From Dust Till Dawn, a Photographer’s Tragedy Set in Africa

Nick Brandt tells one of the most urgent stories of our time, taking photography to new heights to capture the attention of the world before it’s too late.

Alleyway with Chimpanzee (Photo by Nick Brandt)
Alleyway with Chimpanzee (Photo by Nick Brandt)

Aristotle was fond of tragedy. The art form did more than simply retell history and facts. Greek tragedy could impart timeless wisdom, showing what could or should be, acting as a teaching tool to inspire the individual and shape society for the better.

Two essential qualities stand out from his teachings — purity of purpose, and the purification or catharsis that would follow.

A couple of millennia later, an artist — a painter turned filmmaker turned photographer — has emerged who fits this Aristotelian mould, whose works exemplify life-changing art.

London-born photographer Nick Brandt, in his recent collection, Inherit the Dust, tackles tragedy with an epicness, intimacy, and integrity that is bringing the world to its knees, in prayer for the preservation of life itself — the natural world.

“In Inherit the Dust, in the museum shows, it’s incredibly satisfying to see women just standing in front of these giant prints crying,” Brandt says. “The photographs had that level of emotional impact on them.”

As an artist, Brandt seems to have transcended the role of photographer, donning the mantle of storyteller. He has captured the destruction of African nature and wildlife, depicting vast man-made wastelands. He craned massive life-sized photographs of vibrant wildlife down into the dystopian landscape of modern-day Africa, framing a heartbreaking juxtaposition.

Then the magic happened — he saw African children, men and women awe-struck and captivated by the greatness of these photographed animals. Or sometimes they were absolutely oblivious, shuffling along their way — the wildlife invisible, a mere memory, a shadow of the past. Brandt captured these moments.

Factory with Rhino (Photo by Nick Brandt)
Factory with Rhino (Photo by Nick Brandt)
Quarry with Lion (Photo by Nick Brandt)

But Brandt’s tragedy isn’t a simple one — it’s multilayered, with as much illumination as darkness.

The most glaring victim is Africa, its animals and nature, but with a closer look, it’s also humanity. By shining a light on this catastrophe of nature, man, and the land, Brandt shows us that when one element is out of balance, not respected or cherished, all of creation suffers.

Like an unforgettable classic tragedy, Brandt’s photography draws hope from gloom — and just in time, before African life is lost forever.

The road not taken

Oftentimes the most influential people take a path least popular. But through tests and trials, a leader becomes refined, and a dusty, unworn trail turns providential.

“I spent so many years as a filmmaker, frustrated like crazy that I couldn’t find a way to tell stories that dealt with those concerns and passions of mine,” Brandt says. “It grieves me the number of years I wasted. I very, very belatedly came to photography — I’m in a race against time.”

What stands out so clearly about Brandt is that his heavy heart reflects a pure one, an uncompromising desire to help heal the planet. He’s not trying to preserve African wildlife to boost a brand, or for a seat at some table of influence — his art is meant to wake us up.

When I first experienced the photography of Inherit the Dust, I saw the touch of a classical painter — light, shading, proportion, an overall harmony and beauty, even within a tragic landscape.

I saw the touch of a classical painter — light, shading, proportion, an overall harmony and beauty, even within a tragic landscape.

“I did actually start as a painter, so it’s very complimentary when you say it reminds you of painting,” he says. “But music is my favourite art form — there’s nothing like it that comes close to universally affecting people anywhere, any place.”

Music is the reason he transitioned from painting to directing film. “I wanted my images to have music,” he says. “When I was directing, the best moments were always when you found a piece of music that so complemented the visuals that it took the story to a whole new level. In another life, I would have liked to have been a musician.”

Looking at his photography now, you can almost hear a score — a melancholy melody, rich with possibility and pain. Maybe the volume is turned all the way down, but it’s there — the music of his photography.

Maybe the volume is turned all the way down, but it’s there — the music of his photography.

“What I personally find quite interesting is the typical career progression of so many is that they go into painting or photography, and then they end up in film,” he says. “I’ve done the opposite because what I see with the beauty of photography is that you are able to create what you want, how you want, when you want. You are in control of your creative destiny.”

A new lens

Controlling destiny — it’s an interesting concept, a philosopher may even say paradoxical. Whether you’re creating the path as you go along, or simply following the natural way that’s already set but revealed over time, what matters is that an artist can follow his heart, and in turn, speak to those sleeping.

“I came to photography not because of the medium, but because I suddenly realized I can actually capture my feelings about animals and the disappearing natural world through photography in a way that I cannot in any other medium,” says Brandt. “I actually consider Inherit the Dust to be [my] first body of work. I finally found my voice in terms of creating more of a world than just simply taking photographs of what you see in front of you.”

It’s a humble thing to say, considering Brandt’s previous, highly-acclaimed collection of majestic African wildlife.

Nick Brandt photographing Factory with Giraffe. (Photo by Joshua Yeh)
Nick Brandt photographing Factory with Giraffe. (Photo by Joshua Yeh)

“The prior photography was more to do with capturing an extraordinary natural world as a last testament, as an elegy before it all disappears,” he says. “But I was dissatisfied that it’s not showing the extraordinary speed of destruction of the natural world.”

