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We Interviewed Photojournalist Patrick Brown on Burnout, the Illegal Wildlife Trade, Photo Book Publishing, Crowdfunding and Instagram

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A large bull elephant sits with its legs chained in Chitwan National Park. This 50-year-old beast was restrained because he had killed five mahouts (handlers) during his lifetime. Nepal, 2003

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A long-tailed macaque kept in a small cage while on sale at a local market in Medan. Northern Sumatra, 2003.

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A Scotland Yard police officer displays a tiger’s head seized during a raid in London. England, 2003.

For Trading to Extinction, Bangkok-based photographer Patrick Brown spent nearly a quarter of his life documenting the dark truths behind the illegal wildlife trade, from the poachers of Nepal and Cambodia to  vendors along the Burmese border. Alternately shadowing anti-poaching teams and pretending the role of an interested buyer, Brown has collected over ten years’ worth of imagery that unveils the breadth of this multibillion dollar industry, pulling clandestine moments of cruelty and exploitation from the shadows and into light. Bearing witness to Brown’s austere black and white visions, we are overtaken by the enormity and pervasiveness of the industry, and ultimately, called to action.

In some ways, producing Trading to Extinction left Brown drained and exhausted, disappointed by the complexities of the photography industry. His ongoing project Darker with the day is his return to essentials of photography, an exploration space and form, and of the themes of darkness and light that lies at the core of all his work. Born from the restlessness of a nightmare, the project delves into the elements of our subconscious, allowing blurred and enigmatical glimpses into the human psyche. Darker with the day is like a journey back in time, a reentry into the inherent impulses that lead Brown to become the photojournalist that created Trading to Extinction, but it is also a glimpse into the future, a bold foray into unchartered territory.

While Trading to Extinction boldly addresses a widespread global issue and Darker with the day plunges into introspection, Brown’s innate inquisitiveness and persistence become a common thread, uniting the two projects even as they veer into alternate directions. We spoke to him about Trading to Extinction and Darker with the day, his transition from one project to the next, and the uncertain future of photography.

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A shop in Tachilek, on the Thai-Burma border, selling illegal wildlife products. The town is a centre for the sale of smuggled or poached animals, skins and parts. Burma/Myanmar, 2003.

You worked on Trading to Extinction for over a decade. Could you tell us a bit about the background and your process?
“I was introduced to the issue by Ben Davis and Adam Oswell, who asked me to be the photographer on a book project, called Black Market, about the illegal animal trade. Once the shooting was completed, I realized that I only just started to scratch the surface of this subject.

“I started to put all the links together, the connectivity of different issues within one subject and the global landscape of the trade. This trade is bigger than most, and the complexity of it – to be honest – is at times overwhelming, but mostly intriguing and really saddening at the same time.

“For most of the images I shot on the Trading To Extinction project, I went undercover to find out what the real story was and to get the truth about what was going on behind the curtains. And it was not easy convincing the shop owners and dealers that I was not a threat, to the extent where I had to pretend that I was interested in buying or agreed to the trade. By doing so, I uncovered the unseen evidence and the atrocities of the trade. Of course this came with a price, but I was able to justify it by looking at the bigger picture, which was to get the story out to show the world the cruel aspects of this trade – and the social, cultural, financial and political complexities that lies behind the announced fight to save our endangered species. I bought only fake things, such as imitation tiger claws in Southern China for example, which made me look dumb in front of the traders and therefore like less of a threat.

“Access now has become even harder because of the Internet. People know the power of the image because of the Internet. Even in the most remote areas, people know to some degree that an image can be seen around the world, which makes them more cautious about being caught on camera.”

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A group of poachers arrested in Chitwan National Park sit in a jail at the Kasara Royal Nepalese Army barracks. Nepal, 2004.

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A handcuffed poacher is photographed with a board bearing details of his name, age, plus the nature and date of his crime. Cambodia, 2002.

You mention that Trading to Extinction took a toll on you. Was this mainly because of the upsetting nature of the work, the photography business in general, or both?
“I’ve learned a lot. And sadly, I learned the hard way on possibly the most precious subject of my career to date. I raised $29,000 through the Emphas.is crowd-funding publishing model. However, this turned out to be a very unfortunate partnership when Emphas.is went into liquidation in October 2013 and took with them all the money raised and left me with the bills to be paid on services that had already been provided. I inherited a $29,000 debt due to somebody else’s mismanagement. This is a tough lesson learned. Also, this has also meant that I basically managed the entire book production myself, which is a very time consuming task. The good thing is that I’ve gained valuable experience in what goes into a book, from editing, sequencing, design, pre-press right until the final product.

“However, it took some time to come see it in this light of ‘valuable experiences and good endings.’ In the beginning, I was pretty knocked out, and it has taken me some time to find my feet again in the world of documentary photography. I wasn’t feeling excited about it, and the more incredible journeys I went on, the further away the excitement and the buzz of taking photos got. I felt as if I had become burnt out. I had given it my best shot, and in some sort of way I had fallen; I had become disillusioned. Resentment started to creep in. I didn’t resent photography, but I did resent the orbit I was in, which I had worked my entire photographic career to be in. For a period, I seriously disliked the business of photography.

