People Eminent photographers T.N.A. Perumal and Balan Madhavan talk about wildlife photography and its role in conservation

Pioneer wildlife photographer T.N.A. Perumal remembers using a gadget like a remote control with air release to photograph birds in their nest. Today, a telephoto lens captures it all. “Technology has done us a great favour,” he says. “The equipment is no longer bulky, and everything is wireless. All that is needed is an artistic approach and a vision to capture the right moment. Light and background are important, and the animal has to be shot in its natural habitat,” he adds.

Wildlife photography is pro-conservation, he says. “It documents natural history, flora and fauna, animal behaviour and serves as a scientific tool. When you start loving trees, plants and animals, you also conserve.”

Revere animals

Quoting Bharathi’s lines Kaadu Valarppom Kaaviyam Seivom, Perumal explains how religious inhibitions helped in protecting Nature. “We revered the tiger as a vahana of durga, the peacock was Lord Subramania’s. The owl was Lakshmi’s vahana. We need to bring back the reverence which we have lost somewhere,” he says.

Perumal’s ‘schooling in Nature’ began at the Bannerghatta forests in Mysore. “I was fond of reading Shikar books. The natural instinct of man is to hunt but that desire can be gratified by taking to wildlife photography. The pleasure of spotting birds in the forest and identifying them by their calls, colour, and behaviour is fascinating,” he says.

Tracing the history of 100 years of wildlife photography ( 100 years of it), Perumal says the ‘sport’ of photography was an inheritance of F. W. Champion (the father of wildlife photography), that has become popular amongst the younger generation, says Perumal. “When I visited the forests and sanctuaries with M.Y. Ghorpade (another eminent photographer and a prince) there was hardly anyone in them. Now, hordes of people venture into forests without any fear. Tigers and leopards have also lost the fear of man. Jim Corbett, a contemporary of Champion, foresaw that tigers would become extinct even back then.” Perumal says everyone should read the biographies of passionate conservationists such as M. Krishnan, and Dr. Salim Ali.

Giving back to nature

Balan Madhavan, a fellow at International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), was also in Coimbatore along with Perumal. “I want to be a full-time wildlife photographer and take great pictures. But, where are the takers? I do tourism industry, hotels and resorts, where the money is, and invest it back into wildlife photography.”

Balan, who has been taking pictures for 30 years, says wildlife photography trains you in the art of disappointment. “You are just a spectator there. You have to grab the moment whenever Nature rewards you with it.”

As a part of the ILCP, he has worked on the oil exploration project in the U.S that disturbed the migratory path of the bison and the pronghorn antelope. “Twelve photographers worked together for two weeks. We then presented our pictures to the Senate and the Congress members in Washington.” Balan describes it as visual lobbying and it had the desired effect. “One of the first things Obama did after he took over was to stop the oil exploration project.” Balan also worked on the impact of tourism in Mexico, especially the coastal belt and how it affected marine life.

“Most conservation efforts need immediate attention. They should reach the policy makers. I want to bring international names to India on projects and make higher authorities sit up and take notice. For example, to limit use of plastics in an ecologically fragile area, we can visually explore the bio-diversity of the area. Another issue is the man-animal conflict in Wayanad. Development blocks the migratory path of elephants. There are electric fences everywhere outside the tea estates, and people even throw burning tyres on elephants.”

Balan wants to initiate RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions) in South India. He says there is immense scope for RAVE projects in Yercaud, Munnar, and Ooty. He wonders how much more abuse these places can take. “Tourism has changed the weather patterns and the attitude of people towards conservation.”

Balan’s photographic tours and workshops focus on striking a balance between the art and science of photography. He says the first reaction to a photograph should be a ‘wow!’ or an ‘Oh my god”. “I was introduced to the best of Nature in Eravikulam and Wayanad. My father, an Indian Forest Officer, introduced me to photography. Once you love Nature, you want to protect it,” he says. Balan’s photograph series on the Nilgiri Tahr is stunning. So is an image of a squirrel leaping from one boulder to another. “There’s a thin line between photography and painting. Technical excellence is a given, what I focus on is the emotional connect. The 21st century belongs to the visual medium and it has a phenomenal role to play in conservation.”

(Balan and Perumal were guests at an event organised by Environment Conservation Group, Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Central Academy for State Forest Service, and the Visual Communication Department of Hindusthan College of Arts and Science).

Documenting Nature and wildlife

T.N.A. Perumal’s new book Reminiscences Of A Wildlife Photographer has 300 pages of 90 black-and-white photographs, 90 colour and 90 digital images. “It’s my lifetime’s work of 50 years. There is a write-up accompanying every picture that gives brief information on the animals and how I photographed them.”

Some of the other notable books he mentions are Encounters In The Forest (a compilation of works of 60 wildlife photographers) and Some South Indian Butterflies, which features the works of scientists and photographers and serves as a field guide