When photographer Nick Brandt returned to Amboseli National Park in Kenya in 2010, he was devastated by what he saw. The elephants he had approached without difficulty two years earlier were unexpectedly skittish. Some of them, like 49 year-old Igor and the herd’s matriarch, Marianna, were nowhere to be found, having been killed for their tusks. Over the following weeks, the death list grew: Winston, Goliath, Sheik Zahad, Keyhole and Magna all fell at the hands of poachers.
Brandt tried to turn to the authorities, the Kenya Wildlife Service, but their lack of resources prevented them from intervening. Similar reasons made the efforts of the few NGOs in the region look futile. “I was angry. And, since it’s no use to be angry and passive, I had to act,” he says.
Putting his repute at the service of the cause he held so dear, he partnered up with experienced Kenyan conservationist Richard Bonham and together with the help of local communities mapped out the duties of a new foundation, called Big Life. To raise the capital needed, he reached out to the collectors who had purchased some of his prints. One couple pledge a million dollars over two years and many others came through. “Had I not been a photographer, or even, had I been an anonymous photographer, Big Life wouldn’t have gone off the ground,“ he acknowledges. Five years later, the initiative employs nearly 300 rangers that are equipped to look out for the wildlife dispersed over 2 million acres of land in East Africa. They have made 1862 arrests since 2011.
“Photography is a powerful tool because it is how we see the world and therefore how we interact with it,” says photographer Robin Hammond from New Zealand. “However, as a community, we are very timid when it comes to harnessing the strength of our images. There’s this consensus that we should act as journalists, not activists.”
Accordingly, while producing Condemned, an in-depth look at how the mentally ill people are treated in several African nations, Hammond believed that the mere act of making their condition visible would suffice to inspire his readers to enact change. After the fundamental shifts he had hoped for failed to materialize, he was left with three options: “I could infer that photography is powerless and thus abandon it, accept the fact that I was only a storyteller and yield the power photography holds to someone else or recognize that I have a moral obligation to do everything I can to help others. I concluded that if the transformations I desired didn’t come about, it was because I didn’t try hard enough,” he says.
by Laurence Butet-Roch