As British photographer Nick Brandt traveled through East Africa, he often found himself breathless at the scenes in front of him. It was not, however, the vista that took his breath away, but instead the evidence of what was missing, lost, and destroyed:

“So much of the African savannah, once teeming with wild animals, is now denuded to near-emptiness,” Brandt said. “This was the impetus behind the photographs of the lion, buffalo and kudu trophy heads: portraits of decapitated creatures killed by trophy hunters, appearing alive again in death, looking out over lands where once they lived and roamed in multitudes.”

Lion Head Trophy © Nick Brandt. Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Before turning to photography, Brandt had a high-profile filmmaking career. He fell in love with Africa in 1996 while directing the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” and from there, shifted his focus to Africa and still photography. He began shooting exclusively with film (this series was shot using Kodak TMax 100 film, for example). Brandt says he turned to film photography because he felt “photography, rather than moving images in narrative form” allowed him to express his feelings about the “sentience of animals and the disappearance of the natural world in a more personal, less compromised way.”

Other series include Brandt’s highly acclaimed, large-scale series Inherit the Dust, in which life-size panels featuring endangered and threatened species were placed within the landscapes where the animals used to roam—terrain that has since been ravaged by man.

Walking the shores of Lake Natron, a caustic salt and soda lake in Tanzania, Brandt came across the “calcified” bodies of creatures that had died and become preserved thanks to the unique chemical environment. Brandt immediately envisioned the animals as they were before they met their demise. “The notion of portraits of dead animals in the place where they once lived drew me to photograph the creatures in the “Petrified” series,” he said. “These are creatures I would have never otherwise been able to take portraits of, of course.”

Petrified Fish Eagle © Nick Brandt. Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Contrary to some reports about the photos, the creatures that happen to die in and around Lake Natron are not instantly turned to stone. In reality, the high concentrations of minerals in the water calcify and preserve them after they die. “No one knows for certain exactly how [the animals] die, but it appears that the extremely reflective surface of the lake water confuses them. Like birds smashing into plate glass windows, they crash into the lake,” Brandt said. “The water has an extremely high soda and salt content—so high that it would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds. This causes the creatures to calcify as they dry, and thus they wind up perfectly preserved.”

Unfortunately, like so many places on earth, Lake Natron is at risk of environmental degradation from human development. Despite this, Brandt is hopeful: “I find hope in knowing that with the right people and circumstances, ecosystems can be successfully protected,” he said. “That is what, so far, we have managed to do with the Big Life Foundation in the Amboseli/Kilamanjaro ecosystem in Kenya. Conservation relies so much on the support of the community. It’s really a mutual situation: if conservation supports the community, that helps the people economically in the long term, and so they, reciprocally, support conservation.”

Brandt continues to find inspiration in the African landscape, especially from the animals that inhabit the space: “you get something in parts of Africa that no longer exists in the developed world, or indeed almost anywhere in the wild outside a remaining few areas of sub-Saharan Africa: places where you can look out across the landscape and see multiple species en masse, in a single view. It has quite a visceral emotional impact on most people, and certainly did, and still does, for me.”

—Gina Williams

Learn more about Gina Williams on her personal website or her blog, Accents & Apertures.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like one of these previous features: Inherit the Dust, Brandt’s series that situates huge murals featuring animals in the landscapes they once occupied; Land of Nothingness, shots from one of the least densely populated places on the planet—the desert in Namibia; and Darwin in the Streets, a series highlighting the strange parallels between human and animal appearances.