Jungle Jungle baat chali hai pata chala hai. Kya pata chala hai? The Tigers, Lions, Snakes, Monkeys, Elephants and all others are happy today because we have one of their closest friend at your Adda. He left his dot-com job to pursue his interest in Wildlife Photography and capture these beauties for us to see. Presenting to you an interview with one of the top Wildlife Photographers and blogger of India, Kalyan Varma. He shares his life stories, wildlife stories and stories which no one has heard till now. Time to roar!
Q: When and why did you start blogging?
A: I started blogging way back in 2000. Initially it was just updates manually on my website. But in 2001, I shifted to livejournal, then the most popular blogging service. It was a way to keep track of projects you were doing etc., but then it evolved into something more personal.
Q: Do you ever get stuck when writing an entry? What do you do then?
A: Very much. But most often, I have found that writing the whole entry at once feels more complete than taking breaks. Also there are times when I feel like writing about it and the piece comes out the best when I do it right away and not try to do it later.
Q: From Mechanical Engineer to Photographer. The time you spend at BR hills helped you take this career decision. What was the reason that made you take the sabbatical? What hurdles did you face initially? Was your family & peers supportive of the career decision that you made?
A: Well, sabbaticals are new in India. I had a burnout after 3 years of work in Yahoo. So decided to take a few months off, but that few months became years and eventually something else. I had no issues in the first year since I had enough savings. But after that the uncertainty was painful. I did not know if I could ever pull off a career in wildlife photography, I was not sure how long my savings would last, I was not able to plan domestic issues, etc. People around me thought I had gone nuts to leave a good job and do this. But eventually they all accepted it and now are even proud of my work.
Q: The experience in forests with wild animals and photography is something out of the world. Can you share with our readers some of your best experiences? How is wild life photography different from other forms according to you and why did you choose to do it?
A: More than the photographs that you come back with, it’s the experiences that you have in the forests that change your life forever. Most people think the best times in the forest are when you come face to face with tigers and dangerous animals, but on the contrary, the best times for me have been when I got to know a specific place or animal very well and many times when the animals have accepted me too. As I type this, I have been photographing a den of desert fox with 3 pups. The first two days, they were very shy and hardly came out as I waited, flat on the ground about 30 m from their den. But since yesterday, they have become comfortable and at least thrice they have come up to a meter from me to check me out. They were as curious as I was and were very playful. Even though they were too close for me to photograph, these joys keep you going in the field.
Q: Your film, One Million Snakebites, is about to release in UK which is a big achievement for a freelance filmmaker. Our readers would love to know more about the movie. How do you think it will catch up with the Indian audience?
A: The concept for the film came up when we got to know that a recent study had found that, in India, as many as a million people are bitten every year and close to 50,000 of them are fatal. This is a staggering figure and we decided to do a documentary to investigate why this was happening. It is very relevant in India since people have weird perceptions on snakes and snake-bites. I hope the biggest take away will be that people will stop following unproven traditional medicine and rush to an hospital to get an anti-venom for the bite.
Q: You have worked with Ananda Kumar on a documentary film on elephants. The purpose of the documentary is to build positive attitudes of people towards elephants. What according to you is the current mindset of the people regarding elephants? To what extent do you think the documentary film will be successful in changing the mindsets?
A: Traditionally, we as Indians are very tolerant to wildlife. There are many reasons to this and one of the major contributor could be the fact that they figure a lot in our religious writings. In the west you hear about the police shooting down big cats or other animals if they see it outside a reserve. They label it as a threat to humans and kill it right away. In India, even if an elephant or leopard kills a person, the forest department steps in. Most people do not want the animals killed, they just want them away from their homes. However, recent studies have shown that, removing these animals actually creates more conflict than it fixes. With our big population, we have to find ways for people and wildlife to live together. They have in all these centuries, so why not in the future too.
Recently 3 women were killed in the area by elephants. It was shocking to see people actually protesting and asking the government to give better protection and safeguard the forests so that the animals will not have to venture out. No one actually wanted the elephants to be shot or killed. This is an amazing attitude in people and it was be a positive conservation action if we can leverage this attitude in people.
