Student Selects: Amal Nigam '26 on Nick Brandt's "Wasteland With Cheetahs & Children"

April 25, 2024 12:38PM

Like much of the world, East Africa suffers from Western complacency. Its symptomatic bleakness is painfully captured in the visual dialogues of Nick Brandt’s “Wasteland With Cheetahs & Children.” A triad of solemnly posed cheetahs is layered onto an almost distorted rendition of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” portraying the silhouettes of six children gazing over the rolling hills of debris that have engulfed their motherland.

The photograph’s despair is derived from its construction and its content. Brandt created the scene, akin to his series “Inherit the Dust,” by installing life-size wildlife panels in their previous habitats, scourged by urbanization. The panel’s faded appearance evokes a dream-like nostalgia against the nightmarish clarity of the wasteland. The monochrome scheme aggravates the miserable reality faced by its subjects. The limited sky exacerbates the suffocating landscape and the absence of clean air. The children mirror the rise of the landfill, embodying a forced coexistence with their altered world. The cheetahs cast an ironic contrast to their corrupted habitat, accentuating the union of displacement and degradation.

It feels as though we’ve been transported on a forbidden tour, an exposition of what is and what once was. The creation of one environment has led to the destruction of another, and they both suffer. On the Kenyan savannah, where the cheetahs once roamed, children now stand in its horrifying replacement. It’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition that alarms our complacent predispositions, that beauty in the world is being eroded by our relentless pursuit of development, leaving behind a legacy of loss that begs us for proactive care.

The cheetahs remind us of the illusion of “advancement,” that our attempts to alter the earth have already resulted in the banishment of a community. It serves as a warning that the first casualties of our dominion are not the last. The children confirm our collective fear: none of this is going to go away when we go away. By joining the wasteland formed by former generations, they reveal a tragic inheritance of our failure to tackle environmental devastation.

While it’s a terrifying scene, the “Wasteland With Cheetahs & Children” isn’t in our backyard. Unfortunately, our partiality to Western tragedy implies continued environmental inaction until something of a similar magnitude occurs in our states. It may generate fear among its viewers, but is it enough to sway the perpetrators whom we enable with our complacency? I hope so.

Image: Nick Brandt. Wasteland With Cheetahs and Children, from the series Inherit the Dust, 2015 (Printed 2020). Archival pigment print 6/8. On loan from Meg '80 and Bennett Goodman.

This "Student Selects" piece was written by Amal Nigam '26 (Finance) as part of his coursework for GS/MLL 128: World Stories: Fictional Expressions of Globalization.