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Q and A: Slaughter and Trade, Through An All-Seeing Lens

Offbeat  (tags: animals, environment, ethics, pictures, wildlife, world, society, protection, photos, interesting, crime )

- 1979 days ago -
Brent Stirton, a South African photographer who roams the globe for Reportage for Getty Images, has often borne witness to elemental conflicts between humans and nature, including violence against wildlife.

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JL A (281)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 10:54 am

Green - Energy, the Environment and the Bottom Line
November 20, 2012, 1:23 pm
Q and A: Slaughter and Trade, Through an All-Seeing Lens

Brent Stirton, a South African photographer who roams the globe for Reportage for Getty Images, has often borne witness to elemental conflicts between humans and nature, including violence against wildlife.

In 2007, he documented the mysterious massacre of nine endangered gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, focusing global attention on the country's war-torn conservation zones.

More recently, Mr. Stirton has explored the illegal trade in rhino horns on a semi-undercover basis, photographing the wounded animals in South Africa and an affluent woman in Vietnam merrily grinding the horn into what she considered a medicinal powder. (Mr. Stirton posed as a Canadian interested in setting up an illicit business as a horn dealer.) For those images, he was named runner-up for the 2012 Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year, an award sponsored by Britain's Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide.

Mr. Stirton's latest body of work, "Blood Ivory," focuses on the slaughter of thousands of elephants for the illegal ivory trade, especially the sale of venerated religious objects. The images have drawn enormous attention, as has an article they accompanied in National Geographic that quotes clerics and other locals in the Philippines, Thailand and China freely discussing their efforts to secure illicit objects.

We chatted with Mr. Stirton last week about his recent adventures, his photographic subjects and the strains involved in documenting wildlife carnage. Following are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity.


It seems that you're really drawn to animals.


I'm not an animal photographer; I'm trying to illustrate the interconnectivity of all these things, because that's definitely what I'm seeing in the field. I see animals as a metaphor for diminishing resources. If you look at the rhino for example, that's a Big Five animal - tourism exists in Africa largely because people can come and see animals.

The more you diminish their viewing opportunities, the greater the impact on unemployment. If there is greater unemployment, there's more insecurity in the country. When I'm working on ivory, or what's happening with rhino horn, or with tigers, lions, or if I'm working on gorillas - it's not just about the animal. It's very myopic for us to look at it like that.


Tell us about the time you spent photographing gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


I was working for Newsweek, and they sent me out to cover this group of conservation rangers in Virunga National Park, which is Africa's first national park. It's arguably the most unique biosphere in the world -- there is no other park in the world that has as many varieties of fauna and flora. But the bottom line was that these rangers - 400 of them across an area greater than the size of Israel - were trying to cope with 11 different paramilitary groups, the Congolese Army, the Hutu genocidaires and others.

These 400 guys were trying to maintain some degree of order and save the mountain gorillas, save the okapis, save the habitat. And then you've got three active volcanoes thrown into the mix. So it's an interesting scenario to go and examine the mentality of a group of men who were earning less than 17 dollars a month if they were getting paid at all. I was interested in who these people were.


The photographs drew worldwide attention primarily because they documented the killing of nine gorillas those rangers were trying to protect. But the gorillas weren't poached - so why had they been killed?


It took us a long time to work that out; that whole investigation was about why. The bottom line was that the warden in charge of the park, the guy who was charged with looking after the gorillas, was actually involved in an illicit charcoal manufacturing business. Charcoal is made from hardwood, and the only hardwood in that area exists in the park -- but it's the gorilla's habitat. If you destroy the habitat, you destroy the animals.

There were a couple of rangers that were trying very hard to work against this charcoal lobby, but they didn't know that this warden was involved from the inside. The bottom line was that the charcoal guys said to the rangers, "You need to stop bothering us, or something's going to happen." But the rangers were courageous and continued to pursue this illegal activity, and the gorillas were killed as a warning. Seven adults and two babies were killed.

But what they underestimated was that there was a journalist right there when it happened. We were fortunate to be able to get in, make the pictures immediately and get out, because the Congolese Army came looking for us. We basically had to flee the country.


How do people in the field - rangers, local conservationists - react to your camera?


Of the time that I'm away every year, I spend a great deal of it in a very small tent living badly. I think that a great many people who work in conservation on the ground around the world, they are not really used to seeing white guys come along and live the way they live, and they very much appreciate that. They can feel that I genuinely empathize with their situation and how they live, and that I have a lot of respect for them. They are remarkable people.


For your work on the illegal trade in rhino horn, you posed as a Canadian buyer to get that photograph of the woman grinding rhino horn in Vietnam. How did you get her to be so relaxed with you?


