Nick Brandt: Elegies on the Sixth Extinction

© Nick Brandt ‘River People with Elephant at Night’ 2019 from the series ‘This Empty World’

I felt the need to address the escalating destruction of the natural world in a more direct yet complex fashion.


Geological time runs in vast swathes beneath today reaching back some four and a half thousand million years. Across that span, the earth cooled, plant and animal life evolved, ecologies meshed in mutuality, surviving and sustaining or perishing in the process. Flora and fauna adapted to change slowly over millennia, their design refined through the blind engineering of natural selection. Eons, eras, epochs, and ages laying down the sedimentary strata of being and becoming. Over that unimaginable bulk of time now lies the thin film of recent history; vibrant but toxic, like the rainbow swirls of oil on a pond. Its effects are well known, yet its existence debated, its name still controversial: the Anthropocene.

The period of earth’s history when human beings have had an impact upon the environment, the Anthropocene is dated by some as far back as the emergence of agriculture around fifteen thousand years ago. By others as recently as 1945 and the dawning of the atomic age. Traditional agriculture certainly permitted populations to expand as food became more plentiful. But colonialism, the industrial revolution, the atomic age, and globalisation have had a much sharper impact as sustainable forms of agriculture were replaced by intensive farming, forests were cleared, pollutants poured into the air and waterways, and the human capacity to destroy reached planetary proportions. Indeed, some experts consider the Anthropocene is better understood not as an era but as an event.

We know all this. But still, while individuals may seek to live sustainably, collectively we continue to destroy far more than we rehabilitate. It is clear that evidence is simply not enough to change hearts and minds, politicians and policies, consumers and markets. And this is further exacerbated as distance attenuates what concern we might have when considering the destruction of climate and environment in far-off lands remote from our day-to-day lives.

It is the challenge of changing hearts and minds to which the photographer Nick Brandt has addressed himself over the past decade. He built his reputation creating majestic photographs of African fauna, and documenting the damage inflicted by poaching and the illegal ivory trade. But then he turned his attention away from the evidential properties of photography to explore a more elegiac approach. In the three extensive bodies of work we discuss here, he has created photographs that are not simply a window onto the world, but an evocative mirror in which to see beyond the surface of things. His approach is to suggest, through poetic juxtaposition, the human exploitation that threatens to initiate what Elizabeth Kolbert has called the Sixth Extinction. And, as his images remind us, this is a potential End of Days in which human beings will find themselves once more reunited with the natural world as yet another threatened species.

Alasdair Foster

© Nick Brandt ‘Wasteland with Cheetahs and Children’ 2015 from the series ‘Inherit the Dust’


Your earlier work on the natural world focused on animal studies and documentation of illegal activities such as the ivory trade. What led you to adopt the more metaphorical approach of ‘Inherit the Dust’?

The changes were for both artistic and environmental reasons. Artistically, I like to find new ways of expressing my concerns and passions that excite me, challenge me… scare me… I realised that I had been on autopilot and wanted to wrest back control of the creative process. Rather than going out and waiting to find a photograph, I wanted to create the situation, to some degree at least.

Environmentally, I felt the need to address the escalating destruction of the natural world in a more direct yet complex fashion. That the destruction of animals, for example, is vastly more complex than the poaching of them.

production stills from the making of ‘Inherit the Dust’ 2015 © Nick Brandt

How were the images in ‘Inherit the Dust’ made?

I printed up previously unpublished animal portraits at life-size and shipped them to Kenya. There they were mounted onto plywood panels and placed at the various locations around central and southern Kenya. The shoot itself took around eight weeks.

What did you want to communicate through this methodology?

So much of the destruction of the natural world relates to the sheer number of humans, and their impact on a very finite amount of space and resources. As I explained in the introduction to the book, I grew up in England, which was once home to the elk, lynx, wolf, and brown bear, the cave lion and woolly mammoth. Glorious creatures, now long gone.

© Nick Brandt ‘Quarry with Giraffe’ 2014 from the series ‘Inherit the Dust’

Meanwhile in parts of present-day Africa equally extraordinary animals do still roam. Yet, if we follow our present path of development and destruction, the unique megafauna of Africa will rapidly go the way of the megafauna of America and Europe, wiped out many centuries ago by far fewer people, with far less technology. It took billions of years to evolve such wondrous diversity, and just an infinitesimal pinprick of time to annihilate it. East Africa is a microcosm of that remaining fragile diversity. I could have photographed this project in many places around the world, but East Africa is the place I know most.

© Nick Brandt ‘Alleyway with Chimpanzee’ 2014 from the series ‘Inherit the Dust’

You have said “I take photographs purely for myself, never for other people”, yet you are an activist seeking to engage people in order to change attitudes in relation to conservation and climate change. One might think that to change another person’s mind one would consider what the world looks like from their perspective. How do you harmonise the personal and the public aspects of your artmaking?

