Brent Stirton: “I'm hoping coronavirus is a huge wake-up call.”

The South African photojournalist on the illegal wildlife trade, gorillas, danger and dealing with death
By Graeme Green
Brent Stirton is a Getty Images photographer whose often hard-hitting work on wildlife, conservation and human issues appears in publications such as National Geographic, Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine. His photo of a killed black rhino in South Africa with its horn cut off won the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.

What made you want to be a photojournalist?

I grew up in South Africa. During my military service, I ran smack bang into what apartheid actually meant. I decided to go into journalism because I thought what was happening in my country was obviously wrong. People I’d met during my military service, that I was friends with, I wasn’t able to go and have a drink with in the same bar. It seemed crazy.

Coming from a country where the government had controlled the press and the television for such a long time only made me feel more fervently about the media and my place in it.

Great journalism remains a vital force in our world. If we don’t have it, I ask the sceptics, “Where do they expect to get their reliable information?”

Photo by Brent Stirton

How do you decide which stories to work on? 

I’m interested in man’s relationship with the environment. Working in the terrible conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007 was a big eye-opener for me. I got asked to spend time with conservation rangers working off Virunga National Park. They were eleven different paramilitary groups in the park. In the middle of all this, there were 400 conservation rangers, mostly unpaid, trying to preserve one of the main habitats for the mountain gorilla. At the time, there were less than 400 mountain gorillas left in the world.

On day three, we got word that mountain gorillas have been killed, so we went along and covered what turned out to be the killing of nine mountain gorillas, including babies. Those photos were published in Newsweek and, frankly, got an unprecedented reaction. For me, it was a real epiphany because this was another way to talk about wars.

Photo by Brent Stirton

How do you balance the art of the photograph with the story?

I’m very influenced by James Nachtwey, who I regard as the godfather of photojournalism. What I like about James’s work is his tremendous dignity for the subjects. He manages to take horrific scenes and photograph them in a compositionally masterful way. I’m always looking to make images that have both an aesthetic quality and a quality that’s going to move you.

Your photo of a dead, dehorned rhino in South Africa had that same impact.

I’ve seen maybe a hundred of those sights. You’re always trying to get to one which has some level of emotional resonance. The problem with animals, purely from a photographic perspective, is that when they die, they tend to desiccate really quickly or they’re attacked by scavengers, or there’s very little left of the actual animal. In this case, this animal had been dead maybe an hour and a half. I think I actually saw this animal a few hours before it was shot.

What impact does witnessing this death and destruction have on you? 

With my work on wildlife, it’s as much about the people on the ground trying to do something about what’s happening as it is about the animals themselves. When I arrive on the scene and the people I’m working with are very visibly upset, that’s as upsetting for me as it is to see the needless death of an endangered animal.

It’s an engine for me. It makes me angry and it makes me more determined to make images that people will react to.

Photo by Brent Stirton

These are dangerous situations you’re working in. How do you weigh up the risks of the work?

The danger is sometimes overly exaggerated. Photojournalism is romanticized. But if you’re going to take on the responsibility of the story, you need to go all the way. There are devastating things happening to those animals in the wild. If it’s dangerous, you just work out how to practically cover those things. If you’re stupid and rush into something, you’re going to get into trouble. But if you work out ahead of time how you’re going to do this and you stick to it and you’re smart about what you’re doing, you can do a great deal.

You have a real responsibility to the story. Do not take it on if you’re not prepared to go all the way. 

You’ve worked on the illegal wildlife trade and poaching. What are your thoughts on how to tackle it?

What’s just happened with this coronavirus story in China is a huge step. I worked on pangolins. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has approved a permanent nationwide ban on the consumption and illegal trade of wild animals. It’s incredible. That’s something like an 80 billion dollar industry every year in China. We’ve known for a long time that there are party connections and also a very strong nationalistic pride when it comes to traditional medicine across China.

If this ban really happens, it changes the game in terms of endangered wildlife. But what we’ve seen in the past, when it comes to ivory and rhino horn and other things, is that it goes underground. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are still websites where you can order what you want. We’ll see if China addresses the online trade as well as the markets. Then I’ll feel we’ve had a seismic change in what it means for wildlife.

It’s going to be interesting to see how that all plays out in the future, but watching the economic effect of coronavirus on the world, which is the effect of a zoonotic disease transmission… I’m hoping that coronavirus is a huge wake-up call. Hopefully that ends up being really good for the survival of wildlife around the world. 

You mentioned the pangolin, which is thought to have been a possible source of the coronavirus. It’s the most trafficked mammal in the world but many people wouldn’t have heard of them before the coronavirus.

Yes, over a million pangolins have been trafficked in the last 10 years. We have no idea how many are left.

We’ve paid a lot of attention to the mega fauna. What’s been happening is that the smaller species have been disappearing at an incredible rate, because we’re not paying much attention to them and because a lot of people haven’t actually heard of them. So much of the frog world is disappearing. Nothing is really safe at this time.

It’s amazing the amount of consumption without verifiable scientific back-up. China’s pharmaceutical industry alone requires something like 28 tons of pangolin scales every year. I’m talking about big pharma industrial grinders in factories, grinding up the pangolin scales for traditional medicine. This isn’t wild market stuff. This isn’t illegal trade. Pangolin scales are just keratin. It’s entirely a placebo. But this is a medicine system that believes consuming this product allows you to inhabit the spirit of the animal.

Photo by Brent Stirton

From the illegal wildlife trade to climate change we know a lot of the solutions. Are you frustrated by how slowly the changes the world needs are coming, if they’re coming at all?

There are so many things that are so strange about our civilization. I was looking yesterday at something that said that only three percent of US military spending could solve starvation globally. I look at the amount of money we spend on our military and think “If we put that into sustainability, or even put half of that into sustainability, we could solve all this stuff.’ Unless we accord the environment a different value to the one we have accorded it, then it may not survive. 

But there’s a tremendous disconnect between leadership and the environment. If we could just prioritize what’s happening environmentally to a greater extent… We have the budgets. We have the brainpower to solve all these things. They’re just not a priority.

That’s a mystery to me, considering we’re all standing on one planet here. We have the skills to sort out these issues, yet we don’t do it. And it seems to be on the basis of economic priorities and poor leadership. It’s amazing Greta Thunberg had the influence that she did, that a sixteen-year-old is what was required to get our attention. But she seems to have faded into the background again.

Sometimes it feels like humanity is only two feet from the cave and we’re not really meant to progress that much further. 

Brent Stirton’s website:

Follow him on Instagram: @brentstirton.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist:

Listen to the Brent Stirton NEW BIG 5 PODCAST here.

Please SHARE this interview.

NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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