The horns of Africa
A new project is using unusual methods to fight elephant poaching in the east of the continent, from taking beautiful photographs of the animals to hiring well-paid informers
The arc of Nick Brandt’s work over the past 15 years, from directing superstar rock videos (mostly in California) to setting up a cross-border anti-poaching network in two east African countries, seems a big stretch, and it is. But for Brandt it has also been an almost inevitable journey.
If you look back at Michael Jackson’s 1995 Earth Song video, you may notice a recurring grim motif: a dead elephant, its tusks bloodily torn out by poachers. It was while directing these sequences in Tanzania that Brandt first “fell in love with the animals and land of east Africa”, and became passionately concerned about the threat to them.
Nearly two decades later, his Big Life foundation is fighting, rather effectively when it can, to save elephants from poaching. Its creation less than two years ago was sparked by a huge surge in poaching, driven by soaring demand for African ivory and animal organs, generally from the Far East.
And just when it seemed that Big Life was making real progress, last summer its rangers found themselves in the middle of a troubling and violent new conflict between the Masai and the Kenya Wildlife Service that has made it very difficult for them to operate.
In the 1990s, Brandt’s first response to his new passion was, not surprisingly, to start filming the region’s charismatic big mammals. But he believed – he is a perfectionist by nature – that he could not do them justice in moving images. He returned again and again to Tanzania and Kenya and began to shoot still images with neither a zoom nor a telephoto lens.
This unusual technique means that he spends a lot of time getting very close to his subjects. This establishes a remarkable intimacy with individual animals, ranging from elephants to chimpanzees, lions to zebras. As he says himself, these shots have a lot in common with early-20th-century studio portraits of humans, an impression underlined by his use of black-and-white, often reworked in silvery or sepia tones.
His portraiture has an elegiac quality, almost as if these great creatures had already vanished into extinction. The sombre feeling that we are looking at a dying world imbues even the warmest images in his books, On This Earth (2005) and A Shadow Falls (2009).
His work has been acclaimed by figures such as the veteran conservationist Jane Goodall and the novelists Alice Sebold and Peter Matthiessen. His prints have been exhibited in galleries across the world.
But Brandt is a restless soul, unlikely to rest on his laurels in the best of circumstances. And the circumstances have become worse on each trip he has taken in search of new pictures, as it becomes harder and harder to find fewer and fewer animals. The explosion of elephant poaching over the past five years in particular has taken even the conservation world by surprise.
Seeing the grisly evidence mount, often in the mutilated bodies of elephants he thought of almost as friends, he reached a tipping point in 2010.
“I realised I could be angry and passive or angry and active, and one day I just found I could not be passive any more,” he says.