For over a decade, photographer Nick Brandt has recorded the majesty of wildlife in East Africa, and from the start he has been a class of his own, with dreamy, monochrome images that never look like typical shots from safari. The work also has an elegiac quality that is detectable even to those who might not know that his subjects are being driven to extinction by human activity. In his latest series Inherit the Dust, he includes the human element—the destruction of habitats, the environmental degradation—and shows the unity of environmental and humanitarian crises.
Brandt’s artistry arrests the eye, even if the material is darker and challenging. Ideally, such work will lead to more nuanced views of the continent and the global forces shaping it at present, but there are significant hurdles to overcome.
Western audiences generally have two simplified views of Africa, which have been shaped by entertainment and the aid industry: Africa is 1) poor and unstable, and 2) one big safari. At a glance, Inherit the Dust might appeal to both, but closer examination undermines these assumptions. The urban scenes counter the latter view, and when one considers this and the mineral resources evident in other images, one wonders if in fact Africa is truly without means. Why are there vast plains of refuse if there is not also mass consumption?
Those answers lie beyond the images (and Africa’s shores), and as Brandt’s images draw viewers in, they may be compelled to take time and seek a more complete understanding… and this is because it is evident in the work that Brandt has taken his time at every step, never sacrificing artistry to make his point more quickly. His portraits in the wild are the product of days of patience, awaiting the perfect moment. The images of Inherit the Dust are also time-intensive, but different in that they rely on complicated staging to achieve their effect. Brandt showed his skill at arranging a good vanitas in his surreal images of salt-cured birds at a lake in Tanzania. (These may in fact be his most widely viewed works, as the series went viral online in 2015.) The scale of the vanitas is much larger in Inherit the Dust—not an individual life, but a way of life and several species.
Each shot in Inherit the Dust is a sophisticated trompe l’oeil. Brandt worked with a team to install approximately life-size prints of his wildlife photos in industrial wastelands, landfills and urban byways. By situating the megafauna among working and displaced humans, it dispenses with simplified, Lion King mythologizing of the continent while reinforcing a sense of shared destiny with the land, between its human and non-human inhabitants.
In many shots, the horizon of the wildlife portrait is perfectly aligned with the horizon of the surrounding area. An extraordinary example is Road to Factory with Zebra, which almost seamlessly joins hills and shorelines in an uninterrupted flow. It is an all around extraordinary composition: to the left, the wreckage of a car, to the right, the striped front of an oncoming train, and the larger than life zebra caught in the middle, at the intersection of the rail and the road beneath a dramatic sky. Each element has its own intrigue, yet is unified in the striking symmetry of the scene.
Brandt’s visual rhymes soothe and please the eye while the mind reckons the dreadful degradation on display. In Quarry with Giraffe, the giraffe is seated with its neck craned upward; to the right, two hydraulic excavators seem to mimic its pose, with arms extended up. Elsewhere, a family of cheetahs perched on a hill and looking back toward the viewer share space with children silhouetted on mounds of trash—all becoming apparitions of an unnatural disaster.
These shots in wastelands and industrial zones are among the most striking, but the urban shots are perhaps more telling. Two photos from the same underpass call attention to how the economic desperation is not entirely homegrown. Among skyscrapers at back, one sees a billboard with a well-dressed man lying on his back. Its dictum: “Lean Back, Your Life is On Track,” is the subtitle of one of these shots. In the second shot of this locale, crowds of children are sitting about sniffing glue. In Underpass with Rhino and Egret, at the far left you see a billboard with laughing, young, pale faces. The continent is not without wealth or aspiration—far from it—nor Eurocentric marketing. The looting behind this disparity is happening locally and internationally.
And this is where it gets complicated for the viewer: Even if we oppose the pollution and pillaging of Africa by multinationals with which we have no immediate connection, our consumption habits (and even the aid organizations and foreign policies we may support) still involve us in the drama. Regarding the wildlife, the ivory trade is a perfect example of exterior markets wreaking havoc at home.
The demand for ivory comes not from within Africa, but mostly from Asia, especially China. Poachers are driven by economics, and as long as ivory is seen as stylish (or even given a superstitious significance) a premium will be paid. How this perception can be changed is hotly contested, but large scale ivory burns, such as the one in Kenya at the end of April, are meant to send a message to poachers and consumers alike. To the poachers, they say, “Your efforts are useless.” To the consumer, “Your desire for ivory is archaic and must end.” Opponents of such burns suggest that the destruction of ivory supplies might actually compel some to seek it more desperately, as it creates a sense of scarcity. They might be right, but India has just announced it plans to hold its own major burn this year after Kenya’s.
Some of the ivory burned may have even once been on some of the elephants you see in Inherit the Dust. The matriarch elephant Qumquat and most of her children were slaughtered a few years back and can be seen in some of the installations Brandt photographed for this series, including the aforementioned underpass shots.
For all its sweeping drama, Brandt’s work retains an intimate quality, one that immerses the viewer. This helps to counteract any views of Africa as a mythological land of rare animals—which are, by the way, still deadly to visitors and locals—or an isolated backwater needing to be saved by the “developed” world. Still, it is impossible to capture the complexity of a crisis in one body of work (let alone an essay on one body of work). It takes many passes, many perspectives and work like this is all too rare.
Unfortunately, so is effective activism and aid in the region, but Brandt has seen some success in that realm, too, through co-founding Big Life Foundation, which he helps support with proceeds from his work. Big Life specifically serves to protect wildlife in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem, a huge territory that remains home to large families of elephants, rhinos and large predators. Many of its rangers are former poachers, converted not just by economic incentives but also the foundation’s focus on education and a holistic approach to improving interactions between human societies and the natural world.
That wisdom is what lies at the heart of Inherit the Dust. It is not as simple as condemning a Minnesota dentist on social media when he kills Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. It is not as simple as expecting massive nonprofit organizations based in Europe (or Seattle) to “fix” diverse cultures, as long as they have enough money. It goes back to the idea of a shared destiny and the knowledge that the ways we consume and the policies we have domestically have far-reaching effects. Brandt’s work may be made in a specific place and time (and it certainly has a specific cause in mind), but the lessons are eternal. There’s nothing exotic about the brutality, dehumanization and environmental havoc on display, but—as dire as it all my be—it needn’t be inevitable either.
Learn more about Big Life Foundation at biglife.org.