I see almost 10,000 pictures a day, and many document some form of suffering. Some of that suffering is incidental as people try to survive, some happens in chaotic situations, and some is intentional. But in all of it, I've never seen an image of such a deliberate infliction of misery.
What's particularly effective about this picture is the baby elephant's flinch. She knows it's going to hurt - you can see her shying away from the blow, which is the point: to cause enough pain to break her will.
To learn how you can affect the situation, read on for a Q&A with photojournalist Brent Lewin, who won a Science/Natural History Award of Excellence for this image at the Pictures of the Year competition.
Brent Lewin / Redux Pictures
A baby elephant braces for a hit during a training session in a Karen village in Burma. The training session is coined the 'crush' as its goal is to break the elephant's spirit. Wild elephants are typically tied up and beaten for 3 days straight and left to starve. Burmese Karen mahouts near the Thai border operate a clandestine and illegal trade network smuggling elephants into Thailand to be sold to mahouts for the Thai tourism industry. Officials estimate that 1 Burmese elephant is smuggled into Thailand every week.
Q: What led you to this story, and how did you manage to make this picture? What were any difficulties you experienced?
A: I've been working on documenting the plight of the Asian elephant and their caregivers in Thailand since 2007. It started out with following mahouts and elephants that would beg on the street in Bangkok but as the story began revealing itself it started to become clear that the business that surrounds elephants is responsible for a lot of the problems. With elephant numbers on the decline for a long time in Thailand, the supply of elephants has been coming from smugglers across the border in Burma.
I went to Burma specifically to try and photograph elephants being trained. I had a contact there from an organization in Thailand but it turned out to be a bust. We drove for hours on a motorbike through a dirt path in the jungle only to find out that training had finished a few days before. I started asking around and a local did some research and found out about a young elephant that was set to be trained. We set off on another path in the jungle and showed up and managed to sweet talk our way in. The young elephant's mother was tied up near the training device and became really uncomfortable when she saw what was about to happen. I've never heard an elephant scream like that before, it felt like the ground shook and she actually broke off her chain and charged at mahouts and myself. The mahouts eventually scared the mother into submission and tied her up again and then started training her baby. The baby elephant was terrified and started crying. The biggest difficulty I experienced was not being able to put a stop to it. There was a point when the elephant just resigned to what was happening and stood still, the life in her eyes disappeared. It was a look that was haunting.
Q: How common is this practice?
A: It's a very traditional technique and quite common but it can vary in terms of the level of violence. It's not all black and white either, some progressive camps use positive reinforcement instead of beatings. There was a time when foreigners could watch elephant training in Thailand but some negative images came out and it's almost impossible as a foreigner to see this now.
Q: Are there organizations in the region working to prevent this treatment of elephants?
Q: How can tourists visiting Thailand either be part of the problem or part of the solution?
A: Though they are rare, supporting progressive elephant tourism companies that have an interest in conservation is a good place to start. Try to avoid supporting tourism that uses elephants to perform circus tricks. These outfits almost always chain their elephants up all day separated from one another. If you see an elephant being abused speak out and tell the owner. I'm confident in the coming years elephant tourism will change in Thailand and offer an alternative model to the one in place now.
Q: What has been the response to this image?
A: Disbelief and horror.