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Interview: Nick Brandt on Inherit the Dust

Interview Nick Brandt on Inherit the Dust On Friday June 10th photo-eye Gallery was thrilled to open our newest exhibition Inherit the Dust by Nick Brandt. Gallery Associate Lucas Shaffer spoke with Brandt to find out more about the artist's activism, his desired outcomes for the project, and what it took to realize his vision.

Road to Factory with Zebra, 2014 – © Nick Brandt

On Friday June 10th photo-eye Gallery was thrilled to open our newest exhibition Inherit the Dust by Nick Brandt. As we outlined in our series introduction, Brandt's latest body of work is a compelling and emotional call-to-action regarding conservation efforts to curb rampant urban sprawl and loss of natural habitat across Africa. Photographed in East Africa, Brandt erects oversized panels of his iconic animal portraits on location at quarries, garbage dumps, and urban developments, effectively transforming the animals to mere ghosts in the landscape. Gallery Associate Lucas Shaffer spoke with Brandt to find out more about the artist's activism, his desired outcomes for the project, and what it took to realize his vision. Inherit the Dust is on view at photo-eye Gallery through July 23rd, 2016.

Quarry with Giraffe, 2014 – © Nick Brandt

Lucas Shaffer:     Your essay in Inherit the Dust mentions that you first thought of the project back in 2014. Was there a specific moment that prompted the initial idea?

Nick Brandt:     There was no specific moment, it was just a general frustration that the On This Earth, A Shadow Falls, Across the Ravaged Land trilogy had not begun to capture the extraordinary acceleration of devastation to the environment. I needed to address that in a more direct way.

I've always had this fascination with the idea of what happened historically on the very ground where we now live, wherever we are in the world. History at school was so dead for me; it was all about battles and treaties and there was no sense of life lived. You can take that sense of what history should be about to encompass the natural world. It always fascinated me to think of the animals who used to roam on exactly the spot where I'm now standing; then apply that equally to Africa. People ask, "Why didn't you do this project in America or Europe?" Because those animals are gone. That's it. It's done. That would just be mere historical observation. The point of doing it in Africa is that in places, those animals still roam.

The photographs are a call to action, while the animals do still live. If the animals are gone, then the project has much less immediacy, it's no longer a call to action, it's just a lament. When people first look at these photographs, you just see this kind of apocalyptic dystopia with no apparent hope. The point is that there is hope. Those animals do still remain, if in ever fewer places, and we have to do something about it to keep them there.

LS:     When you say Inherit the Dust is a call to action, what kind of action are you hoping for specifically?

NB:     I'm hoping to reach people living in the Western world who obviously can't help directly, but who can donate to organizations like Big Life that effectively protect and preserve large ecosystems within East Africa. I'm also hoping that politicians and industrialists might see the work and have their consciousnesses even slightly pricked to think twice about some of the destruction that they are enabling through their actions.

LS:     You've mentioned that in some areas urban developments pop up in only a couple of months. How does an organization such as Big Life begin to address this kind of rapid sprawl?

NB:     Every country has the same issue with government being pressured to choose the short term economic gain of industrial development at the expense of the long term economic gain of environmental protection. For example, Big Life recently has been gearing up to potentially fight a French cement company that wants to put a factory right in the middle of one of the most critical wildlife corridors in the ecosystem it protects. That is classic short term economic gain. The community would barely benefit as well because the factory wouldn't even be hiring local people.

In that area, the single source of significant economic benefit is wildlife. It's not just that Big Life is the biggest employer in the region, but in terms of nature tourism, the ecosystem provides long term jobs for thousands of people. As other ecosystems are wiped out across Africa, the ones that remain become ever more highly valued, and more people visit these places to see the extraordinary animals. It becomes a gold mine, an elephant mine, and that is ultimately of far more value to a country than a bloody cement factory. The difficulty is trying to get governments to not be pressured by greedy industrialists and understand the significant long term economic benefit of ecological protection.

Factory with Rhino, 2014 – © Nick Brandt

LS:     What is Big Life's role is that kind of education? How do they get the community involved?

NB:     We are the biggest employer in the area. Pragmatically, the local communities increasingly understand that they benefit significantly from the continued presence of wildlife because it supports an entire nature tourism industry. Big Life also provides compensation for herders when their livestock are killed by local predators, we offer wildlife scholarships, and we protect the farmers' crops from raids by animals like elephants as best we can. The list is long in terms of benefits and it's why poaching has been reduced to almost nothing over the last five years. The community understands the importance of what we're doing and lets us know when poachers come into the two million acre ecosystem where Big Life operates.

LS:     You've mentioned a couple of times that it took about four months to photograph the entire series. When did you go to Africa and was there a specific reason why you went at that time?

NB:     I went specifically in the rainy season to try and maximize the chances of having flat cloudy skyscapes. Not just to match the original panel photographs of the animals, but also to have a more somber melancholic quality.

LS:      How did locals react to the photo shoots?

NB:     I'm constantly asked that question, and I do think there's something a bit patronizing about it. The "locals." Somebody said the other day "the natives." They're not "natives". So, I'll answer the question the same way I always have: people have way more important things to be dealing with in their lives than some crazy white guy putting up a giant photograph of an elephant on a dump site. The kids were sometimes curious, but the adults have their own shit to deal with.