Q: Which is one wild life animal/bird that you loved capturing or would love to capture and why? Also tell us which animal/bird has been very difficult to capture till now? Which location has been your favorite to photograph animals and why?
A: I love spending most time with primates and elephants. Both are very intelligent animals and their social interactions are very much like ours. I can watch and photograph them for hours and days and never get bored. In these groups, over time you will recognize individuals, their moods, etc… which I think is a very rewarding feeling.
Tropical rainforests are my favourite areas to photograph. You can just sit in one place and photograph a lot of species. From large flying mammals, to giant trees, to ants to fungi to reptiles. You never run of things to photograph and things that will fascinate you. Trees are what I have wanted to take good photographs of and have not managed till now. They are amazing to look at, but somehow I have never been able to capture the grandeur of it in a frame. Maybe someday… I will be able to.
Q: To the outside world, a photographers life has a very interesting work lifestyle. How does your normal day look like?
A: It’s very very hard work. People always say that I am the luckiest person around, but it takes a lot to be here and a lot to do this work. When you are on an assignment, you could have 18+ hour days and all of that involves being physically in the field, with heavy gear and in extreme conditions. And many a times, you have to photograph things which are not pretty. If I am doing a story on tiger conservation, most of the photos will involve showcasing the threats… from habitat destruction to poaching, etc. Most people just think its going on a safari and photographing tigers.
After all this, you still have to clean gear, charge stuff every night and before every project, do a lot of proposals, budgets. I know many people who jumped into this and got out as they could not handle it all.
Q: You have mentioned your frustration on how photographers are treated in India & not given the importance they deserve. What steps would you suggest to improve the scenario? Do you feel photographers and photography is growing in India? If yes, we would like to know the way it has grown and if no, then what things would you suggest should be done?
Photographers must learn not to undersell their work. When I say undersell, I am not talking about the financials at all, but the respect that photographs deserve. Indians are used to hiring the Rs. 5000 per day wedding photographers who frankly have no skill. All they do is line up people and take a shot with flash and bad lighting. These people fail to see the difference between professional photographer doing great photos vs what I call attendance photographer who just takes photos of all the people who attended the wedding.
But the country is growing up. People want high quality photographs and a new breed of photographers has filled that gap. But editorial photography still needs to mature. Most magazines pay peanuts to photographers which are hardly enough for the photographer to even travel to the place to photograph the subjects. If a photographer puts his foot down, they go for someone else who is ready to give it cheap. But even after all this, the magazines just take your photograph and do what they want without even informing you. Not all magazines, but most of the Indian ones including big media houses like the Times Group are known for outright stealing photos online and using it in the papers.
With affordable DSLR’s, a lot of people are into photography and frankly I think this is a good move. Now each one finds their niche in the market, which is what India needs.
Q: One of your post mentions that you are against using photoshop to enhance pictures for news in journalism. Tell us more about it; why do you think it shouldn’t be used and when do you think it should be?
A: For me editing photographs is a critical step in photography. People used to do it in darkrooms and now we do it with photoshop. But, with great powers come great responsibilities. Fashion/food/product photographers use photoshop a lot to manipulate images, which I think is fine as they are making something look good for the market and they do not deny it. Even some photo-artists take photos and manipulate a lot and sell them as works of art, which is fine too, since everyone wants a pretty photograph in their living room and do not care about the accuracy of it. But I will respect the photographer if he/she admits that they have used photoshop and manipulated it. No shame about it. They are artists and for them this is a tool.
But once you get into the world of journalistic photography/wildlife photography, things change. When I read National Geographic magazine, I believe everything I see and when I look at the photos, I am in awe of the world. But I do this knowing that it is real. But if you get to know that it was not there and the photographer made it up in photoshop, wont you feel cheated? They can use photoshop to enhance the photos, but as long as they do not ‘mis-represent’ the subject or the face. Making an image look bright is fine, as you are overcoming a defect in the camera. Darkening smoke to enhance a bombing is wrong, as you are essentially manufacturing consent in people.
Q: You are currently on field till June, 2011 on an assignment with National Geographic Channel, filming for the series ‘Wild India’ in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Can we know what is this project about? How is it shaping and what’s in store for the viewers?
