Chennai: It’s a jungle out there but Ramnathh Chandrashekar is not afraid.
The 20-year-old wildlife photographer will be cut off from civilization for five days this month as he plods through a tiger reserve in the Western Ghats bordering Tamil Nadu to document the monsoons and its impact on water supply in southern India.
Nascent field: (clockwise from left) Shekar Dattatri, wildlife film-maker and member of the National Board for Wildlife, wildlife photographers Ramnathh Chandrasekhar and Saravanakumar. Ganesh Muthu / Mint
“You cannot expect any comfort because you need to trudge with a lot of equipment,” Chandrashekar said ahead of his trip. “You need to be mentally prepared. And your work is often your only reward.”
Chandrashekar is one of many among the younger generation who are taking their first steps into a full-time career in wildlife photography. While wildlife photography and film-making are still nascent fields in India and there aren’t any schools that offer specialized courses, an interest in wildlife and willingness to pick up the tricks of the trade from their mentors make these youngsters eager learners.
Chandrasekhar’s mentor is 46–year-old Shekar Dattatri, a Chennai-based, award-winning wildlife film-maker. In 2007, his documentary, titled Point Calimere—Little Kingdom by the Coast, won the best nature film award at the Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife Film Festival organized by the research and advocacy group Centre for Media Studies.
“Next to being an astronaut, being a wildlife film-maker is perhaps one of the rarest professions in India. There is no such thing as a wildlife film industry in India,” says Dattatri.
To be sure, an ability to take the rough with the smooth, both in the jungle as well as in your career graph, is essential to make it big here.
“The early years are vulnerable as it is not a regular job; my parents were concerned,” says 35-year-old Saravanakumar, who goes by one name, another wildlife film-maker in Chennai. “Also, you are only as good as your last work.”
And coming from a well-to-do family certainly helps, as equipment is costly, and it takes a long time before you can turn pro.
However, success behind the lens can lead to other opportunities. Today, Saravanakumar also runs a wildlife design and communications firm called Ecotone that makes wildlife-inspired brochures, calendars, etc., besides providing content to scientific periodicals.
A background in life sciences, ecology or related subjects certainly helps in the journey to become a professional wildlife photographer. “Good knowledge of wildlife is a basic foundation for becoming a good wildlife film-maker,” says Dattatri. “Without that knowledge, you will end up producing garbage.”
“It is a nascent field, so there is a lot of potential for finding your niche,” said V. Kartikeyan, assistant professor at the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India. The state-owned institute takes in just 14 science graduates every two years for its master’s course in wildlife science.
Other institutes that offer similar masters’ courses include the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, North Orissa University in Mayurbhanj, Pondicherry University and the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore.
Saravanakumar managed to get a seat at the Wildlife Institute—thanks to a research study he did for the World Wide Fund for Nature in his undergraduate days. At the Dehradun institute, he studied topics such as animal ecology and conservation even as he got interested in photography.
Besides the World Wide Fund for Nature, other organizations that can prove to be a stepping stone for youngsters interested in pursuing a wildlife film-making career include the Bombay Natural History Society, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Wildlife SOS and the Madras Crocodile Bank—all of which engage volunteers for research, outreach or animal census.
“To get into any specialization, you have to know a bit more about it and the crocbank (crocodile bank) provides the perfect opportunity to do that,” said Soham Mukherjee, assistant curator at the Madras Crocodile Bank.
The crocodile bank has recently started a programme for volunteers above the age of 18 with a chance to do community outreach and also park maintenance.
The key is to be equipped with a few skills and enough knowledge before you ask a film-maker to take you in as an assistant. Most film-makers work with small crews. Unless there is a very good reason to take on an extra person, they won’t. So, if you know the basics of film-making, know to identify different birds, are an expert scuba diver, have learnt underwater photography or know different rope knots to help climb trees and rocks, then you might stand a chance. “It has to be a reciprocal thing,” Dattatri said. “Nobody has the time to hand-hold a novice who, after three months of training, may say ‘Okay, this is too hard and it’s not for me. I don’t like leeches or am allergic to rain.’”
Also, established film-makers say that young photographers have to go out on their own, because that is the best way to spot animals and learn the craft. You have to be mentally prepared for the isolation and also physically capable of taking on the challenges.
Then there is also the long waiting period before you get a break. “Getting a break in this industry is very difficult… I still haven’t got one,” says Chandrashekar, who is doing his distance education in English literature from Annamalai University while he makes several solitary trips to forests around the country through the year.
But once you participate in the production of a wildlife film and prove yourself, veterans say that the jobs come, as it is a small community.
Chandrashekar’s work was selected by Jindal Photo Ltd for its Fujifilm wildlife photo exhibition in 2008. A couple of months later he was called to assist for a king cobra documentary produced by National Geographic channel. He went on to tackle the camera, do sound recording as well as photography during that stint.
“I do my own work, and come up with my own ideas and he (Dattatri) criticizes my work,” he said. “You cannot expect your mentor to spoon-feed you.”