Good valid question. I would likely reach a far larger audience if I was a photojournalist or a National Geographic photographer. But I’m not and could not be. That is not where my skills lie.

If I were not true to my own artistic instincts, second guessing how others might respond only to find they don’t, I would have achieved nothing. For me, my own visual obsessions have to be first and foremost. If subsequently those images resonate in a meaningful way with others, then great.

© Nick Brandt ‘Bus Station with Lioness’ 2019 from the series ‘This Empty World’

How did ‘This Empty World’ come about?

This is about the few remaining places in the wild where animals do still cling to an existence, but are rapidly being squeezed out by the expansive tide of human ‘progress’. And, as with ‘Inherit the Dust’, those humans most vulnerable to environmental degradation, the rural poor, are also negatively impacted.

Can you explain how the images were made?

Each image is a combination of two moments in time. Initially, a partial set was built, lit and the medium format digital camera set up and locked off. Motion sensors were installed that triggered the flash lights and camera, shooting three frames in quick succession to form a panorama. It took weeks, sometimes months, for the animals in the region to enter this area, trigger the lights and be recorded by the camera.

Later, full sets were built and populated with a cast of people drawn from local communities and beyond. A second sequence was then photographed from the same camera angle with matched lighting. Each final large-scale print is created by combining the images made with the animals and those made later with the people.

This was the first time you used colour…

From the outset, I imagined these photographs at night, with the garish, sickly colours of the modern human world. Black and white wouldn’t have worked. It would have diluted the sense of invasion.

© Nick Brandt ‘Bridge Construction with Elephants and Workers at Night’ 2019 from the series ‘This Empty World’

Given the substantial nature of some of the sets – the bridge construction site, the gas station – how did you manage the ecological and sustainability issues involved?

This was very important. We made sure to recycle materials from one set to another, though a lot was simply rented and returned. In the end, most of those materials were recycled back into the supply chain. And those that could not be – like shorter lengths of reinforcing rod – were snapped up by the local communities for their homes.

All the places we photographed were in populated areas close to roads and villages, and very eroded from over-grazing. After the shoot, we brought in a biologist to re-seed those areas where the sets had been. After the rain, there was no indication that we were ever there.

© Nick Brandt ‘Charcoal Burning with Giraffe and Workers’ 2019 from the series ‘This Empty World’

There is a sense in both these series that the people are as oppressed as the animals. Who or what is to blame for this situation? With a rapidly growing population, is it not inevitable that human industrial activity will expand into formerly wild areas, just as it did previously in what is now considered to be the developed world? Is there an equitable alternative?

This is another extremely important point that you raise. Most African people would say that Western societies trampled all over our own natural environment centuries ago in the interests of economic expansion and that, in Africa, they never got much of a chance to develop economically until now. So now it is their turn to grow economically. Why should they be deprived of the comfortable, material lives that we have in the West?

On the surface, it’s a reasonable argument. But at what cost? Protection of the environment and economic benefit do not have to be mutually exclusive. Time and time again, it has been shown that societies benefit from a long-term approach to the environment that is lost through short-term exploitation. In those remaining areas of East Africa where these animals do still exist – economically poor but rich with natural wonders – ecotourism is often the only truly significant source of long-term economic benefit for the local communities. Take away the animals, and there would be little left of economic value. In Kenya, for example, tourism is the country’s second largest economic sector.

[Left] © Nick Brandt ‘Fatuma, Ali and Bupa, Kenya’ 2020 from the series ‘The Day May Break’
[Right] © Nick Brandt ‘Harriet and People in Fog, Zimbabwe’ 2020 from the series ‘The Day May Break’

How did ‘The Day May Break’ begin?

In early 2020, I was planning to shoot a new series of work about the impact of the worsening wildfires where I live in California. Then Covid happened, and shooting here became very hard. Meanwhile, Kenya and, shortly after, Zimbabwe, had lifted their Covid restrictions. Anyway, I realised that this should be a global series.

It was a blessed relief to work on a project that, as you describe it, is more intimate. I wanted to do something artistically simpler, still complicated to prepare and execute, but without the cash-haemorrhaging expense of the previous projects.

[Left] © Nick Brandt ‘James, Peter and Najin, Kenya’ 2020 from the series ‘The Day May Break’
[Right] © Nick Brandt ‘Regina, Jack, Levi and Diesel, Zimbabwe’ 2020 from the series ‘The Day May Break’

Who are the people and the animals involved?

The people in the photos have all been badly affected by climate change – some displaced by cyclones that destroyed their homes, others such as farmers impoverished and displaced by severe droughts spanning several years.

