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The Day May Break, Chapter Two: An interview With Nick Brandt

  photo-eye Gallery   The Day May Break, Chapter Two: An Interview with Nick Brandt    photo-eye Gallery       Gallery Director Anne Kelly and represented artist Nick Brandt discusses the evolution of his artistic vision, tracing its trajectory from his early days in Africa to his recent explorations in Bolivia.

Nick Brandt, Alice, Stanley and Najin, Kenya, 2020

Nick Brandt, an accomplished artist known for his stunning photographs of Africa, has embarked on a remarkable journey spanning over two decades. His latest project, The Day May Break, a global series, takes him beyond the borders of Africa to Bolivia. With the release of his new book, The Day May Break, Chapter Two, Brandt's career reaches a significant milestone, offering a chance to reflect on his artistic evolution and delve deeper into his current works.

In a captivating interview with photo-eye Gallery Director Anne Kelly, Brandt discusses the evolution of his artistic vision, tracing its trajectory from his early days in Africa to his recent explorations in Bolivia. Their conversation also highlights Brandt's influential conservation organization, Big Life Foundation, which has made a profound difference in preserving wildlife habitats in one of Africa's key ecosystems. 

The interview delves into Brandt's global series, which addresses urgent environmental concerns, particularly climate change. Through his mesmerizing photographs, Brandt captures the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world while emphasizing its vulnerability to human-induced threats.

This interview and the release of Brandt's new book offer a unique and celebratory opportunity to appreciate the legacy of an extraordinary artist, immerse ourselves in his artistic journey and achievements, and contemplate the promising directions that lie ahead for Nick Brandt's illustrious career.

Nick Brandt, Lucio and Tarkus, Bolivia, 2022

Anne Kelly: Over 20 years ago you started photographing in Africa, this began with what grew into a trilogy of monumental portraits of East African Animals. Conservation was the goal from day one, but the trilogy was just the beginning. The time spent in Africa photographing was the direct path to the creation of your conservation organization Big Life Foundation—followed by several other call-for-action projects, including Inherit the Dust and This Empty World, leading to the multi-part global series that you are working on today. Would you have anticipated the trajectory of your work when you started photographing in Africa 20 years ago?
Nick Brandt: Good question. I don’t think I would have anticipated this trajectory back at the beginning, but that is an answer I am not happy about. I feel that I spent far too many years on the early work. I really only finally found my voice in 2014 with Inherit the Dust and from there, work that I feel is much more complex and ambitious than the early work.

Nick Brandt, Jame with People in Fog, Bolivia, 2022

AK: Your current series, The Day May Break, calls attention to climate change and environmental destruction globally. The images are made in carefully selected sanctuaries and your subjects are survivors, both human and animal. The humans have lost their homes and or livelihoods, and the rescued animals can’t be introduced back into the wild. In this series animals and humans are photographed together in the same frame and seen as equal. Please go into the transition from Inherit the Dust and This Empty World, to your current work.
NB: With every series, you can see people becoming more and more prominent in the photos. With The Day May Break, I went much further again. This was because this series (finally) addressed climate change. And with its direct impact on humans—especially those in poor rural areas of countries, with their low carbon emissions, bear the least responsibility—this concept grew out of that. So this series conceptually developed out of the desire to address climate change and to find a way to show both the most vulnerable humans and animals sharing the same fate. 

Nick Brandt, Lineth and Kini, Bolivia, 2022

AK: While your new works look at some difficult topics, hope is magnified in the new work.  Please expand.
NB: All these people and animals have been through trauma and dramatic hardships. But they survived. They are all still alive. And so in that, there is still hope and possibility.  It’s as the title of the series, The Day May Break, implies– The earth could shatter, or dawn still comes.

Nick Brandt, Juana and Nayra, Bolivia, 2022

AK: After working with animals in the wild for the early years, I imagine that the process of working with animals that are habituated to humans is a very different experience. Beyond the obvious, how does working with sanctuary animals compare to working in the wild?
NB: Thanks to their wonderful caretakers, many of the animals are so habituated to humans that they are very relaxed and with a little encouragement in the form of a mulberry leaf here, a carrot, or a nut there, hit their marks with impressive regularity. But regardless, one thing does not change—my photographing animals as sentient creatures, creatures that I view no different than humans. So I wait for those indefinable moments when they appear to present themselves for their portraits.

