IN 2010, PHOTOGRAPHER Nick Brandt, conservationist Richard Bonham, and entrepreneur Tom Hill founded the Big Life Foundation with the ambitious goal of ridding East Africa of animal poaching.
Today, the nonprofit employs hundreds of local Maasai rangers to patrol over 1.6 million acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem.
The program has been remarkably successful—between 2007 and 2014, around 96 elephants a year were killed for their ivory in southern Kenya alone; between 2014 and 2017, as Big Life’s operations scaled up, only two elephants were lost.
“It vastly exceeded my expectations,” says Brandt, an English-born photographer who now lives in California. “People still think the major issue with the destruction of wildlife in Africa is poaching, but especially in East Africa it’s no longer the biggest problem.
The biggest problem is the population explosion that is happening. With that comes an invasion of humanity and development into what was not so long ago wildlife habitat.”
Brandt’s latest photography series highlights this new threat by appearing to show elephants, rhinos, zebras, and other wildlife strolling through construction sites, bus stops, and other signs of human habitation.
Creating the illusion required a Hollywood-scale operation on Maasai land in Kenya, complete with actors, production crews, special effects artists, caterers, and all the other trappings of a film set.
For each shot, Brandt set up a motion-activated camera system on location in the East African savannah, then retreated to a camp 10 kilometers away to wait for animals to stroll into camera range.
When an animal did so—usually in the middle of the night, since human encroachment has discouraged elephants and other large animals from venturing out during the day—an array of colored light bulbs flashed and the large-format camera took three shots that would later be combined into a panoramic stitch.
In some locations, animals arrived on set the morning after Brandt had rigged up the camera; in others, he had to wait up to six months to get a good shot. “Every morning we’d download what had come in overnight,” he recalls.
“Sometimes it was a hallelujah moment, and many, many other mornings it was a sigh of disappointment that nothing had appeared on camera.”
After finally capturing an animal on film, Brandt kept the camera in the same location while his crew built a temporary set out of recycled materials and populated it with local Kenyans working as film extras.
This “second-stage” photography alone took two months with the crew working mostly at night, a process Brandt described as “brutal.”
The resulting photographs were digitally combined with the wildlife shots to create seamless images of animals wandering through a human-made habitat. “I wanted to symbolically capture the collision of these two worlds,” he says.
Brandt won’t disclose the project’s cost, but admits it was twice what he had originally budgeted. The results, he says, were worth the money, especially since the images will represent his last photography project in Africa.
He called the series This Empty World because “to me the world would be very empty without extraordinary creatures such as these that are so endangered.” A book of the photos goes on sale this week from Thames and Hudson.
Although the population explosion in East Africa is responsible for pushing some of those creatures to the brink of extinction, Brandt doesn’t blame the Maasai people or other ordinary Kenyans.
“The people in these photos are also victims,” he explains. “The aggressors are off-camera. They’re the developers and politicians who are only interested in short-term economic gain, at the expense of the long-term economic benefit of the community.”