“Many of us still think of Africa as this vast wilderness, and it’s not anymore. It’s just overrun with development, at a speed with which we almost cannot comprehend in the Western world because the population growth is nowhere near the same in North America or in Europe as Africa. The land that remains for the natural world for animals is just being gobbled up so fast, and this seemed like a potent way of showing where the animals used to roam but no longer do, due to man.”

“The land that remains for the natural world for animals is just being gobbled up so fast, and this seemed like a potent way of showing where the animals used to roam.” –Nick Brandt

This is another reason Brandt reminds me of Aristotle. Aristotle said that art is a better teacher than history — the latter focuses on facts that happened, whereas the former can inspire an improved world. That’s the soul of Brandt’s photography — what’s happening in Africa is a crime, so let’s change it.

Wasteland with Elephant (Photo by Nick Brandt)
Wasteland with Elephant (Photo by Nick Brandt)

“You’re an incremental cog in the [machine] and hope that you’re part of a growing awareness, engagement and dialogue with this level of destruction,” Brandt says. “It becomes more and more part of an understanding that people will not just acknowledge but then do something about it. In America and Europe, most of those animals are long gone. In East Africa, in a rapidly decreasing number of places, those animals do still exist, so there is still time to preserve those ecosystems, those worlds.”

Ingenuity

With his focus clearly on Africa, Brandt pioneered new ways to bring his art and his message vividly to life.

“I think with photography now, you have to work harder,” he says. “Once upon a time, photography was all about capturing the decisive moment. But now, such is the preponderance of digital cameras that you can almost just roll video and then take a frame out. There’s no real decisive moment anymore. You have to think hard or go further, be more creative.”

Brandt shoots in medium-format film, which produces negatives multiple sizes bigger than 35mm for higher resolution large prints. But he believes these digital trends put power back into the people’s hands so that they can maintain that very same artistic integrity that inspired Brandt to become a photographer.

“The fact that the world has gone almost completely digital now, it’s actually quite democratizing,” he explains. “It gives people who may not have much money the opportunity to go out, create and tell stories, with the only outlay being the initial camera. The more the democratization of creativity, the more you can take it out of the hands of corporations and those interfering. The potential is there for anyone and everyone with passion and commitment to just go create.”

But like all phenomena, there’s a good and a bad. While the opportunity is there in theory, it seems that artists are forced to do everything themselves — from the awe-inspiring art to the PR and marketing — business skill sets an artistic savant may be missing.

“I live in this very purist universe where I think the art should speak for itself,” Brandt says, with a chuckle, amused by a reality he’s learned to accept. “You can live in this purist world that I was trying to live in, but you are shooting yourself in the foot a bit. On the other hand, you can go too far in the other direction. I see certain people who put more effort into the promotion than into the art.”

In a way, the legacy of Inherit the Dust begins with Brandt’s decision to not follow trends and do what’s easiest, but instead to painstakingly take a road others wouldn’t be willing to take. To start, he didn’t just digitally create the powerful imagery in Inherit the Dust, it was important for him to actually crane life-size panels of the animals down into the landscape.

“It’s not some technical gimmick — it’s all shot for real,” he says. “Everybody thinks that everything is Photoshopped nowadays, but months were spent location-scouting, looking for landscapes where the horizon line would match. It’s there so you can feel the sense that these animals really once, not so long ago, inhabited exactly those places.”

In the photograph Wasteland with Rhinos, the harmony between wildlife and wasteland, the large-scale prints and actual shooting location, is surprising.

Wasteland with Rhinos, a photo from Nick Brandt's Inherit the Dust collection. (Photo by Nick Brandt)
Wasteland with Rhinos, a photo from Nick Brandt’s Inherit the Dust collection. (Photo by Nick Brandt)

“It’s that huge river of garbage sweeping down the hillside, and these two rhinos and the hills behind match up exactly. You just can’t believe that’s actually what was there,” he says.

The expressions the rhinos wear make the print that much more haunting and real. They’re like spirits, or ghosts, surveying what has become of their home. But the one in front, head lowered, peeks up at you, calling out to the viewer, “Please help us.”

“All that comes together because the panel was placed on location. It is the absolute, innate, fundamental superiority of shooting on location,” Brandt says. “These surprises, these incidents, these unexpected events won’t happen. That’s why I spent my photographic life just photographing with medium-format film and everything has been manual. It’s just me and a button where you click the shutter, and that’s it. I find that much more straightforward and a way to connect to what’s in front of you without being distracted.”

If decisive moments had been lost in the modern climate of photography, Brandt’s unique approach has certainly recaptured those magical, eternal moments, with just as much, if not more, emotional impact and depth as the photography of the past.

Underpass with Elephants (Lean Back, Your Life Is On Track) illustrates Brandt’s cathartic art to perfection. In the foreground, an African baby stands precisely in the seam between the two worlds — the depraved, industrial one and the 13-foot-tall life-sized photograph of a family of elephants that seem to meander beneath the underpass.