“However, I also had some luck in this blood-draining lesson learned. I worked with one of the best book designers in the business, Stuart Smith. Stuart has been a great support through these troubled waters. This is something I’d like to recommend to anybody doing a book: that you get a book designer with experience, and not a graphic designer to develop the layouts — there’s a big difference.

“And to close with a good ending: after the liquidation of Emphas.is, I made a partnership with a publisher that truly understands the value of this work, has a solid distribution network and a track record of publishing highly acclaimed photographic books: Dewi Lewis Publishing.”

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An Asian rhino horn is put on display in Tachilek, a town on the northern Thai-Burma border notorious for illegal contraband. The asking price was US$8,000. Burma/Myanmar, 2003.

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A stuffed tiger on display in a Chinese medicine shop in Phan Thiet, on the central coast of Vietnam, 2007

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A tiger walks around an enclosure in a restaurant in Guangzhou. China, 2012.

Your rules for Darker with the day include not leaving your home. Why is this?
“Before Darker with the day was even an idea or a concept, I sat round my studio bored and maybe more significantly, bored with photography (as part of my disillusioned period after Trading To Extinction). So I set myself a challenge. I needed to make an image by only using my phone. The challenge was that I had to like the photo, and that the image was only to be photographed from or in the building where I live. I gave myself a two-hour window to do this. I started Darker with the day for no other reason than I wanted to play with the image, but more importantly, I wanted to strip it right back to the essentials of photography. I wanted to take photography right back to the basics, to reconnect with the reasons why I got into photography, what attracted me from the very outset. What was it at the age of 14 that got me so intrigued and made me so inquisitive about making a photo?”

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From “Darker with the day”

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From “Darker with the day”

In what ways has Darker with the day evolved from your original concept?
“It’s still the same concept; these images have no greater meaning than what one sees in them. There are just two more elements that have been introduced to Darker with the day; the images should always be shown in pairs, like a double page spread, and I no longer photograph solely within the confines of where I live. Plus, it’s all shot on my iPhone using a John Hornbeck App called Contrast. These are the guidelines for now. Who knows, that might change in future.”

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From “Darker with the day”

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From “Darker with the day”

Trading to Extinction focuses mainly on illuminating a serious problem of our time. In some ways, Darker with the day does the opposite, fostering mystery and enigma. Could you tell us a bit about your shadowy, ambiguous aesthetic?
Trading To Extinction is a project that focuses on one of the many social issues that we as a species need to play attention too. I gave 10 years of my life to produce Trading To Extinction. I simply needed a break from that project, which doesn’t mean I’ve stopped producing work on social issues and the subjects surrounding them. Darker with the day is an introspective project that is in some ways 180 degrees in other direction to Trading To Extinction, but both projects have their shadows, their ambiguity and their aesthetic. And in each their very different way, they’re both about reveling what’s under the surface. So in the end, there isn’t much of a difference between the two projects and the photographer that took them. It’s the subject matter that differs.”

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Animals and bear paws for sale in Mong La, a town on the China-Burma border. Burma/Myanmar, 2002.

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An Asiatic black bear stands on its hind legs to try to catch food thrown by visitors at the zoo in Medan. Northern Sumatra, 2003.

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From “Darker with the day”

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From “Darker with the day”

Has Darker with the day succeeded in what it set out to do? Has it reinvigorated your excitement about photography? If so, in what ways?
“Not so long ago, if you talked to me about Instagram and the social media outlets, I would have most likely said something along the lines of, ‘pretty good for cat pictures.’ That has changed. I had some conversations over Skype with my good mate Teru Kuwayama, who’s just been appointed visual consultant for Facebook/Instagram. He wanted to introduce Trading To Extinction to the people at Instagram, but to do this, he needed to convince me it was worthwhile.

“He convinced me with a little bit of Darwinism, he said ‘It’s not the fastest, it’s not the strongest, or nor is it the smartest thing that survives – it’s the one that evolves that survives.’ He had me convinced to try it out, however Trading to Extinction was shot solely on film and then scanned into a digital format. This made it an interesting bastard in itself – a true contradiction it its very existence, which sort of appealed to me. As I started posting images from Trading to Extinction on Instagram, my work started reaching a whole new audience. One of my images from Trading to Extinction reached over 450,000 likes. These digital numbers are totally unreachable in the print world: the Trading to Extinction book has only a 1200 print run. This got me thinking about photography on a whole new level, while at the same time I started to play with the handset/camera. My conclusion was that there’s a great opportunity to mix the best of both worlds of film and digital.

“Instagram still does have lots of cats in plant pots, and it always will. But it’s evolving from what it was just a few years ago to what it is now. It’s a very different beast; it’s a great delivery system for photos, not the best by far – but the possibility of reaching 1000’s of people without the use of the traditional media outlets, is very appealing to me at this moment in time. Yes, Darker with the day has succeeded, I enjoy taking photos again, but I also enjoying showing them to a wider audience as well. Darker with the day, in the end, is about evolving and growing as a photographer.”

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Rangers with elephants patrol Kaziranga National Park on the lookout for tigers and poachers. India, 2003.

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From “Darker with the day”

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From “Darker with the day”

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From “Darker with the day”

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From “Darker with the day”

All images © Patrick Brown

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