Nature To Nurture: A Man's Journey Into The Animal Kingdom
Climatic abnormalities caused by global warming has rapidly disrupted our natural habitat. This means the wildlife that thrives in nature is diminishing as well. Many environment researchers and scientists estimate that human intrusion causes several species to become extinct every day. Along with numerous organisations and programmes that educate us about nature conservation, there are individuals who are using their skills to preserve precious wildlife with photographs.
Wildlife photography is artistic, but requires patience and tenacity. It isn’t as financially viable as other genres in photography. So in a tough economy, breaking into a career like this requires staggering resilience.
We bring to you the story of an engineer who worked his way up as the IT Director, without giving up on his dream. A man who juggled his corporate career yet relentlessly pursued honest stories of nature and wildlife in India. An icon who inspired many to walk on the wild side.
In conversation with nature conservationist and wildlife photographer Sudhir Shivaram.
What stimulated your interest in wildlife photography that made you want to give up your career in Engineering?
Right from the time when I was in college I had an inclination towards photography. My friends and I had a common interest, so we decided to start a photography club. Since my college was located in a very scenic location in the Western Ghats of India, it triggered the urge to capture images of hills and greenery. Taking those pictures evoked something in me. I never gave up on my career, I worked in the software industry for 18 years whilst pursuing my passion. Slowly I started realising that others were interested in learning from me and I started running photography sessions which became successful. That’s when I discovered I had an inner calling and finally in 2013 I bid adieu to the corporate life to explore my passion.
When you started photography what were some of your initial hurdles and how did you overcome them?
I love wildlife photography, but I don’t make any income out of it. My main profession is teaching photography. In the early days when I worked for Hewlett-Packard a lot of people knew about my photography and wanted me to teach them. I contacted HR and asked them if I could teach, but they objected saying I couldn’t commercialise anything inside the office. So I proposed to donate all the profit from teaching inside the campus be given to a non-profit organisation. Since it was for a social cause my organisation supported me and decided to donate an equal amount towards it.
Over the years my software career rocketed; I was promoted to the Director position, and so did my photography career. There came a point where it was difficult to do two things with equal intensity. I felt I was no longer doing justice to either professions. So after a lot of careful planning and talking to a close friend who is a financial advisor, I decided to take the plunge to pursue photography full time. I gave myself two years to make it work and if it didn’t, then I had decided to go back to my corporate life. Thankfully, since I took the decision to pursue photography, I’ve never looked back.
Spreading awareness, drilling down knowledge and preserving our wildlife is very crucial and I teach this relentlessly.
Nature and wildlife photographers spend hours out in nature waiting for the perfect still. Sometimes this can be risky - have you put yourself in harm’s way for a perfect photograph?
When I travel alone or in groups I always taken extreme caution and use safety measures. I never put myself in harm’s way. Though in my early days there was an incident where a friend, a local guide, and I decided to go on foot to a restricted area. After a short walk we came across a sloth bear which had three cubs. Sloth bears are very dangerous especially when they have cubs, so we had to maintain distance by hiding behind the tree and ensured we were against the direction of the wind, so our scent doesn’t reach them. That was a close call. Another time I experienced a mock elephant charge. My tip is as long as you have a guide who understands animal behaviour, you are in safe hands. Whilst travelling it’s always better to take maximum precaution - after all your life is at stake in the wild.
What has been the most memorable yet difficult photograph you’ve taken?
One of the most magical things about wildlife photography is that it’s a combination of spontaneous versus pre-planned shots. All the individual shots are pre visualised shots. The ones where I am on a safari ride aren’t difficult, but in a lot of places I had to take pictures on foot.
When I was in Rajasthan I came across a situation where I had the perfect angle and the only way I could take it was by squeezing into a small place that was filthy with a lot of slush and on the left side there was a thorn bush. The only angle I could get was by pressing myself against the thorn bush, use that angle to get to take picture of the tortoise.
Another time I had to crawl to take a eye level picture of a short-eared owl perched on the ground. The ground was very hard, I crawled army style for almost 30-40 feet. I had no arm padding, I was carrying my camera and 800mm lens - all of which was about 5 to 6 kilograms. There were a lot of bruises on my arms, but in the end when I saw the picture I captured, it made everything worthwhile.
What are the absolute essentials in your travel kit?
The equipment I carry depends on the place I am visiting, and the kind of photographs I am aim to take. I have a huge array of equipments - it’s difficult to take everything, so I pre plan the camera, lens and accessories I need to take for each trip. When I go for a safari I cannot use my tripod, so I carry bean bags, clamps for the camera. Beyond that a laptop is a must to transfer images and it’s very useful when I give sessions and interact with fellow photography enthusiasts during travel. I also take medicines and any other precaution depending on the circumstance and the country I am visiting. Another important accessory is my cell phone which I use for documenting things and when I get any internet, I do live broadcasting amidst nature. I always keep limited clothing so I have more space for my camera gear.
You photograph cheetahs, giraffes, lions, birds etc. that have been photographed by thousands of people, yet you seamlessly capture fleeting moments with unique emotions. How do you ensure there’s constant creativity in your work?
