Some of the most interesting stories begin with a realization. Often these realizations take people on dramatic detours or alternate paths from their careers, life plans or dreams. Nick Brandt is an amazing extension of a realization turned into a new career, turned into a foundation. After moving to the United States in 1992, he managed a successful career in video production, working with artists like Jewel, Moby, and even Michael Jackson.
In fact, it was while on location in Tanzania directing “Earth Song” for Michael Jackson that he was introduced to the animals and landscape of East Africa. After years of working in video and waiting for the next person to fund his next video project Nick was tired of, “Spending crazy amounts of time and energy trying to get quality movie projects off the ground, and basically as so many people end up doing in the film industry, living for tomorrow, not in the present, waiting for someone to give me money so I could create.” Instead, Nick let go of his mainstream career in an attempt to allow the art of his photography to shed light on the poaching and mistreatment of animals.
Using only two fixed lenses and a medium format lens, Nick captures the animals up close and personal in his black and white photos without the use of telephoto lenses and believes that the animals can sense his calmness, which is why he has never felt in danger. He is now in the works on his third book in his trilogy that has gained mass acclaim and led to the organization of the Big Life Foundation. Founded in September 2010, the Big Life Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of Africa’s wildlife and ecosystems. The first two books of the trilogy On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, start a sentence that will be finished with the release of the third title.
Hopefully the third book in the trilogy will help to make an even greater impact for the mission of Nick’s organization. Perhaps Nick’s realization turned career change turned foundation will eventually take a positive turn for the future of these animals.
The entire interview can be read beneath the photos. You can visit Nick’s website and see even more photos at www.nickbrandt.com.
Click here to Donate to the Big Life Foundation
The elephant in the Big Life Foundation logo below was one of the many Amboseli big bulls killed by poachers in the two years leading up to our presence in the area towards the end of 2010.
After a rather successful career working in entertainment making music videos and commercials, what compelled you into a career that with much more solitude and distance from pop culture?
Simply put, I wanted to take back control of my life. I was increasingly frustrated that I was wasting my life away, spending crazy amounts of time and energy trying to get quality movie projects off the ground, and basically as so many people end up doing in the film industry, living for tomorrow, not in the present, waiting for someone to give me money so I could create. And I just was never interested in taking typical genre studio assignments. I needed to not be answerable to anyone, not reliant on waiting for others to give me money so I could only then go and create. And I needed to say something meaningful about issues I really cared about – the ongoing increasing destruction of the natural world and its inhabitants at the hands of man.
So really, even though I had been obsessed by filmmaking, ultimately it was not a hard decision to make. I now have a purpose to my life that I can act upon. I do feel in control again, and fortunately, am successful enough with the sales of my limited edition prints that subsequently, I have never been forced to take any paid assignment.
You once mentioned, "You wouldn’t take a portrait of a human being from a hundred feet away and expect to capture their spirit; you’d move in close.” Your objective is to capture and protect these animals as they head toward extinction. Have you ever been in danger being so close to these animals? Do you believe the animals know your intentions are good?
I have never been in danger. But I do not imagine myself to be some pseudo-Dr. Dolittle either (or the subject of Herzog’s documentary, "Grizzly Man". I am careful but relaxed in the presence of the animals, and I think that they do sense that.
You use a combination of film and digital tools to create your images. Do you ever see yourself switching to all digital, or will a certain nostalgia always keep you committed to film?
Sticking with film is nothing to do with nostalgia. I simply prefer its aesthetic. Its timeless quality is more appropriate to the aesthetic sensibility of my work – a sense that these animals are from a bygone era. Digital feels too immediate, too in-your-face NOW for what I am doing.
You started the Big Life Foundation in 2010, did you always think your photography would transform into a mission to preserve these animals and environment?
The photographs were always intended to have this ‘message’, as it were, but obviously were indirect on their attempt to preserve. The Foundation is direct, and I never imagined I would start a non-profit of my own, but the recent massive escalation in poaching, and terrible state of underfunding to combat that, forced me to launch in.
In the afterword to On This Earth, you mention how inhumanely farm animals are treated. Have you always felt this way about all animals or has your photography in Africa made you more sensitive to animal rights as a whole?
No, I’ve always felt this. It’s hard to focus on just Africa, when the abomination of torment, torture and misery that is factory farming, most of all in places like the US and China, is very hard to ignore. But my hands are unfortunately full 24/7 with everything else right now.
What steps has your organization taken to stop the poaching and destruction of these habitats?
With the massive recent increase in poaching, we targeted the critically important Amboseli ecosystem in Kenya and Tanzania as our pilot project initiative, where there was little infrastructure of protection, and insufficient funding prior to Big Life. With a significant initial injection of funds due to a few very generous donors, we have very quickly and efficiently put in place over a dozen anti-poaching outposts, the same number of patrol vehicles, and now have over 100+ rangers across the ecosystem. As a result, some major arrests of long term prolific poachers have been made, and poaching in the area has been drastically reduced. However, it is early days, and we still have a long way to go to stabilize the situation and provide an ongoing stable full-force protection across the 2 million acres + area.
What are the best ways for people to get involved with your organization or other projects to help preserve this area?
(Our people on the ground are trained rangers, etc, so volunteers unfortunately can’t help us much).
8) Often different causes in the world like yours are looked at as unimportant and your opponents might say, “There are bigger more pressing problems that exist in the world today, so we cannot spend our time on this issue right now.” How would you respond to this attitude?
This kind of lame response always drives me crazy. It is intellectually lazy in the extreme. Obviously, there are many more than one bad thing in the world. Each person should devote themselves where possible to what they feel passionately that they can do to make the world a better place.