Conversation With Nick Nichols and Brent Stirton

Conversations is an ongoing series where photographers, editors, and curators talk about concepts in photography as well as recent projects.

In this edition of Conversations, photographers Nick Nichols and Brent Stirton discuss how a picture must “go to work” in the context of telling a story. Nichols and Stirton recently worked together on a lions feature package, each contributing a story, that was published in National Geographic magazine’s August 2013 issue.

NICK NICHOLS: Well, Brent—it’s certainly an honor that we worked on this [project] together.

BRENT STIRTON: That honor is mine. Thank you.

NICK: When the project started, I was trying to cover it all, but I knew I couldn’t get myself out of the natural history focus. That’s when we recruited you to bring in the issues surrounding lions. All I wanted to do was to make people see how cool they are—your story would be the real substance. And then you found that man being baptized. He isn’t really being baptized, he’s just being washed, but it has that connotation—can African lions survive, and can Africans survive with them? I knew that you were going to find widows. I knew you were going to find people with scars, but I couldn’t imagine that you would find someone that so iconically represents the problem of living with a predator. Could you tell us how that came to be?

BRENT: I was in an airport when you called and asked me to work on this story. I was very cognizant of the fact that you had spent nearly two years working very hard on it, and I knew the quality of work you produced. It was quite intimidating for me because I knew I only had a short space of time and I would have to produce work that was going to stand up next to this epic project of yours. Frankly, it made me nervous.

So to come back to that picture, it really came to me before you even asked me about this project. I had been talking to [the story’s photo editor, National Geographic senior editor for natural history] Kathy Moran about the hypocrisy of the West, and I really wanted to do a series on the fact that we ask people living in rural spaces in Africa to do impossible things—things that we would never do ourselves. So I put out the word in Kenya and in Tanzania that I was looking for victims of lion attacks. Now, the difficult part is that the victims are often attacked because they’re in the wrong place, doing the wrong things. They’re usually inside reserves poaching or fishing. In a way, that can diminish what’s happened to them, despite the fact that their poverty led them to take those kinds of risks. This gentleman lost his arms going fishing in the evening, and on his way back got jumped by these lions.

It’s a quandary for me because, on the one hand, I want to talk about what it means to live with these animals. On the other hand, we are talking about protecting these spaces and these guys are treading on them. The essay that you created shows how magnificent these animals are. People don’t get to experience them firsthand. If your pictures are sufficiently beautiful, then you put people right next to those animals, and you give them a whole new sense of appreciation. And you succeed with that in this essay.

NICK: There’s so much information about lions that’s confusing and not really correct, that everybody kind of accepts. I’m not sure you can change it all in one fell swoop, but this was an attempt to give some clarity to the kind of lives lions lead. People love seeing lions. Now, what I’m curious [about] is a year from now, after this story has been out there, will it have any effect?

I didn’t know you a few years ago, but when I saw your picture with that gorilla being carried, I knew that you were someone who felt the same way about the world as I did. Now that our paths have crossed, I feel that even more strongly, and I know you understand Africa. It was very important to me that you were South African, that there was someone who walked in those shoes with other Africans and could bring this story out.

BRENT: Yeah, I get that. A lot of journalists romanticize Africa, frankly. There’s just some really hard truths to Africa. So working in Africa for my whole life, I do think it is better to have an African do this story.

Nick, can I ask you a question? One of the things I respect most about you is that you’re not prepared to do any story in a conventional fashion. You’re always trying to push ahead, whether it’s with technology, framing, thinking, research. For me, when you talk about getting inside the story, that goal post moves all the time. Even if I make a picture I’m happy with, that frame will only last for a few days. But for you, I know that when you finished the story, you weren’t satisfied. Can you tell me why?

NICK: Unfortunately, that’s the biggest burden of what we do. If you are satisfied, then something is wrong with you.

BRENT: Absolutely.

NICK: And if you’re just never satisfied, it’s like you’re constantly chasing something that you can’t have. In some way, I feel very fulfilled, but I left those lions in a place that I wasn’t prepared to leave them. I was trying for closure, and the closure for me was going to be millions of wildebeests walking into the territory of the lions that I had been following so long. The project ended [before that unpredictable seasonal event].

I’ve got to figure out how I can go back to lions until I’m completely done with it. I get so locked in. I’m so compulsive that you can’t drag me off of it. I know that’s different from you because you’re a fast-moving guy. We’re almost extreme opposites in that.

