Sabyasachi Patra

Wildlife Photographer’s Message to Students

I was asked to contribute to a college newsletter by Bhargava Srivari – a member of IndiaWilds – and wrote this piece based on a few questions in August 2011. I guess the newsletter didn’t see the light of the day, So I am sharing it here for the benefit of all students and people interested in learning photography.

Childhood influence:
Wildlife Photography & filmmaking is a lifelong journey. When I look back, I realise that the seeds were sown early. As a kid, when one is at an impressionable age, it is often natural to get influenced by his/her parents and immediate surroundings. More so, when your father is a Professor of Zoology and often conducting post graduate Life Science and Ecology classes at our home. I used to listen to those descriptions of the complex relationships between various organisms – large and small – forgetting much of what was spoken but retaining the essence of it.

When I was eight years old, he had bought me books of Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson. The lucid writing style and the rich and vivid descriptions remained etched in my mind. After reading these books, and then listening to the classes, the quest to learn more about ecology and animal behaviour had firmly taken roots. My father had very good knowledge of photography and he used to bring photography books home. I remember trying to draw images of cameras looking at those colourful pages. I had never realised that those two will combine to lay a solid foundation for wildlife photography, filming and conservation which has become an all-consuming passion.

Bio-diversity and Need for Photo documentation:
Today, India is at a stage where there is huge clamour to create infrastructure. Our development model is flawed, and hence there is unequal development with cities growing bigger and bigger with migration from smaller towns and rural areas. With economic growth, more industries, dams, airports, canals etc are being planned. Unfortunately, the planners view our jungles as just source of timber or count the number of trees that would be hacked. Ecology is much more complex. There is a complex web of relationships binding various species with each other. Most of our fresh water resources originate from our forests. Many a civilisation has perished due to want of water. So protecting those bio-diversity rich areas would help in preserving our future economic security as well.

There is an acute lack of documentation of our many bio-diversity rich places and hence most of the times when a large infrastructure project is planned, these areas are easily sacrificed. These ecologically fragile areas are devastated even before we know that they exist, as documentation is non-existent. Photography can play a major role in documentation and increasing our understanding of the flora and fauna in these places. It would be impossible for one person to travel the entire length and breadth of this huge country and do a good job in documenting the rich bio-diversity. So India needs wildlife photographers who can document the various forests, sanctuaries, wetlands and other protected areas of this country. The challenge is to train the wildlife photographers so that they can see and document this amazing bio-diversity. Else, their focus will remain on the few mega fauna like tiger, lion, leopard, elephant, gaur, rhino etc.

Future of our Protected Areas:
India now has a billion plus population and increasing its population every other second. This huge population is increasing the pressures on the available land. Need and greed is fuelling the increased concretization and reduction of green areas. The wilderness areas are increasingly being fragmented and bound by human settlements. This has led to isolation of our wilderness areas. Migration of our fauna from one forest to the other is becoming impossible. This is impacting the genetic diversity and as a result, their resistance to diseases goes down. The survival of many species is at stake and in many areas one will only find the remaining few of the species being radio-collared for scientific studies or just for tracking. One has to be satisfied at the sight of lions, tigers and elephants wearing radio collars. And with the small size of our protected areas, the feeling of being in a zoo is complete.

Digital Photography and Ethics:

The rapid increase in digital technology is increasingly resulting in cameras becoming better and better. Today, one can just shoot a video and select one still frame out of the video footage from high end cameras. One can also place cameras in camera traps and later use those photographs. With increased technology, there is also the question of ethics of wildlife photographers. The younger generation of photographers are finding it difficult not to take short cuts. One can select the animal from one image and paste it with a pleasing background photographed separately and fake it as originally photographed in the field. There have been instances of even reputed photographers taking the shortcuts. So the old adage that a “Photograph never lies” is challenged severely. To verify such claims one needs to check the RAW image from the camera. Since the viewers of photographs in a magazine or newspaper won’t have the luxury to verify the authenticity of the images, the wildlife photographers will be looked at with suspicion.

This will have a major impact on use of photographs as documentary evidence of the bio-diversity of an area. So people who want to setup large projects in ecologically fragile areas will argue that the photographs are not real. So that will increase the challenge for the few of us who are engaged in documenting the wilderness areas. We will then have to take added pains of showing the RAW files, geo tagging etc.

Conservation Movement in India:

In India, there have been a few brilliant individuals who have raised their voice for conservation. However, it has never attained a mass movement, except for a few instances like the Chipko movement when villagers hugged the trees to prevent logging of those trees. The few champions of Conservation efforts in India are branded as elitist by opponents. In India, we don’t have a conservation movement. Unless we are able to raise awareness about the conservation issues and educate people about the perils of the present flawed model of economic growth, and the resulting challenges of climate change, it would be difficult to enlist the support of the masses. It is very important to enlighten the individuals and harness the power of “WE” by creating a cohesive network of like-minded citizens forconserving the fast vanishing wilderness and wildlife in this country. It is with this express purpose, I had founded the IndiaWilds so that concerned individuals can join at raise their voice and become change agents themselves.

Why Save Wild Tigers?

As a kid, I remember starring at a photo of a tiger in a bookstore. Many of us have been mesmerised by the tiger. From my childhood days, I have read a lot of books and research papers written about tigers in India and abroad and have spent many hours watching tigers in the wild in safaris or have also spent many hours alone waiting for a tiger to make its appearance near waterholes and other places. The more I learn about the tiger, the more I feel I am in awe about its intelligence, its beauty and the need to conserve God’s most magnificent creation. The Tiger is the Apex predator, perched on top of a complex chain of ecological relationships including animals, birds and plants. To save the tiger we also need to save its habitat. So saving the tiger will help in preserving the entire ecosystem.

Message to Students:
I feel it is important to find out what you are passionate about and then continue working on it. If you are passionate about your subject, then you will know more about it and it will show up in your work. It will help in persevering even when there are challenges. Not everybody can become a professional wildlife photographer or filmmaker or a conservationist and devote all the time. However, one can take up one cause as a Life Project and then continue working on it. I am sure one day you will achieve success.

If you are a budding wildlife photographer, then it is better that you first learn more about your subject. Unless one knows animal behaviour, it becomes difficult to predict the movement of the subject and get great images. So try reading books, journals, articles in the internet etc.

You all should try writing either in English or in your mother tongue. There is a severe shortage of good writing in various Indian languages. Keep on sharing your thoughts as you continue learning. There would be many people who will find your writings interesting and will learn from you.

Wildlife photography is also all about perseverance. One can’t just take one safari in the jungle and expect to see a tiger and create a world famous image. You need to keep on taking one step at a time and build up your work. It takes years of effort, along with your personal vision to show your subject in its own unique way.

And last but not least, please don’t forget to raise your voice to protect the remaining wilderness areas and wildlife in this country. After all millions of Indians are now starring at thespecterof climate change, and our economic security and protection of our bio-diversity are interlinked.

Sabyasachi Patra
Follow me:
Latest posts by Sabyasachi Patra (see all)