When you see wild animals being wild across vast natural landscapes, you feel something visceral, almost primordial. Witnessing lions, giraffes, rhinos, wildebeests, and elephants living in their own ecosystem can be a life-changing experience. At least this is how British photographer Nick Brandt remembers his visit to Tanzania in 1995.
“There are very few places left in the world where you can still encounter large numbers of animals in the wild,” says Brandt, who was so entranced by Africa’s wildlife that he has spent more than a decade of his life photographing them. “And many of those remaining are almost being loved to death.” During his many visits to East Africa over the years, Brandt has produced large black-and-white portraits of iconic wildlife that have caught the eye of collectors and museums around the world. He’s also zoomed in on what threatens to wipe them from the scenery.
For instance, after Brandt noticed the uptick in elephant poaching that began around 2010, he documented some of this devastation in “Across the Ravaged Land,” the last in a trilogy of photography collections that spanned 12 years. But with his latest project, he wanted his work to be more than an elegy to a vanishing world. He remembered an idea from his school days—the notion that history class would be more interesting if, instead of memorizing long lists of dates and leaders, you imagined what life was like on the very spot where you now live, looking back 50 years, 100 years, 10,000 years into the past.
Brandt’s “Inherit the Dust” project does something like that for southern Kenya. Habitat loss and degradation threaten wildlife all over the world, and in many places in Africa, urban centers, landfills, mining sites, and other development have sprawled right up to the borders of national parks and other conservation areas. Through enormous prints mounted on aluminum frames, Brandt brought wild animals—cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes, and others—back to these spaces. The juxtaposition of the past and the present, of the near pristine and the despoiled, speaks for itself.
“I could have just studied Google Earth and found locations to simply Photoshop my pictures into the scene. That would have been easy,” Brandt says. Instead, he experienced these areas and their challenging conditions for himself and, with the help of a large crew, physically arranged the life-size panels, some more than 30 feet high, into place. “In terms of organic integration and unexpected incidents,” he says, “the payoff was incomparable.”
The panoramas, shot on film and carefully stitched together later, capture the human reactions to these species, which simultaneously seem in and out of place in these much-changed landscapes. It is important to remember, Brandt emphasizes, that the impoverished people shown in the photos are also victims of environmental devastation. They struggle to keep their livestock and their crops (and themselves) alive between each drought. The loss of wildlife and land is also a loss of traditional sources of food and a way of life.
But Brandt doesn’t just train his lens on the situation without doing something about it. The Big Life Foundation, which he cofounded with conservationist Richard Bonham and entrepreneur Tom Hill in 2010, employs more than 200 rangers at more than 30 permanent outposts and tent-based field units in an effort to protect nearly 1.6 million acres of the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem on the borderlands of Kenya and Tanzania. The photographer believes eco-tourism is a “unique gold-mine opportunity” for Africa and anywhere else magnificent animals are able to thrive.
“My current mission is to help in every way I can. I can only hope my photographs will inspire people to think about what they can do to help protect these wonderful remaining wild places.”
So wherever you are right now, look around. Ponder what once lived there. Now imagine this landscape 100 years from now: What remains? What is gone? What is extinct? If you don’t like what you see, do something about it.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.