Tell us how you got access to safari hunting.

BRENT: Getting access to the hunters means that I must get absolutely inside their heads, and in order to do that, I have to swallow the Kool-Aid. I have to get inside all the possible positives to hunting. I went through at least 20 rejections while trying to get on hunts. On a number of occasions, we drove a few thousand kilometer round-trips to get to a place, only to be turned away at the gate. The thing with Geographic is that it’s the best opportunity to tell the story in the most comprehensive way possible. So that’s a driving force. There was no way I was going to let go of the story and come back and say I couldn’t get it. No way! That just wasn’t an option. But I stressed out thinking about it, and I know I can’t let you down.

NICK: [Laughter.] I’m laughing because I could hear that [stress] in our satellite calls when you were trying, and then the thousand-kilometer drive.

BRENT: Yeah. I’m interested in being an objective journalist, and I think that it’s really important to consider everyone’s opinion and try to represent that. There is an aspect of hunting that has a real role to play in conservation and I have to be practically minded about that as well. It’s a pragmatic reality of conservation that hunting has its place.

NICK: I was just thinking about what you’re saying. In the last two stories that we’ve done, which have been so closely tied together—elephants [Stirton’s story on the ivory trade, published in the October 2012 National Geographic] and lions—we both present each side, but also know the real issue is human beings. And we know that elephants take up a lot of land. But at the same time, we want them on the planet. We want the planet to be full, and these photographs have the best chance of helping that. It’s funny. We know that there’s words that go with the photos. We know they need clarity. They need statistics too, but the power of your opening picture [in the lion conservation story] and even my opening picture [in the natural history story] is that the subjects get incredible dignity out of it.

BRENT: Absolutely.

NICK: The first two pictures in your story really bring home reality that no amount of words could bring home. I would feel so empty if I had made my essay on natural history and yours wasn’t behind it. [Stirton’s lion conservation article followed Nichols’s own lion piece in the magazine.]

BRENT: The whole reason why we appreciate these animals is embodied in your pictures. The dignity of those animals is inherently in your pictures. My job is to talk about what the issues are surrounding them. All I hope for is that they are complementary.

NICK: I’m pretty sure that philanthropy is the next solution to what we do. The bottom line right now for me is that I’m spent. I’m in the process of trying to shut down and then see if I can come back.

BRENT: Of course. Ultimately, the best thing you can hope for in this profession is to get to a point where you’re useful.

NICK: Yeah.

STIRTON: Every now and again, the work that we’ve been doing has been useful. I mean, shit has happened as a result of this work, and I just want to feel that I have been functional. I’m not a father. I don’t have that channel anywhere else. I don’t have any other calling in my life than this. So, if you have a career and you are just trying to survive like all the rest of us, but at the same time, you are able to be useful, then that’s a vocation. That’s a calling. You have to listen to that.

NICK: Where do you think you found that?

BRENT: For me, that context is in the natural world, that’s where I’m of service.

NICK: When I saw your image of a dead Silverback gorilla being carried by men out of the forest—it became a very famous picture—it represented everything to me about man and nature, and I wanted it to be recognized beyond nature photography. To me, it wasn’t just a wildlife picture. It was all about conflict and war and our dealings with the planet, and so I actually carried that whole concept. When I would talk to people, I would tell them that’s the picture that represents it all. And then I get to know you, and find out that you’re for real. That wasn’t just a picture you made and forgot about. You started making that be your body of work—one that has no blinders on about the realities of wildlife in Africa.

We’ve got this big problem that everybody thinks Africa is huge and is just animals running all over the place, and the truth is we’re coming into a massive climax of a crisis. And we’re both lucky to tell the world about it with our pictures and maybe make a difference. I’m going to be curious to see what happens with the man who lost his arms, because I think that picture will have a life that will keep coming back to us.

BRENT: I hope so. I’ve been talking to Handicap International about that guy.

NICK: When the world sees that picture, that guy will have some kind of arms in no time, I’m sure of it. He deserves it. There’s no doubt about that. That’s where the power of this work is going to play—when the world sees it. Let’s see what kind of reaction comes. If it helps out the science, if it helps out the conservation, then we’ve really done what we set out to do.

This conversation was recorded on June 26th, 2013.

Nick’s story, The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion can be seen here.

Brent’s story, Living With Lions can be seen here.

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