Emotions, street life or Nature, Viren Mohan photographs facets not so visible to the rest of us

Four years ago, during a photography project in the desert near Sea Lake, Australia, Viren Mohan watched shooting stars in a star-filled sky. The silence and the magnificence of the new moon night transformed him.

Viren was expected to take over the family business. But after the desert trip, he swapped six years of working in his family-run factory for a life of looking through the lens, spotting things that the rest of the world did not. His hobby became his career.

“I believe photographs speak to people and ask questions,” says Viren. In his portfolio is an incredibly moving black-and-white photograph of a dying elephant (see pic), shot in the Singara forests. In the centre of the frame is the elephant lying in a pool of slush, around it are water-starved bushes and beyond, remnants of a once-lush shola forest. It seems to reflect the past, present and future. “What does the future hold for our forests?” he asks.

Commercial photography sustains him, but what nourishes his soul is documenting something very different — Nature, wildlife, pets, the streets, people. A life-changer was a shoot at Families For Children, an orphanage in Podanur. “As I kept shooting the children, I realised that the camera had a greater purpose,” he shares. He often takes up such assignments, gratis, “just for the satisfaction”.

Viren travels a lot — to the forests, to places where people congregate, places where stories with many angles can be told. There’s this series of images from the Mahashivarathri celebrations in Varanasi that followed the Kumbh Mela. A sadhu flaunts a Ray Ban, just the kind of imagery that draws people. “But, I like this better,” says Viren, pointing to a sadhu with a beatific smile. “See the scars on his face. His nose was almost cut off. He led a violent life and gave it all up.” The photo was the result of a long conversation, Viren says.

Viren’s eyes melt when he speaks about pets. “We share the planet with so many species, yet behave like we own it. That’s so unfair. Through my photographs of abandoned, orphaned pets and dogs in shelters, I wish to change attitudes. We’ve even brought about a caste system in pets,” he rues.

As a photographer, he also documents the streets — snatches of emotions, the buzz of a marketplace… “There’s so much life on the streets. The streets reflect the character of a city,” says Viren, who plans an entire series devoted to them.

How easy was it for his family to accept his decision to turn photographer? “They understood this was where my joy lay.” Viren says photography funds his livelihood. “But I am a very low-maintenance person. Give me a shack with a cot. As long as it does not rain on me, or snakes and scorpions don’t share my space, I’m happy,” he smiles.

He saw a lot of these reptiles in the Australian desert. “That was an experience like none other. Working with my ‘guru’ Harry Nankin on the Syzygy project, where we used shadowgrams to capture Aboriginal concepts and traditions was such an eye-opener.”

Furthering his relationship with Nature is his house near Gudalur. He retreats there every now and then to recharge himself, and to conduct workshops on demand, where he teaches photographers the latest techniques and editing.”

Viren is in awe of Nature. To show how insignificant man is in front of it, he is putting together a series of images, shot across the country. One of them will be blown up into a six-foot-tall image — the mountains, valleys and a river loom large. There’s a tiny speck down below — a lorry. A tinier speck — a human. “That’s all we are,” he says.

(Get in touch with him at viren.mohan@gmail.com or facebook.com/virenmohan)