A: This is a three part series on India. One park is on eastern India (mostly Assam), one is on central India (Tadoba) and the last one is on western India (Gujarat/Rajasthan). The idea is to show each of these landscapes and how the wildlife cope with extreme bottlenecks. For example, in Kaziranga because of the annual flood of Brahmapurta, the animals have to move. In central India, the lack of water in summer changes the dynamics at the last waterholes where both the prey and predators have to come. In Gujarat, it is even worse where animals have to cope with high saline content in everything. The team that I am part of is doing the 2nd and 3rd parts of this series. It will hopefully air early next year in India.
Q: We have seen many species of animals/birds that are going extinct. We would like you to educate us on which animal species needs utmost importance with regards to its decreasing population and what can be done to save it. What is your take on the steps taken for wildlife conservation? Do you think wild life photography can help in someway to preserve these species?
A: Well, that’s a tough one to answer. There is no single species or silver bullet to solve conservation issues in India. Too much focus is on tigers, but we must look at the larger picture of conserving our habitats where a host of animals live, but while being socially responsible to the people who share these landscapes with the wildlife. The real threat to our wildlife is the 9% GDP growth, mining, and power plants who are eating up our forests and displacing poor people.
In my experience in this field, I have learnt certain fundamentals of conservation.
- Conservation is a process, not a product: People think they can come to a place, implement something and fix an issue. But in reality, conservation is a process and needs to be managed forever. Let it be human-wildlife conflict or saying no to a mining company or catching a poacher.
- Location, location, location: Conservationists in our country are obsessed with showing a model that works in a place and then they try to make it a law to implement it in every forests in the country. Problems are location specific and each conservation challenge must be dealt location by location.
- Science based conservation: Do you know why tigers are dying? Frankly, there is no easy answer and everyone is out there saving tigers. We have to understand the problems first before we think about solutions and both needs to be done with solid science.
I don’t know if photography can really save a species, but people can connect with an issue better, when visually explained. Photographs can invoke feelings in people that can be converted to action and this is where I hope one day, I can use photography for conservation.
Q: What are your other interests other than photography? If Kalyan Varma was not a photographer or mechanical engineer then what would he be doing?
A: Flying planes, I think.
Q: We have many color and black and white pictures in your collection. Which one do you prefer and why? When and how should one choose between the two?
A: That’s another tough one. I think black and white images tend to make the viewer focus more on the subject as the colors are not there to distract you from the primary elements. So, for some cases, black and white images are more powerful than color. But the difficult one is deciding which one works and which one does not. Not all images work in black and white. In fact, many a times, the minute I take a photo, I know that it has to be a black and white. Sometimes the lack of color also sets a sense of mood in the images… which I wanted in all my Africa photographs.
Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?
A: Content is the king and I guess the more your write, the more your blog becomes a hit. More people write product reviews etc.. it does not work. People come to your blog to hear your views and opinions on things and not general info which they can find anywhere on the internet. So this personal experience is a must. In fact, these days, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I notice that a lot of bloggers have stopped blogging and just do micro blogging. I myself am not posting as much as I should be. But times change and people must move on too. Facebook and Twitter give you nice ways to publish your new blog posts. They get re-tweeted a lot which will mean a lot of hits to your site eventually.
Q: How important is it for the blogger to interact with their readers? Do you respond to all the comments that you receive?
A: Again this is what differentiates a good blog from a bad one. People need to make the connection with the blogger and that is when a blog comes alive. If you are lucky to have a lot of viewers where they comment within themselves, then your job is a lot easier.
Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?
A: People learning something new from my posts.
Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog? What basic tips would you give to a budding wild life photographer?
A: The internet is a platform to publish your work. Nowhere in the history of photography, there has been such an amazing platform for photographers to showcase their work. So use it well and it is easy to build your network and make yourself a recognized photographer.
Thank you Kalyan for taking the time out and giving us such a detailed interview. We loved it and are sure that there are many bloggers who would be checking his photographs here right now. If you are looking to get inspired and click awesome photographs this weekend, then he is the inspiration. Now, shoot questions to him and Kalyan will answer those!