Underpass with Elephants, a photo from Nick Brandt's Inherit the Dust collection. (Photo by Nick Brandt)
Underpass with Elephants, a photo from Nick Brandt’s Inherit the Dust collection. (Photo by Nick Brandt)

“You just want to feel there’s this epic creature in this landscape,” he says, explaining the decision to place photographs the size of the actual animal on location.

“What I like so much about that photograph is you feel everybody is lost in it, everybody is trapped,” he says. “The elephants are lost and trapped. The kids are lost. Then there is the way the mother elephant seems to look down at the kids.”

A child is at the epicentre of the struggle, surrounded by third-world industrial wreckage and kids and young adults sniffing glue. Yet this child is still innocent enough to be struck motionless by the majestic animals.

“That photograph is the one time in the series where a human being sees the animals, and it’s a baby,” Brandt says. “That was very deliberate because when you’re born, you have an instinctual connection to the natural world. As we grow up, most people lose that; they become desensitized to nature. They live in the city. They come into very little contact with nature or animals, especially now with the way kids are never left alone to explore, to go on adventures. Only 20, 30 years ago, we all had adventures out in the woods or park. That little baby looking at the elephant — that’s while there’s still that ability to connect with the natural world at such a young age.”

Another little kid, looking not unlike a Biafra refugee, Brandt says, also wandered into the scene, and gently reached out to touch the massive elephant’s trunk. It’s a touching reminder that humans yearn for that inborn connection with nature, and that people, just as much as the environment and wildlife, are the victims of this industrial destruction.

It’s a touching reminder that humans yearn for that inborn connection with nature, and that people, just as much as the environment and wildlife, are the victims of this industrial destruction.

“There is so much to see with the people in these photographs,” Brandt says. He reflects on how these natural, spontaneous shots have worked out better than those taken when he first started the project.

“At the very beginning of the project, I thought I had to stage everything. The first couple of days, I had an assistant director, and we were placing everybody and calling action,” he says, admitting it wasn’t authentic.

Quarry with Giraffe (Photo by Nick Brandt)
Quarry with Giraffe (Photo by Nick Brandt)

“The spontaneity of people hanging out was going to be superior. It’s like when you’re watching a film, and you close your eyes and just listen to the dialogue, you can always tell, no matter how good the actors are, it’s a script and they’re acting. But you close your eyes on a documentary, and you can tell it’s real, it’s unscripted.”

“With these photographs, I can do that. I just wait, I don’t have to stage it,” he says. “It’s partially staged because, of course, those panels were put there, but I feel that it’s going to be more emotionally true to how those people live. With those kids at the underpass, that was days of waiting. They were just initially hanging out, getting high further out, way out of frame. Gradually, gradually, gradually, bit by bit, they would sit down nearer and nearer and finally they were in frame.”

A new hope

Once the photography was done, a new waiting would begin — awaiting change, something especially difficult for Brandt given the urgency of his mission.

“If we continue to do nothing, future generations, all they will be inheriting is dust, not a vibrant living planet. It will just be dust,” Brandt says, expounding on his title choice, Inherit the Dust.

“If we continue to do nothing, future generations, all they will be inheriting is dust, not a vibrant living planet.” –Nick Brandt

“It’s funny because the new body of work I’ve just spent eight months in Africa photographing in the most eroded land I’d ever been in my life, the title would have actually been more appropriate for this new body of work. The photographs are just dust, dust, dust, dust. There’s no topsoil left. It is just true wasteland, true dust.”

In addition to more tear-jerking, gut-wrenching photography, Brandt’s taking Africa’s destiny into his own hands, along with conservationist Richard Bonham. They co-founded Big Life Foundation in 2010 to protect many of the areas in Kenya and Tanzania where Brandt shot Inherit the Dust.

“We started Big Life to protect this one extraordinary part of Africa where poaching was out of control and elephants were being killed every week,” Brandt says. “Now, seven years later with hundreds of rangers and outposts across a 2 million-acre ecosystem, poaching has been reduced to almost nothing.”

Big Life isn’t only saving the wildlife, either, as it is the biggest employer in the area, hiring hundreds of rangers.

“Forget about the poetry of the beautiful landscapes and the beautiful animals,” Brandt says. “Just purely pragmatically, the economic benefit to environmental protection exceeds the destruction of the environment. You can economically develop, but you can also preserve the natural world because it’s an economic goldmine in terms of ecotourism.”

“If you destroy the animals, there wouldn’t be a foundation with rangers to protect them, and it would just be this semi-desert with people struggling in an ever more eroded, overgrazed landscape,” he continues. “For example, an elephant kept alive during the course of its life is, in many multiples, worth more economic value to that country than when it gets killed and the money is divided up between poachers, dealers and traders.”

A symbiosis between economy and environment is not only possible, it’s clearly the path forward, Brandt says.

“Huge progress has been made, positive progress,” he says. “That template needs to be extended across every remaining part of the natural world that desperately needs protection, that’s in imminent danger of destruction.”

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