What happens when you combine wild nature and an urban landscape in one shot?
On 24 May, the “Inherit the Dust” exhibition by Nick Brandt opened at the Multimedia Art Museum. Looking at the pictures of lions and elephants in front of factories and railways, you could be excused for thinking it was all photoshop. In reality, these are photos of large panels, with the images of the animals installed and photographed in the locations they used to inhabit. All of the shots were taken in Africa, which completely changed Nick’s life 20 years ago. He was working as a director then, and came to Tanzania to shoot the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”. Brandt was so captivated by the wild nature around him that he decided to become a photographer and devote his time to capturing these places and animals. His images portray not just the beauty of wildlife, but also the dangers that have come with urbanization. Today, the majority of Africa’s population lives in rural areas, but according to UN predictions, over the next decades it will be the continent with the highest pace of urbanization. Nick calls himself a pessimistic idealist and believes that cities cannot compete with the world’s wild nature in terms of diversity. And even though it is destroyed in the name of industrial production, the environment possesses a much higher potential than cheap labour and vast uninhabited spaces. Strelka Magazine asked Brandt to comment on five of his works that are currently on display in Moscow.
Radio with elephant, 2014
These photographs were taken over the course of a decade, but were never released. My sadness at what African wildlife used to be is what motivated and inspired this series. I wanted to put the images of the animals in the places where they used to live, but no longer do. I always photographed them keeping in mind that they would soon be wiped out by the humans. So showing this contrast between the wealth of life in the past and the emptiness of the environment in the present was a logical step for me. For example, this particular photograph was taken in a town that two years ago had been just a savannah with zebras and gazelles wandering around. As for the local people, they were too busy with their own lives to really care about what I was doing. That applied to all areas. I made sure to stay in each place long enough for everybody to just get completely familiar with me there.
Underpass with elephants, 2015
I had location scouts looking for months before I came to the site. I was searching for places where you could still feel some traces of the original wild landscape. This photograph is the only one where I didn’t do that — you can only see the city. But I just couldn’t resist this location, it was too strong.
We are trying to be closer to the natural world with society progressing towards using alternative energy: solar energy, for example; but some cities are far too complex in their design for reintegrating nature — there simply aren’t enough open areas. Yes, there are leopards in Bombay and foxes in London, but it’s a compromise, a pale shadow of what it once was. But even that shadow should be preserved. You can find a connection with nature almost everywhere. For instance, I grew up in central London surrounded by a big and loud urban area. But every morning, I walked to a local park to bird watch and study the plants. And that’s how I ended up doing what I do. It’s astonishing to me how few kids get to go out into the countryside these days. Children are given fewer opportunities to explore the natural world. And I worry that as a result they are becoming more and more desensitized.
Alleyway with chimpanzee, 2014
I wasn’t consciously looking for places that look grim or scary; the truth is that I do not think of them as that. It’s not just the animals who are the victims of urbanization; it’s also the people. Degradation of the environment is a serious problem, and unless we take action, it is going to lead to a great tragedy. But the thing is that these people in Africa are poor and their main concern is survival. You need to help them before they can start taking an interest in matters of the environment. We shouldn’t forget that labour is very cheap in Africa, and it’s extremely different from the West, where automation is the future.
Wasteland with rhinos, 2015
I often wondered: could you take this concept and apply it to other places in the world? But the difference is that here in Africa these animals still exist, whereas in Europe it’s already too late. I’d have to use paintings of the extinct animals instead of the photographs that I took. My images function as a call to action, a plea to preserve African wildlife before it’s gone. This rhinoceros, for example, was photographed in a location that was only 10 kilometres away from a massive landfill. But today this area is completely fenced, because of the value of their horns. So, in many of the villages and towns, most of people have never seen any of those animals in their lifetime.
Quarry with giraffe, 2014
I do not think that animals should be returned to the cities. They are gone from these urbanized landscapes; the story is over. The biggest problem of all — other than climate change — is population growth. So what will happen in the nearest future is that we will have to build huge fences, creating specific areas for the animals to inhabit. But in order for it to succeed, conservation should also support the local community — and I mean economically. For example: through ecotourism. Then, it will be in their interest to preserve the environment. Look at this photograph. Unlike the giraffe, this quarry is something you can find almost anywhere. If the local population realises that a natural reserve can be as profitable as a quarry, then they will support ecological initiatives. I have my own foundation in Kenya that oversees a territory of 8 thousand hectares with 300 rangers helping to protect it from poachers. If you took away the animals, there would be nothing left there of economic value — it would be just a desert.
Factory with chimpanzee, 2014
Nature can definitely become a brand for this continent. But Africans can also justifiably argue that here in the West, we have destroyed our nature in order to gain economically, and now it’s their turn. But what they don’t realise is that they are actually sitting on a goldmine. This incredible wealth of nature could provide Africa with the ability to become a superpower. But, unfortunately, politicians and industrialists think only about the short term and not the long one. The aim of my work is to share the beauty of nature before urbanization and to inspire people to take action in order to protect it.
Text: Svetlana Kondratieva