AK: Let's talk about your method of working. All of the images from the series On This Earth Trilogy were shot in the African wild - quietly watching and waiting for the right moment, and typically for long periods. Inherit the Dust, Empty World, and The Day May Break are high-production projects that involve a bit more control. However with these projects, after the scene is set, you take off your "director hat" and go back to patiently watching and waiting for "the moment". Why does that method of working appeal to you?
NB: I like working very loosely. I feel that what happens in real life is superior to what I might pre-script in my head, although of course, yes I do pre-visualize some photos, like for example, Richard and Sky, with Richard up a tall ladder so that his head and the giraffe's head (Sky) are a similar height in frame.
But during The Day May Break photo sessions, I frequently swapped out people with each respective animal until it felt like somehow, emotionally, the right combination. I like seeing what unexpected serendipity might unfold. For me, it was like a kind of photographic jazz.

Even in the earlier projects, it’s very loose. In Inherit the Dust, for example, the life-size portraits on panels were set in place in each location, and then I stayed there long enough that the local people were no longer interested that I was there and just went about their lives. At the start of that project, I had tried hiring people and shouted action but it was just terrible and I quickly realized I would get better results just letting the local people do their thing. Besides waiting for clouds, those photos were just a kind of elaborate street photography.

AK: Chapter Two was photographed in a sanctuary in Bolivia—this was your first significant project outside of Africa. Why did you select Bolivia specifically?
NB: The original plan had been to go to Brazil, which for the last five years, under eco-terrorist thank-god-former President Bolsonaro, has become the poster child for the apocalyptic ever-escalating destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

However, in Brazil, there were only a few habituated species in each sanctuary and those sanctuaries were spread out the length and breadth of the vast country. This would have necessitated many days of flying and driving between each: expensive, wasteful, and likely created the need to find a new crew in each new area that we visited.

Fortunately, to Brazil’s west, in Bolivia, is the home of Senda Verde Animal Sanctuary. Senda Verde is not just a wonderful animal sanctuary and non-profit organization, but also practically speaking, it is home to rescued members of almost all of the key South American species. This meant that I was able to photograph the entire Chapter Two part of the project in this one location. They’re wonderful people working on a tiny budget and despite that, never turn away a reduced animal, from bears down to birds and baby monkeys.

Nick Brandt, Ruth and Zosa, Bolivia, 2022

AK: A percentage of proceeds from print sales go to the people and sanctuaries that you are photographing at. I know that this has already made a big difference. Please share a few stories about this.
NB: The impact of those proceeds has had the most impact in Kenya and Zimbabwe because, at this point, that work has been out for 1 1/2 years. Regardless of who is the subject of each photo, the proceeds have been evenly divided among the people on a biannual basis, a kind of royalty payment. But in addition, certain buyers have donated a further amount to the people featured in the actual prints that they bought.

As a result, three of the young girls have their education paid for for the next six years; several couples have been able to start their own businesses after having their lives ruined by the impacts of climate change, and homes or parts of homes have been rebuilt that were destroyed by floods and cyclones.

AK: Some viewers (mistakenly) assume that the photos from The Day May Break are composites, which they are not. It is important to you that people understand that the image is made "in camera”. Why is this method of working important to you?
NB: Yes, there seems to be widespread thinking these days that anything visually unexpected or apparently hard to execute must have been photoshopped into creation - or god help us now - A.I generated. I could make my life much easier, and save a ton of time and thus money if I went the Photoshop route, but there is so much more aesthetic and emotional integrity to these portraits when the people and animals are photographed together, at the same time in the same frame. If I just stitched two separate elements together, it would never be as organic, as surprising. A photo like Kuda and Sky II, where Sky the giraffe unexpectedly leans down over Kuda as she sits at a table, I would never have dreamed that up.

The Day May Break, Chapter Two, Nick Brandt photographing Carmen and Tarkus

AK: The subjects in your images are typically not looking directly into the camera, they seem to be in their own world and are seemingly unaware of your presence. In the case that the subjects are looking in your general direction, it is almost as though they are looking through you or over your shoulder. I imagine that this is a result of your method of working, but I sense that there is more to it. Please expand.
NB: As a kind of an aside, the humans and animals are deliberately never looking at each other. They share the same frame, of course, sharing the same universe, but remain disconnected from one another.