Wildlife and nature photography is tough. Every time I take a new photograph, I am constantly challenging myself. If you look online, there are countless pictures of tigers and lions, the trick is to challenge and capture a different emotion. I always research and follow other photographers and the work done by them to seek inspiration.
Animals don’t stop and pose for the camera, they don’t care about the lighting. So as a photographer I always have to assess. I pre visualise what I need. Before I visit a location, I research and find what’s been done before. I plan a few shots and then in the moment, it’s a combination of things.
I don’t shoot what is happening, I observe and capture what may happen in the next ten seconds. I remind myself this is the subject and I try and think of what could happen next. So I am aware of what the background is going to be and I prepare the settings and composition to capture that moment. I strive for creativity by capturing what’s undone.
The photography landscape has tremendously changed over the years - so how have you evolved as a photographer?
Absolutely - so much has changed, but what’s worked in my favour is my technical knowledge. Having worked as a programmer for many years, I am good at deconstructing and understanding the technical aspects. What’s helped throughout my career is understanding the technicalities of photography, understanding the inner mechanics of cameras and other accessories. I used to be the brand ambassador for Canon India, even recently they asked me to review one of their models (Canon 1DX Mark II) which will be available in the Indian market by the end of April.
In the past I was restricted, it was challenging to capture images in certain conditions or in low light, but I kept learning and tried to understand the restrictions and benefits of every piece of equipment I owned. Now I can capture anything in spite of harsh external settings. I am a better photographer because I invested in learning. I look at the features, the limitations and then I think about how I can use a particular setting in a camera to capture a brilliant shot.
“Life is not about what you couldn’t do so far, it’s about what you still can. Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself.”
You are the founding member of the non-profit photo sharing site India Nature Watch (INW). What was it that inspired you to do this and what are your ultimate goals with this project?
In 2003 I came across a Yahoo photography group started by Vijay Cavale. Vijay was the only renowned bird photographer in India at that time and I took inspiration from him and asked him to teach me. We would often shoot together, and eventually he asked me if I wanted to become the moderator for the group. It was a great chance to connect with fellow photographers and answer their queries. However, over a period of time we realised a lot of beautiful images that were uploaded were eventually getting deleted - that’s when we decided to have our own website to share and preserve the beauty of nature and wildlife in India. A group of friends and I decided to open the website to all nature lovers to connect and share photography with no judgement.
The idea was to unite the community, give tips, learn and grow. Now anyone from anywhere in the world can go on INW, post a question and hundreds of readers will help and give tips. We’ve also established great connections with forest officers and tour guides who would be willing to help and offer travel tips to various places in India. The website is open to everybody, and as we had envisaged, INW has become the photo sharing hub representing the essence of wildlife in India.
Over the years you have had a very intimate view of multiple species in their natural habitat, what changes have you witnessed spending time in their world, especially in areas where the natural and human worlds collide?
A lot of things have changed. I have been photographing wildlife for over 20 years - every year I keep visiting the same destinations and I’ve seen a massive change as time has passed. The bird sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajasthan is well known in India. When I first visited the place there were so many species and the volume of birds was mind blowing - it used be around 3000 to 4000 and in my recent visits it’s come down to 100 to 500 and that is shocking!
Global warming and climate change has had an enormous impact on wildlife. Recently when I visited Bandhavgarh we experienced rain which is highly unusual. In all my years of travelling I have never experienced rain in the month of February. The effect of the sudden climate change causes difficulties during the shoot, the sightings go down as animals don’t come out in the rain.
Along with our efforts to save tigers, we should also be thinking about protecting their habitat. We are losing land because of deforestation and industries taking over. The forest is defragmented. Typically one male tiger needs 30 to 40 sq. km, but in India we have two to three tigers in that space. The lack of space leads to aggressive behaviour and conflict, which leads to death and tigers moving into different lands. When tigers leave restricted areas, poaching happens. This is a very sad situation and it needs addressing.
Have you felt that your photographs have made an impact in teaching the world about animal extinction and nature preservation?
I always use my sessions and talks to educate people about the impact of everything we do and how it affects the ecosystem, animals and birds. I always emphasise and teach about the ethical aspects and the role photographers play in educating the world. I’m often dismayed at the lack of common knowledge about wildlife. People have told me that’s a brilliant picture of a Cheetah when the picture was of a Tiger! People looking at pictures of Leopards, calling them Lions. So spreading awareness, drilling down knowledge and preserving our wildlife is very crucial and I teach this relentlessly.
Wildlife photography is a niche that can be a wonderful choice for some, but it is not ideal for everybody. Do you have any words of wisdom for people interested in this genre?
Every opportunity I get to interact with aspiring photographers is utilised in helping them, giving them tips and engraining the awareness and ethical aspects of wildlife photography. I am very accessible on Facebook where I answer photography related questions. Ultimately I believe in supporting people and giving them the confidence to explore their passion to the fullest. If you have a dream, you need to be honest and think of ways to make it a reality.
For those of you who are working elsewhere and are contemplating photography as a profession, here is a saying that moved me profoundly:
“Life is not about what you couldn’t do so far, it’s about what you still can. Life isn’t about finding yourself, Life is about creating yourself.”
Like this article? Let the author know by giving it a like