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Awaiting Animals: Casting East African Wildlife "in a State of Being"

Nick Brandt shares the work and motivation behind the camera in his photographs of wildlife and landscape in A Shadow Falls, the second offering in his trilogy on the vanishing East African wild
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CREDIT: A SHADOW FALLS BY NICK BRANDT (ABRAMS, 2009)

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Photographer Nick Brandt spent months on dry lake beds and dusty plains, waiting to capture images of African wildlife in what he calls their "state of being". The animal assemblages that he saw through his lens are now revealed in A Shadow Falls, Brandt's book of stunning, sepia-toned portraits and panoramas released this month by Abrams. It is the second installment, after On This Earth: Photographs from East Africa, in his trilogy of books that Brandt hopes will memorialize "the vanishing natural grandeur of East Africa."

Curious about how Brandt, based in southern California, works with elephants, baboons and buffalo as subjects, ScientificAmerican.com asked him about what it was like to photograph them and what their future holds.

View a slide show of some of the portraits in A Shadow Falls

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What inspired you to create this collection of photos of wildlife in East Africa in A Shadow Falls?
Simply, I find myself indescribably moved every time I go to these places and see these animals in these settings.

There is something profoundly iconic, mythological even, about the animals of East and southern Africa. There is also something deeply, emotionally stirring and affecting about the plains of Africa—those vast, green rolling plains punctuated by graphically perfect acacia trees under the huge skies.

I'm not interested in creating work that is simply documentary or filled with action and drama, which has been the norm in the photography of animals in the wild. What I am interested in is showing the animals simply in the state of being—before, in the wild at least, they cease to exist. This world is under terrible threat, all of it caused by us.

What do you think are the major threats right now to the survival of the animals you have photographed?
Where to begin? Every year, every month, the problems seem to grow ever greater, ever more complex and ever more intertwined with one another. Between population pressure, global warming, deforestation and poaching, the destruction is massive and escalating.

In 1995 I first drove the main road from Nairobi down through southern Kenya to Arusha in northern Tanzania. Along the way, in completely unprotected areas, I saw giraffes, zebras, gazelles, impalas, wildebeest. A few months ago, just 13 years later, I made the same drive. I didn't see a single wild animal the entire four-hour drive. It's not that they've moved elsewhere. It's that they've been wiped out—turned into bushmeat.

The protected areas of land are comparatively tiny, animals move out of them all the time, and when they do, they are likely to eventually be killed for bushmeat or for poaching.

When people in Africa are poor and starving and there are no crops left to eat due to the deforestation and global warming leading to ever-worsening droughts, they cannot be blamed if they kill the last zebra walking through the bush for their family to eat.

You don't use a telephoto lens, which would allow you to create a greater sense of closeness to your subjects. Why not?
Because it's not the same. With a telephoto lens, the photographer is generally framing the animal against earth or scrub that has little poetry or beauty, whereas I want to see as much of the sky and landscape as possible.

I believe that being that close to the animal makes a huge difference in the photographer's ability to reveal its personality. You wouldn't take a portrait of a human being from a hundred feet away and expect to capture their soul; you'd move in close.

How did you manage to get so close to these animals for these photographs?

Generally, the places I photograph the animals are national parks and reserves, in which the animals are somewhat habituated to human presence. Then factor in the huge amount of time we spend with the animals, waiting for them to present themselves for their portrait, as it were. Combined, they allow us to get pretty close without being really bothered by our presence.

What is the longest that you waited for one of the portraits in your book?

Eighteen days. "Lion Before Storm—Sitting Profile," for example. I went back to that lion—because I loved his face—17 days in a row just to sit there and watch him flat on his back, sleeping. On the 18th day, a storm finally came in, and the second that the wind ahead of the storm smashed into his face, he sat up, and I got four photos in 20 minutes. ("Portrait of Lion Standing in Wind" and "Lion Before Storm" are two others from the series.) The irony is that having waited so long for something interesting, the shots are so perfect for wind direction, that some people think that I photographed the lion in a studio with a wind machine.

Also, "Giraffes in Evening Light." I waited three weeks without a photo before this one, mainly due to the weather conditions, as so often is the case. Again, many people think this shot must be photoshopped, but all those giraffes in those exact places under that exact sky is what you can see if you wait long enough, or are lucky enough—there were plenty of tourists there witnessing the same sight.

Do you think it is important that you feel a connection with the animals, or understand their dynamics and daily routines, to capture the sense of intimacy in your photographs?
I don't pretend to feel any kind of special connection with the animals. I just am fascinated and obsessed by them. Do I need to understand their dynamics and daily routines? I guess it helps to some degree, but their routines are not very routine on the whole. You pretty much have to go with the flow.

Have you returned since taking these photographs to see how your subjects are faring?
Yes. As much as one can. This coming year is going to be the most bleak of all with the terrible drought that East Africa is currently experiencing, and the explosion in poaching as a result of the renewed Chinese demand for ivory.

Poaching of elephants financed by the Chinese has exploded once again in the last few years. In 2005 ivory cost $400 a kilogram. Today, it is $6,000 a kilo. As a result, about 10 percent of Africa's elephant population is killed every year, about 30,000 elephants a year.

What kind of steps do you think a reader who is inspired by your book could take to help animal conservation in Africa?
Just send whatever money you feel you can to a few key charities that are doing what they can to help. Charities like Tusk and The Nature Conservancy work in conjunction with the local communities to help them see that it is in their economic interests to protect the wildlife and habitat around them. Without the local communities' involvement, all is lost.

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