I needed to think, 'how do I win the trust of people that are committing an illegal activity?' Working out how to sell yourself as someone who's interested in purchasing a product that you're not supposed to be purchasing -- that all took a significant amount of time and eventually led me to a point where I was sitting at a roadside cafe with a wealthy Vietnamese woman, who was showing me how she uses this product on a daily basis so that I could relay that information to my potential "clients."

I really had a five-minute window to make that picture. These meetings happen in clandestine circumstances. With the horn dealers, it was kind of undercover - they were very careful with me. But this woman wasn't. So she provided me with an opportunity to create a metaphor.


One picture stands out from the exposť on religion and ivory -- a man among the desiccated carcasses of several elephants. What is the back story there?


That man was a village ranger. He had been with those elephants for 30 years. The picture is in Cameroon, from the biggest elephant massacre in history. We quoted someone in that piece saying that more than 300 elephants were killed, whereas the villagers told me that the poachers had told them: 'We've already killed more than 600 elephants. But don't worry; we're just here for the ivory."

That gentleman in the photo, he is remembering that particular group. The elephant he is touching is just under a year old, and he remembers when that elephant was born, because that little group was very close to his village. I'm very interested in those moments; I'm interested in people making that human-animal connection. Because it certainly is possible to have that.


Many of your images challenge the notion that local people in Africa have little time or feeling for wildlife - what is your take on that?


I think if Africans have spent enough time around wildlife, they care, if they understand and feel a direct benefit from wildlife, they care. But if their livelihoods or their crops or their well-being is threatened by animals, then of course, they're going to have an aggressive stance toward them. Unfortunately, most of the structure of the way that wildlife works in Africa does not benefit local communities. In Tanzania or Kenya, animals are state-owned, so local communities don't feel any positive side effects from living with animals.

When March comes around and it's harvest time in Africa and you're sleeping in your fields at night to protect them from elephants, or children are getting taken by lions, it's challenging to continue respecting wildlife. I just think we ask Africans to do a lot of things that we haven't done ourselves. There's some hypocrisy in that.


What was different about "Blood Ivory?"


When we do pieces like the one on religion and ivory, it's exciting because it's gives us a new angle, something that's been staring you in the face for a long time. When you read it, it just becomes obvious, and you will never look at ivory the same way again. So pressure the pope. Pressure the Dalai Lama. Pressure whoever is running Daoism and Taoism. Pressure the Hindu states. Talk to your priests.

We keep banging the same drum on a lot of these themes, and what we are trying to do with our stories is open new dialogues, provide new pressure points, find new ways of looking at these issues. We just don't have the time to really tiptoe around one another's cultural value systems. We have to make strong statements, and we can make them respectfully, but we need to make them.


Why do you think so many people have a strong reaction to your work?


I think there's an underlying, maybe subconscious, reaction to it because people perceive the innocence of animals. A lot of us have given up on humans, and we're jaded about human suffering. But when we see that happening to an animal, we're more indignant. I also feel that on another level, we understand that we are the guardians of those creatures. So maybe all of those things have some sort of underlying influence on how people view my pictures.


After taking wrenching photographs for so many years, have you grown numb?


No, for me that doesn't happen. I don't get numb -- I get frustrated with my own impotence. We repress a lot of our anger in the field because there are public relations that you have to manage. You just can't afford to express how you feel. I'm not numb, definitely not. I am a little jaded - but not much. I think there's also a lot of beauty in those tough moments. I think there's a lot of potential for empathy and understanding, and that's really what I'm driving towards.


What about that anger? How do you manage it when you face such horrific scenes?


At a certain point I could put down my camera and pick up a gun -- that occurs to me. But I don't voice that in the field. You might leave, but the people that you worked with remain, and what you do compromises them. Feel - but feel internally, then put that into words, into photographs, or make a great movie. I try to express my opinion through my pictures, and every now and again I get that right.

Brent Stirton is a senior staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images; more of his work can be viewed at its Web site.

Petra M (259)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 4:41 pm
Noted, thank you!

JL A (281)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 5:09 pm
You are welcome Petra!

. (0)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 7:33 pm
Noted & posted

JL A (281)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 7:34 pm
Thanks for sharing it Michael!

Faye Swan (23)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 9:17 pm
Thank you! To you and Brent Stirton. I'm going to see if we can get prints of his for our library,

JL A (281)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 9:19 pm
You are welcome Faye and I wish you luck with your quest!

Maureen C (4)
Thursday November 22, 2012, 11:30 pm
Thanks, J.L.

Frans B (582)
Friday November 23, 2012, 1:12 am
this is one of the saddest pictures I've seen in my whole life... imagine the conversation between those two.... very very sad..... I still think the price on a poacher's head must be ten times that of the Rhino horn....really.... it WILL solve the problem, I am sure

JL A (281)
Friday November 23, 2012, 7:59 am
You are welcome Maureen. Thank you for finding words for the sadness Frans.
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