Black bear bile, rhino horns, shark fins and other endangered wildlife and their illicit trade account for more than $10 billion annually. For the past ten years, documentary photographer Patrick Brown has explored this story, shooting from the jungles of Cambodia to the markets of Guangzhou. The work is now collected in the book “Trading to Extinction,” published by Dewi Llewis and released to coincide with this week’s global summit on illegal wildlife trade hosted in London.
The statistics on the wildlife trade are staggering. A rhinoceros horn culled from India may fetch $350 locally but command a price as high as $60,000 by the time it hits Hong Kong or Beijing. As the images portray, the story runs deeper than the poaching of animals for their supposed medicinal qualities and Brown’s monochromatic images explore animal trafficking in the zoo trade as well as the law enforcement story.
“In the ten years that I’ve been doing this it’s gotten bigger and bigger,” said Brown. “The numbers now they are talking about now are just incredible.”
According to the Guardian newspaper, ivory seizures are currently at an all time high with 30,000 confiscated in 2012. Rhino numbers in Africa continue to plummet and the demand for shark fin soup contributes to the culling of more than 100 million sharks each year.
The face of animal conservation, however, is often saturated, wildlife photographs of animals in their native habitat, unthreatened by human encroachment. Patrick Brown’s visceral black and white photographs confront this innocence with the darker realities at play in this world of back alley deals, poaching and cross-border international trafficking.
“There’s more tigers in Texas than there are in India,” says Brown. “There’s something wrong there. It gets me angry. If I had shot beautiful wildlife photography then I would’ve had spreads all over. I’m not a wildlife photographer, I’m an investigative journalist and I did an investigative journalist piece on the animal trade. And, to me, what’s happening to the animals is the story and that is what needs to be shown.”
“Trading to Extinction” is a grim, powerful visual testament to human avarice. The books release, timed with today’s global summit on animal trafficking, aims to bring attention to these issues and enact real change to curb the situation. But Brown’s images are not allowed to be seen by the delegates and were rejected by the summit. They are, however, published on the London tube through the support of his agency Panos pictures.
“It’s to get this message out to as many people as possible and hopefully that will make people re-evaluate who they vote for and how they vote because that is the only way to change the politicians if they are not supporting what you believe in,” says Brown.
The project was captured on Kodak Tri-X and shot with FM2 cameras, one with a 35mm/1.4 and one with a 28mm/2.8 and a Rolleiflex from 1952. The choice was deliberate as Brown has a great deal of comfort in working with monochrome and it was the canvas he felt most appropriate for the subject matter.
Shooting a project that exposes the greedy underworld of the animal trade was not without personal risk. Beyond the challenges of financing the travel fees and supply costs, Brown was beaten up in Indonesia and Vietnam and had his cameras forced in his face. As Brown is quick to relay, getting beaten was a far cry from the anger and discomfort he experienced when the crowd-funding platform and publisher Emphas.is liquidated and absconded with $30,000 in donations that had been raised for “Trading to Extinction.”
“My project is just one of the victims and those 200 backers are now going to be reluctant to put money into a project if you were to go with crowdfunding,” he said. “They (Emphas.is) really spoiled it for the community of photojournalists.”
All told the project took ten years to photograph with two years to do the edit and then final gelatin silver printing. Sequencing the narrative was done using work prints and Xeroxes that were shuffled around Brown’s Bangkok apartment over several months with input from fellow journalists and the publisher. The resulting book, which is the completion of the project, is duotone and utilizes scans of the actual silver prints rather than the negatives.
“I realized that I had gone as far as I could as an investigative journalist on the subject when I realized that I was overshooting subjects and not getting any further and I realized that I had done what I had set out to achieve,” he said.
To order a copy of the limited edition of 150 numbered and signed books with a hand-signed gelatin print, you can order here while the press run of 1,200 by Dewi Lewis books are available here. For more on his work, you can view a behind the scenes video of Patrick at work in Thailand and China shooting for the project. Patrick is continuing his work on the Hope project as well as a personal project on Burma. His advice to emerging photographers is not to take no for an answer. “Believe in yourself and don’t emulate other photographers but be yourself.”
Patrick Brown is the recipient of the 3P Photographer Award, World Press Award, Days Japan Award, Picture Of The Year Award, New York Photographic Book Award and NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism Award. His work has been exhibited at prestigious galleries and museums, including the International Center of Photography in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo, and Visa pour l’Image in France.
All images are published here with the permission of Patrick Brown.