A Critical Reflection on Nick Brandt’s ‘Across the Ravaged Land’

Lauren Tresp | THE magazine - November 9, 2013

'There is a crisis occurring in East Africa.'

There is a crisis occurring in East Africa. Fine-art photographer Nick Brandt has been documenting this crisis for over a decade. His intimate experience with the severity of the loss informs the funereal nobility and tender familiarity of the subjects of his images. The animal kingdom of Kenya and northern Tanzania, specifically the elephants, are Brandt’s most frequently captured subjects.

Brandt was born in England and moved to the United States in 1992 and directed music videos—work that took him to Tanzania when he directed the video for Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” in 1995. In 2000, he began exclusively photographing in East Africa and began work on his trilogy of books. The artist shoots with black-and-white film, and uses neither telephoto nor zoom lenses. The feat of approaching the animals within close proximity requires both courage and mutual trust. As a result, contrasting with conventional, documentary-style wildlife photography, these images do not zoom in on the creature with an intent to observe. The close range of the artist catches each animal in a moment of repose within its environment and documents its reserved interaction with the photographer. These portraits convey moments of intimacy and underscore the sentience of these animals.

Brandt’s exhibition at photo-eye Gallery, Across the Ravaged Land, celebrates the publication of the book by the same name in September, the third and final installment of the artist’s trilogy. Together, the titles read, On this Earth (2005), A Shadow Falls (2009), and Across the Ravaged Land (2013). The falling shadow in question is that of rampant poaching plaguing Africa’s untamed inhabitants. It is no longer a question of if an elephant will be killed for its ivory tusks, but when.

In 2010, Brandt and Richard Bonham established the Big Life Foundation to attempt to preserve the ecosystem of the Amboseli area spanning from Kenya to northern Tanzania. According to the organization’s website, poaching has increased dramatically since 2008 due to an increased demand for ivory in the Far East. An estimated thirty-five thousand elephants are being killed by poachers every year. Big Life Foundation’s initiative has been to curb this devastation by working with local communities and wildlife departments to assemble and mobilize resources. 

Since its inception, Big Life Foundation has put more than three-hundred local rangers to work at thirty-one newly built outposts across all two million acres of the Amboseli, coordinating across borders. They have made more than one thousand arrests and confiscated more than three thousand weapons. However, outside of these protected areas, poaching still continues without consequence. Big Life describes itself as “a kind of short term triage,” providing immediate protection until a long-term systemic solution is devised.

It is with the passion and urgency felt personally by Brandt, and highlighted by his work with Big Life, that he captures images of his subjects in portraits and landscapes. His views of animals resonate most deeply with reverence. In images such as Elephant Mother & Baby Sleeping, Amboseli (2012), the photographer’s close position and the baby elephant’s relaxed position create a sentiment of approachability. The textural wrinkles and folds of the elephants’ skin are sharply highlighted against the hazy desert background.

The portraits of “calcified” birds are similarly reverent, but they are scenes of death rather than life. The birds, such as the one seen in Calcified Fish Eagle, Lake Natron (2012), were found by the artist along the shore of Lake Natron in northern Tanzania. Named for the alkali-rich natrocarbonites from a nearby volcano that contaminate the water, the lake can reach temperatures above one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The animals are not technically “calcified,” but are salt- and soda- encrusted, and perfectly preserved. Brandt repositioned the carcasses, posed them as if reanimated, and then photographed them against the backdrop of the lake’s steaming surface. Looking as though they simply froze in time, swept with dust and hollowed out from within, these birds are visual elegies for a dying land.

Lion Trophy, Chyulu Hills, Kenya (2012), is an image of a lion trophy head, affixed to a wooden post on an outcrop, overlooking an expansive flatland. The lion appears disturbingly and sublimely animated, gazing out at what once might have been a paradise. The nobility of the creature exposes the absurdity of the idea of killing it for a trifling trophy.

Appearing for the first time in the artist’s work are images containing humans. In Line of Rangers with Tusks of Killed Elephants, Amboseli (2011), Big Life Foundation rangers stand in an arc holding onto the tusks of twenty-two dead elephants. This powerful, dramatic posturing simultaneously reinforces the detriment caused by the human element while introducing the viewer to hope. Firmly planted on the earth, arms outstretched and confronting their viewers head-on, the rangers represent the powerful potential to fight back against the poaching, and preserve these ecosystems before they vanish altogether.

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