Nick Brandt’s Photographs Go Viral, But Media and the Internet Miss the Point

We recently interviewed Nick Brandt about his new book of fine-art photographs from East Africa, and how his photographic work led to the creation of Big Life, his foundation, which protects elephants and other wildlife from poachers across a two million acre swath of land in the Amboseli ecosystem.

Brandt’s photographs and commitment to conservation speak for themselves. In the past week his work has appeared on websites like Huffington Post, ABC News, Grist, Gizmodo, The Verge and several others.

Yet the majority of the coverage of Brandt’s new work hasn’t focused on the animals killed by poachers; instead writers and editors have keyed on the images in his book showing birds and bats that died in—and were calcified by—a caustic lake in Tanzania. While those images of birds that look strangely alive in death have generated fascination and thousands of comments across various sites, Brandt’s conservation message of has gone largely unremarked both by the media outlets and their audiences.

“Media only wanted to cover the calcifieds, not anything related to conservation.” Brandt told PDN via email. “I tried to persuade some to expand their coverage from just the calcifieds, but in all but two instances failed—the calcifieds were the story du jour. Elephants and lions being annihilated across Africa seemed to be met with a cyber-‘whatever’ on the whole.”

“The reason that the photos got so picked up on in my opinion is less to do with photography related interest, and more to do with, Oh look at the weird things that happen in nature, a lake that turns birds ‘to stone.’ The lake doesn’t turn birds to stone—that was one early copy editor’s figure of speech that a hundred others then took to mean literally. Cue hundreds of people saying they are not turned to stone, etc. In other words, most of it becomes about the natural phenomena, not the photography.” Or the fact that poachers are annihilating elephants and lions across Africa. “There was thus also no increase in attention for Big Life,” Brandt adds.

“I am not a believer in ‘all publicity is good publicity,’” Brandt says. Though he admits there were positives. He’s seen an uptick in sales of his book, which will presumably lead to more people seeing the whole body of work and reading about the conservation issues. And he also noted that some of his least commercial photographs—the calcified birds and bats—are getting attention.

In this case the media favored clicks over substance. But it begs the question: couldn’t they have done both? Brandt’s work engages viewers with a combination of style and substance. Can that strategy not be carried onto mainstream websites? Or would discussing elephant poaching cause the masses to click away in horror?

Related: Nick Brandt: From Artist to Conservationist

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One Response to “Nick Brandt’s Photographs Go Viral, But Media and the Internet Miss the Point”

  1. Stephen McGrath Says:

    I quite disliked those calcified images, primarily because they were posed and therefore misleading in themselves. It is no surprise that the media want to run with the least important, visually dramatic and most misleading images from a set. The general public is too base to respond in mass to real issues that make them uncomfortable.