Justin Mott’s long-term project, Kindred Guardians, confirms the fact that humans and animals can enjoy very unique bonds. His pictures are a plea for humaneness, courage and a world of peaceful cohabitation.
How did you come up with the idea for Kindred Guardians and how did it develop over time?
In my early days of living in Vietnam, I photographed a slaughterhouse for pigs, and the sounds and sights are still emblazoned in my mind. I can hear their squeals and see their sad and desperate faces as they were brutally sent to their ultimate death. I can remember feeling so helpless and just so many emotions going on inside me, like hatred for mankind. I remember how miserable the experience made me feel long after that day, and how it lived in my dreams for years to come. After that experience, I hid from any forms of animal cruelty. Sure, I did the occasional animal story, such as a rhino horn story for TIME Magazine and a story about pangolin poaching for CNN, but I turned down a story about dog meat because I didn’t think I could stomach seeing them executed. I’m not proud of that, but it happened, and I regret not covering it.
When I turned 40 last year I knew something was missing from my life. I knew I had to get back to doing stories that mattered to me, and I was slowly starting to open myself up emotionally to learning about animal cruelty and to doing my part. I had an idea for a larger book project about the bond between humans helping animals in need. I had heard about the last two remaining northern white rhinos, so I did a little bit of research, secured access, and booked my tickets to Kenya to start this project. Kindred Guardians was born.
You are shooting your project with a Leica M10-D – could you tell us, why?
I started my career by moving to Vietnam with one camera and one lens, and shooting personal projects that interested me. Over time, these projects grew into editorial assignments and commercial work, and eventually into owning a full production company. With that growth, the gear multiplied as my time for personal work diminished. I found myself just turning 40 and I’d gone over a decade without shooting anything personal. A huge part of me was missing. I craved a legacy project that would define who I am as a photographer, while being a project with meaning.
I missed those early days of my career, being on the road with minimal equipment, exploring and capturing stories with purpose. At the same time that I decided to embark upon this project, I learned about the Leica M10-D. It sounds odd at first, but I loved the idea of not just having a small camera and one lens, 35mm 1.4 Summilux, but also of having a camera without a screen. I come from a hybrid background in photography, I didn’t start in digital, but I also didn’t start purely in film. At school, I used a film camera and had my negatives processed by a machine, not in the darkroom, and then I edited the photos in Lightroom. This camera brought me back to those University days; but it wasn’t just nostalgia that drew me to this camera.
I realized that travelling light made me move more and see more. I was more present and overall that made me more focused and a better storyteller.
What is the most important thing to keep in mind when photographing animals?
I’m not a wildlife photographer, I’m a documentary photographer shooting mostly with a fixed 35mm Summilux, so that requires me to get close to my subjects and it requires a lot of time and patience. I’m waiting for those little moments between my subjects and the animals they look after. At the same time, I have a responsibility as a journalist to make sure everything is accurate and not taken out of context. I must be extremely careful with how and where my images end up, and what’s in the best interest of the animals and the work my subjects are doing.
Is there anything about your project that will definitely stay in your mind?
I’ll never forget the moment I met Fatu and Najin, the last two remaining northern white rhinos in the world. First off, for me personally it was such a key moment in my life. I was kicking off my first major personal project in 10 years, and I was just so eager to begin this journey; it was monumental for me. Second, I was so emotionally overwhelmed when I passed through the gates with Zacharia, the head caretaker for the rhinos, and there they were, grazing in the open fields, the last two of a subspecies left in the entire world. That moment will never leave me. I was filled with disdain for mankind. ‘How could we do this?’ I thought.
I’d seen first-hand the consumption side of the rhino horn industry in Vietnam years earlier, doing a story for TIME magazine on the subject, and here I was years later seeing the impact that poaching and consumption, greed and misinformation had on our wildlife. Hate, sadness, and excitement mixed throughout my body, I remember crying when I touched the horn of Fatu for the first time, and wondering how someone can kill this animal for a horn that is made up of keratin, the same matter as hair and fingernails.
What can the viewer learn from your stories?
I want people to celebrate the tenderness, bravery, and dedication of the caretakers and guardians. I hope people have sympathy for these beautiful animals and their plight. I wish for my images to humanize them in a way that we can all relate to and encourage people to act, speak out, and change their ways and actions towards animals. Individuals can help, but to make a real impact we need governments to get behind animal causes, even when it’s not popular or profitable, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s obvious countries like Kenya are doing what they can to protect wildlife, but the governments of consumer countries need to get on board and do their part as well. I ask a lot, but I’m an optimistic person and I haven’t lost all faith in mankind. I hope my images have an impact on people to respect these amazing animals – all animals really – and hopefully we can get people to stop poaching and consuming them.
Vietnam-based documentary and commercial photographer Justin Mott, has shot over 100 assignments for The New York Times throughout Southeast Asia. He is currently working worldwide on his ongoing long-term book project Kindred Guardians. The project focuses on documenting people around the world who dedicate their lives to helping animals in need. You can view the project at his website.