The photographs were taken in sanctuaries and conservation areas. Most of the animals are long-term rescues, victims of everything from the poaching of their parents to habitat destruction and wildlife trafficking. They can never be released back into the wild. As a result, they are habituated to people and so it was safe for human strangers to be close to them. They were photographed in the same frame at the same time.

photographing James, Peter and Najin, Kenya 2020 (production still) © Nick Brandt

In this series your use of props is minimal but precise.

I chose props that represented the barest bones for living: a chair, a table, a bed. And for light, a single bare lightbulb by which to see.

And the fog which adds to the constrained tonal range of the images?

The fog that I used on location is an echo of the smoke from the apocalyptic wildfires, intensified by climate change, burning around so much of the world. But it also symbolises a natural world rapidly fading from view.

[Left] © Nick Brandt ‘Richard and Okra, Zimbabwe’ 2020 from the series ‘The Day May Break’
[Right] © Nick Brandt ‘Kuda and Sky II, Zimbabwe’ 2020 from the series ‘The Day May Break’

These images about the impact of the growing environmental crisis were made in 2020 when the world was in the grip of the first wave a Covid-19. How did this affect not just the way you worked but the ideas you were exploring? The response to the pandemic was infinitely faster than has so far been the case with climate change. And, while in the first wave, we saw many environmental benefits of reduced human activity, public and government concerns quickly returned to economic imperatives that have previously driven resistance to adequately addressing climate change.

This comes back to the fog again. It took on a new layer of meaning for me with Covid-19 – that feeling in 2020 that we were all living in a kind of limbo, with no idea how things would turn out. Of course, this also applies to our current environmental situation on the planet – how will things turn out? Will we and our fellow creatures survive the coming apocalypse? In these images the fog in the landscape creates that sense of limbo.

And, yes, I am painfully aware of the speed with which the world responded to Covid-19, compared to the disastrously slow response to, or even rejection of, climate change and environmental destruction. So many people choose to grasp and address short-term issues, but seem incapable of long-term thinking. Addressing the issues now will cost infinitely less than dealing with the appalling consequences of the ensuing death and destruction in the decades and centuries to come. The right-wing politicians who choose to ignore this are clearly guilty of the moral crime of ecocide.

© Nick Brandt ‘Najin and People in Fog, Kenya’ 2020 from the series ‘The Day May Break’

Where and how do you present this work and which contexts or modes of presentation, which audiences, have proven the most effective in terms of activating change for the better?

I have always taken photographs to exist in print form, so the ideal venue is always going to be a museum exhibition. Of course, only a small percentage of people will be able to see them in any given venue. The next best platform is a book, but sadly so few people buy books anymore, now that they can view work online. But digital viewing is a very poor substitute, even though it does allow those who do not have access to museums and books to see the work, and at any time of their choosing.

I really have no idea what format is most effective in terms of activating change for the better. I have seen people moved to tears standing in front of the prints – hard to imagine that in the diminished digital form where you can’t really see the expressions on the subjects’ faces. The work is hopefully part of a growing critical mass of expression that will lead more people to understand what humanity is doing to our planet and just how big a deal it is.

[Left] © Nick Brandt ‘Florentino and Echo, Bolivia’ 2022 from the series ‘The Day May Break’
[Right] © Nick Brandt ‘Juana and Hernak, Bolivia’ 2022 from the series ‘The Day May Break’

Where else do you plan to make work for this series?

I have now photographed ‘Chapter Two’ in Bolivia and will shoot ‘Chapter Three’ in the South Pacific early next year, all being well. It is a multi-chapter project I will pursue for as long as I can afford it. I could drop down most places in the world now and there would be a fast-growing number of stories to tell. Because climate change and environmental destruction are about as global as global gets.

photographing Luis and Hernak III, Bolivia, 2022 (production still) © Nick Brandt

Biographical Notes

Nick Brandt was born in London, England, in 1964. He studied painting, and then film at Saint Martin’s School of Art, London, before moving to California in 1992, initially working in the film industry. His photographs have featured in many solo museum and gallery exhibitions in Austria, Dubai, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the USA.

He has published eight books: ‘On This Earth’ (Chronicle Books 2005); ‘A Shadow Falls’ (Abrams 2009); ‘On This Earth, A Shadow Falls’ (Big Life Editions/D.A.P. 2014); ‘Across the Ravaged Land’ (Harry N Abrams 2013); ‘Inherit The Dust’ (Edwynn Houk Editions 2016); ‘This Empty World’ (Thames & Hudson 2019); ‘The Day May Break’ (Hatje Cantz 2021), and ‘The Day May Break: Chapter Two’ (Hatje Cantz 2022). In 2010, Nick Brandt co-founded the non-profit organisation Big Life Foundation dedicated to the conservation of the wildlife and ecosystems in Kenya and Tanzania. He lives in the southern Californian mountains and works worldwide.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.