shot first using flash units. Cameras were set up for weeks, sometimes months, as Brandt waited for animals to become comfortable enough to enter the frame and have their photograph captured by motion sensors. Then sets were built and people brought in; after photography ended, Brandt and his crew recycled everything and put materials back into the supply chain so nothing went to waste, “so it was as if were never there.”
The resulting combination of photographs were made into nearly 10-foot-long prints that are being shown in New York and Los Angeles.
The enormity is powerful; the emptiness is brooding and dark but sensitive, as the fear and loneliness of animals struggling to find their place within the human world is pitted against human progress.
Especially striking is the usage of light and color to make the struggle visceral to the viewer.
“I wanted to photograph animals in the natural world in an unnatural light,” Brandt said.
To illustrate how industry titans were taking advantage of both humans and animals, Brandt used multiple cameras at night and lit animals and humans with the blaring fluorescence of industrial lights. The set locations were often only a few hundred meters away from villages and roads.
The bare land proved tricky to photograph, though.
“It was a nightmare to work in,” Brandt said. “I wanted all that dust since I’m talking about environmental degradation.
Many of the images have a bluish-red aura, which serves to further enhance the discomfort and sense of isolation of both humans and animals.
Brandt said the lighting was purposeful but also reflected modern day Africa, with red lights simply coming from car tail lights, evoking a sense of alarm or anxiety from the animal.
And while blue is often connected to calmness, the electric azure lighting many animals in the book is eerie and haunting.
“We set up lights with blue gels so elephants were lit by the blue light and everything seamlessly blended [in the background],” Brandt said. “The light from the bus makes it seem like it’s illuminated the elephant.”
The way the light plays with cavernous holes and creates dark spaces helps to further create anguish over the loss of what could have been.
“A lot of animals are in trenches so it feels like they are being swallowed up by the earth while the tide of progress sweeps over,” Brandt said.
Ultimately, Brandt understands that the local geopolitics and biodiversity of the struggles of animals and humans in eastern Africa might seem remote to Americans who might not see a lion or elephant attempt to use the same land as a person.
But Brandt hopes empathy might help put a face—human and animal—on industrialization, and the “off-screen villains” of the “greedy, short-term minds of politicians and industrialists.”
“I am trying to increase dialogue in my own incremental way,” he said. “If there are enough people talking about climate change or biodiversity loss, it becomes part of the global awareness, and maybe, just maybe, it might infiltrate its way into our consciousness.
“It’s short-term financial gain for a few at the expense of many. You can’t isolate the two, and that’s what’s going on not only in Africa, but globally.”