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What intrigues Lewin is the difference between how elephants are perceived in Thailand and how many of the animals are now treated. “It’s a really tragic story that needs to be told,” he says.
Photo by Brent Lewin.

Urban Jungle

Photojournalist Brent Lewin captures the plight of Thailand's city elephants

Brent Lewin never planned to become a photographer. The 29-year-old history and psychology grad intended to find work related to his studies, but a job placement in Afghanistan in 2004 – and the purchase of a camera to record his experiences – changed his mind.

While most westerners in Kabul live “behind the wire,” Lewin spent a lot of time exploring the city, alone or with an interpreter, with his camera in hand. Although the ongoing military conflict was not always obvious in Kabul, Lewin knew he was taking risks. He recalls standing just a few metres from trucks that were being escorted into a U.S. military base when one of the guard dogs sniffed explosives. “A soldier grabbed me and we ran inside the base,” he says. “Thankfully nothing exploded.” He frequently heard the sound of gunshots or bombs going off at night, and driving was extremely dangerous. “It was kind of like the Wild West,” he says. “I don’t want to say I thrive in that kind of environment, but I didn’t mind it.”

Some early success getting published in a paper for expats convinced Lewin to pursue a career in photojournalism. He returned to Toronto and immersed himself in the nuances of lighting, composition and colour. He enlisted photographer friends to advise him, but otherwise taught himself.

In 2007,  Lewin tavelled to Thailand with his girlfriend, Allison Bleaney, who was pursuing a master’s of international relations at the Munk Centre and interning in Bangkok. There, he indulged a childhood fascination with elephants. In Thailand, the animals are revered, and Lewin had the opportunity to study them up close. “The very essence of Thai-ness is tied to the elephant,” says Lewin. “It’s a symbol of strength.” But what intrigued Lewin was the difference between how elephants are perceived in Thailand and how many of the animals are now treated. “A lot of these elephants end up hauling wood in illegal logging operations, where they’re forced to work long hours high on amphetamines,” says Lewin. “It’s a really tragic story that needs to be told.”

Lewin has snapped hundreds of pictures of the majestic animal, ranging in style from documentary to fine art. One set of images focuses on the elephant’s different skin textures. Another series depicts the plight of elephants forced to live in Thai cities. “I was very lucky that a friend of mine in Thailand had found a magical place just outside of Bangkok where elephants were living in houses with their mahouts. That series – the urban jungle series – is what started getting me recognition and winning awards.”

By recognition, Lewin means calls from National Geographic and the New York Times. The Times’ online has featured his work and earlier this year Applied Arts profiled him and ran one of his images on the cover.

Lewin would like to parlay all this attention into a book deal (“magazines don’t run enough pictures”). He also wants to investigate the illegal elephant trade from Burma and Laos into Thailand, and the illegal logging industry.

There are risks investigating these stories, too. “The area is on the border, it’s mined, and it’s controlled by the same people who are involved in the drug trade,” Lewin says. Wouldn’t such people object to having their photo taken? Lewin nods, but notes that “For a few thousand American dollars you can get access to these things.” Almost as an afterthought, he mentions that some trekkers recently stumbled across an illegal logging operation in Thailand. One started taking pictures – despite being told not to – and was killed.

Lewin shrugs it off. He’s used to the risk. He now spends about half the year in Toronto and half in Thailand, and this winter plans to continue documenting his encounters with the Asian elephant. “It’s a big story,” he says. “And I feel as if I’ve only begun telling it.”

Lewin exhibited “Waste Not, Want Not,” a series of images about consumption, waste and recycling, at Gallery 44 in Toronto. His work has also been shown at Toronto Image Works and Pikto Gallery. Engine Gallery featured Lewin’s series “The Elephant in the Room” as part of Toronto’s Contact Festival in May 2010.

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