LONDON—It was during a 2010 trip to Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve that award-winning American photojournalist and author Kate Brooks first was inspired by elephants. Ms. Brooks’ work is anything but a day at the office; she has documented terrorism and conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, and has had her work featured in publications including the New Yorker, Time and the Wall Street Journal. Out one day on safari, a herd of elephants passed by Ms. Brooks’ vehicle, an event that she said helped to crystalize a few things. As the elephants came into her line of vision, she felt an internal jolt. Just having finished a grueling medevac embed in Afghanistan photographing double and triple amputees, she was witness to “some extremely horrific and traumatic moments,” she said, adding that by the time she got to Kenya, her thoughts and emotions were off kilter. “[The elephants] gave back to me the sense that despite all this human destruction there was still some order on the planet,” said Ms. Brooks. That moment along with working as a contributing cinematographer on the 2012 documentary “The Boxing Girls of Kabul” inspired her to begin her own film, “The Last Animals.” The almost 90-minute film, which will be premiering in the next few months, shines a spotlight on illegal poaching of elephants and rhinos across Africa. Over lunch, Ms. Brooks, 39, spoke with Ginanne Brownell Mitic about her experiences as a first-time filmmaker and the help she has received from her fellow female filmmakers. EXCERPTS:
BROWNELL MITIC: How did you start to formulate the idea for the story of “The Last Animals”?
BROOKS: On my trip in 2010, a friend who was living in Kenya told me there had been a recent uptick in poaching but it certainly was not recognized as a massive crisis at that time. I applied in 2012 to the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and was accepted as an environment fellow. Going into that program, I felt I wanted to do something on poaching. And a few weeks into fellowship, one of the university departments reached out to me saying, “We noticed you have a background in conflict and maybe you want to spend your fellowship looking at poaching crisis in Africa.”
But you didn’t really have a background in covering environmental stories. How did you come to that?
It has always been in the background. I am a vegetarian, and I had stopped eating meat at 13 because of factory farming. My mother, who was a molecular biologist before becoming a medical doctor, did a lot of research on Love Canal, some of which was used in Senate hearings. My father lived in Africa for a long time as well.
Yet it also makes sense as a subject for you because you have looked at human conflict and terrorism, and poaching of elephants and rhinos for their ivory is also a kind of war, isn’t it?
When I started working on this, the topic of poaching was underreported and I am always drawn to issues that are underreported. In the spring of 2013 when I was doing my fellowship, there were 80 elephants gunned down on the border of Chad, and it was a massacre. Nine months later I was on assignment with the Smithsonian to go to Chad to look at poaching. I spent days trying to figure out how to get to the massacre site. In many ways in the course of the project I very much ended up doing a full circle in the film and found myself in the midst of real human conflict over the ivory trade.
There are people, characters in the film, who were killed by poachers. So it all became very, very personal. It was devastating. Shortly after I left the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I woke up to the news that one of the characters had been killed. I spent a lot of time there seeing the risk that rangers were taking— risking their lives on a daily basis to protect these animals. And of course I have lost a lot of friends and colleagues during the course of the work that I did before. A lot of people think that that makes you tougher but I think if anything it made me a lot more sensitive to the loss of life and sacrifices that people make.
You filmed in a number of countries—South Africa, Kenya, Chad, Mozambique and the DRC –each of which is handling this poaching crisis in a different way.
One of the things that struck me is you have many of the leading conservationists in the world living in Kenya but it seemed like after the 1989 ivory ban a number of very important issues to insuring that there was not another poaching crisis were overlooked. So for example, when I started this project and up until a couple of years ago, the maximum penalty for someone caught with ivory in Kenya was $350 and one to two years in prison. Those laws have been revised so that the penalties are now a real deterrent. And that is really fundamental to getting this crisis under control because, typically speaking, the wildlife trade is low-risk, high reward. Last summer in Kenya a major ivory trafficker [Feisal Mohammed] was sentenced to 20 years in a landmark and historic case. In the DRC, there are much stricter and more stringent consequences, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that it is illegal for citizens to have weapons. So it is not always so much about killing an animal but the penalties for someone being caught with a gun are severe in the DRC.
What was that transition like—from photojournalist to filmmaker and director?
I produced my shoots myself for years: I know how to get access, I know how to move around the world. With “The Last Animals” most of the time I was filming on my still camera. So it is a different mental process, shooting video versus stills. When you are doing film, it is holding the moment and staying with the moment, and still catching the visual imagery that I would take as photographer except that it is moving picture so I do not feel deprived of the visual. One my skills as a photographer is to take complex geopolitical issues and distill them down to emotions that people can relate [to] through visual storytelling. After being a photojournalist for nearly two decades, I feel like I have a lot more to say than can be expressed in a picture, which has a lot to do with my move towards motion picture.
But doing a movie is something that requires more than just a camera, a good idea and chutzpah.
A huge number of people in Hollywood were intrigued that a female war photographer was taking on this issue as a director. But because I was a first-time director and there are so few female directors, being a woman was also one of the biggest challenges. I was very lucky that I was given the opportunity to fully realize this project through the support of a number of women.
Story by Ginanne Brownell Mitic
All photos courtesy of Kate Brooks/The Last Animals