Meanwhile, there are the young girls, the future & to generalize massively, the more empathetic of the sexes (noting that there are the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, Lauren Bohberts, and Amy Coney Barretts of the world to contradict that). They usually look the strongest the most determined and defiant, looking directly into the camera.

In Marisol’s defiant look, I am reminded of Greta Thunberg. This planet urgently needs a million Gretas. If one young girl can start alone with just a placard on a street in Stockholm, so can we all.

The Day May Break, Chapter Two, Nick Brandt Photographing Luis and Hernak

AK: What has been the largest technical challenge shooting the new work?
NB: As so often in my work, the largest technical challenge is caused by the wrong kind of weather. So, on The Day May Break, Chapter One, I went in the rainy season, as I so often do, not just to take advantage of cloud cover, always my preferred aesthetic, but also to have enough moisture in the air for the water-based fog machines that we used to work effectively.

When you have weeks of baking, bone-dry heat and winds, and cloudless skies, the fog coming out of the machines evaporates almost immediately. So for two weeks in Zimbabwe, we were only able to photograph for thiry minutes before sunrise and thirty minutes after sunset.

The Day May Break, Chapter Two, Nick Brandt photographing Mathew and Mak

AK: You note in your book that this is a Carbon Neutral project. Please expand on the actions that you are taking.
NB: I feel that if I make a project that is significantly about climate change, the project itself needs to be carbon neutral. So as imperfect as the system of Carbon credit is, I paid for carbon credits equivalent to all the fuel consumption from transport, generators, etc. from my shoot toward an African reforestation program. 

AK: Let's talk about the process of making books, you have published a few, do you have advice for someone that is considering publishing their first?
NB: For me, publishing a book is invaluable. It can generate publicity about your work in so much more effective way than having no book. No one in the media knows or cares whether your print run is 500 or 10,000 - the book exists. And if it’s well printed, it acts as a very useful portfolio. To me, it’s worth doing even if you have to put in your own money, which is increasingly inevitable. In these days of social media, print runs have dropped dramatically, so it’s pretty hard to make any kind of profit.
Once you have a publisher, do everything you can to not cave in to compromise. Every time I have done it –to not appear difficult, to not want to be unpopular– I have ended up in earlier years with poor results and deeply regretted that I did not push harder with my concerns. Visual creators live and die by how our work is presented (this is why for me, Instagram is so inadequate - visually complex detailed imagery reduced to this depressing minuscule size on a phone, and in the hands of others, often randomly cropped.

AK: In the back of the book, you have included the personal stories of each animal and person involved in the project.  Who was responsible for locating all of the humans that participated and recording their stories?
NB: For many weeks in advance, researchers went out across the country, especially in Zimbabwe and Bolivia, looking for and meeting people who had stories to tell of lives devastated by climate change. Once chosen by me from their photos and stories, they then traveled to the sanctuaries and conservancies to be photographed with the animals.

AK: The text in your recent book, The Day May Break, Chapter Two, is written to the reader/readers of the future. I know that text isn't written to me specifically, but it feels inclusive and engaging, as opposed to text that is written "at" the reader.  I like that.
NB: Well, I guess because I fervently believe that all of us can do something. As I wrote in the essay: 
“We need to all become good ancestors. We need to adopt a way of life that reduces the environmental impact that our actions will have on those billions of unborn yet to come. Can we show that we care about the humans and animals and trees that we will never live to see?”

AK: What is next?
NB: I just returned from photographing Chapter Three of The Day May Break in Fiji. All being well, this will be released in September, with the book to hopefully follow in 2024.

The Day May Break, Chapter Two by Nick Brandt

>>Purchase Book <<

Signed copies are available!

About the Limited Editions:
Four Limited Edition Prints are available in editions of 25 each, signed and numbered on a label affixed verso on a beautiful matte, archival paper.

Each print is presented in a handsome display folder with the print easily removable for framing. A signed copy of The Day May Break: Chapter Two is included with each print.
(8⅝ x 11½" image on 9⅝ x 12½" matte paper. Edition of 25, each.)

Clockwise, from top left: Carmen and Zosa II, Jame and People in Fog, Lucio and Chascas, and Lineth and Kini

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For more information, and to reserve one of these unique, extraordinary new works,
please contact photo-eye Gallery Director Anne Kelly or Gallery Associate Jovi Esquivel.

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