Inherit the Dust on location

LS:    How large was the crew you were working with?

NB:     There were 17 full time crew members, which would increase up to 50 with day laborers on some days.

LS:    What was it liking working with a crew that big? Was that tough for you or was that just a return to normal?

NB:     I had to work with much bigger crews when I was directing. The difference here was that I was paying for them, and sunny days when we didn't shoot anything were very stressful.

LS:     How long did it take to build the panels? Did you build them all at once?

NB:     Each one had to be built on location because they were so large. You couldn't drive with them. Obviously the small ones can travel — chimpanzees and lions — but the rhinos, giraffes and elephants had to be built on site.

LS:     You use a couple of the panels more than once, why is that?

NB:     Only in those photographs at the end of the book, in which the people at the dump site and at the underpass turn to face the viewer for the only time in the series — hopefully giving a better sense that these people are also victims of environmental devastation.

LS:     I thought that injecting the human element into the work and speaking about it in your essays was a great contribution as well. Was that something that you knew you were going to do when you started the project or did that evolve as you were making the photographs?

NB:      I think it evolved for a couple of reasons. When I happened to come up with the idea it was still more abstract — just the notion of placing these panels in various locations — but once I was in Africa and witnessed the sheer amount of development for myself, things changed. For example, I never expected to find so many people living in structures that can barely be called shacks around the periphery of the dump site, or the large homeless population beneath the underpass. These discoveries were a result of actually being on location and the work developed in response to them.

LS:      Were you nervous when you first conceived the project because it is more conceptual than your previous work?

NB:     No, the only thing I was nervous about was that somebody would come up with the idea first and do it in Photoshop. That fear was a motivating factor. There was urgency in getting out there and doing it for real before somebody did it worse in Photoshop.

Underpass with Elephants (Lean Back Your Life is On Track), 2015 – Nick Brandt

LS:     Do you remember a particular unexpected moment or something especially challenging while working on location?

NB:     Probably the sheer number of the homeless kids at the underpass was to me the most unexpected thing I saw. I didn't expect to shoot that location; that was a very last minute decision. Originally, my plan had been to always photograph in places where there was still some element of wilderness left so you could understand how the landscape had gone from A to B, from wilderness to development.  I was very reluctant to go into the city and photograph where there was literally no unspoiled landscape left. In retrospect, I could have been a bit braver and photographed in more urban locations where nothing was left.

LS:    How did you make that decision and pick that specific location?

NB:     My producer took me there. Putting the panels between these two gargantuan concrete pillars really transforms a relatively unremarkable photograph of an elephant group. The elephants now appear to be trapped between these pillars and the matriarch even seems to be looking with hesitancy at the other victims in the photograph — the homeless children. The location is perfect; it would have been crazy not to use it.

 Alleyway with Chimpanzee, 2014 – © Nick Brandt

LS:     Was that intentional on your part — to have the animals respond and react to the scene their placed in?

NB:     Yes, of course.  Many of the original photographs in and of themselves are not, I think, great photographs, which is why they weren't used back then. To me the chimpanzee in the alleyway is one of the most pointed images in that regard. It just wasn't a good enough photograph. The chimp was not looking at me and I thought it was missing something, but now, in that setting, he appears to be lamenting the world that he has lost.

LS:     Rather famously, you've used a Pentax 67 in the past. Why the switch to the Mamiya in Inherit the Dust?

NB:     One reason: it has a revolving back so when on a tripod I can make a split second decision about whether I'm going to shoot horizontally or vertically.

LS:     Why the decision to keep using film when medium format digital has become almost ubiquitous?
Inherit the Dust – on location

NB:     It's not the same. First of all, as digital bores me, I feel like I'm doing my homework when I use it. I find it too easy, and it kind of unnerves me. All I have to do is click the shutter and it's done. The masochist in me needs to feel like it's a bit more of an adventure, a journey. Right now medium format digital is still 6x4.5, so the negative area is still significantly smaller than the 6x7 I'm using. But it's not just not about resolution, it's about field of vision, too. A 6x7 has a larger field of vision and that creates a very different look and feel to the same photograph. As long as digital is still stuck in a 6x4.5 world, I'm really not interested.

LS:     Did you see any of your images before you had the film developed and you got back to your studio?

NB:     Only in contact sheet form, which is not good because I couldn't see what the focus was like in a contact sheet. It was only when I got home that I would discover issues of focus because I was shooting 100ASA film on cloudy days with people in motion, so I'd have a really hard time getting the depth of field that I really wanted. That was scary.

LS:     Did you lose pictures? Anything you had hoped for and you ended up having to scrap because of that?

NB:     I had to go back and re-shoot.

LS:     Is Inherit the Dust finished or is it the beginning of an extended body of work?

NB:     This particular concept is wrapped, I think. Obviously whatever I do next is still going to deal with the destruction of the natural world and, but I have no idea what it will be. I won't be going back to portraits of animals, for example. That's done, I think.

For more information on Inherit the Dust, and to purchase prints, please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505-988-5152 x 121 or

View Inherit the Dust

Read More about Inherit the Dust

Read Brandt's Essays from the Book

View Previous Bodies of Work by Brandt

Purchase a SIGNED copy of the Book

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