Here is a question women wildlife photographers are often asked – ‘how do you relieve yourself while you are shooting wildlife?’ Not many men in the profession are asked the question. There are very few women out in the field, which raises questions such as these. Aparna Purushothaman and Seema Suresh are ‘veterans’ in the field, these ‘veterans’ are young when it comes to the years spent on the job. The number of women wildlife photographers isn’t increasing. Very few women make the choice. The hardships involved and the commitment the hobby demands is tremendous; it is not for the meek. It has to be more than passion that drives these women to the forest, enormously testing their patience for the reward of the perfect shot.
Seema Suresh remembers the missed shots. “The misses are memorable as they pave the way for the next,” says Seema. For the last five-odd years, this former journalist has been shooting in the wild.
Often the only woman on photography treks, she enjoys her walk off the beaten track. She wasn’t much of a photographer, she admits. But when she fell, she fell hard for photography. The sheer magnificence of shooting in the wild, the experience in its entirety excites her.
“We – me, a couple of others and a guide – trekked to Kundumedu, 18 kms off Athirapally, looking for wild animals. It was a day’s trek; we slept amid rocks under the sky with the forest for company. We cooked in the open , drank water from the jungle stream…it was a beautiful experience. I didn’t get a single photo but it doesn’t matter.” It is the beauty of such experiences that draws her to wildlife photography and sustains it. “And it is definitely not money,” she adds.
Her first camera was a gift from her husband. It was the basic model aim-and-click variety. A voracious consumer of veteran photographer N.A. Nazeer’s writing, she fancied that kind of life – walking through forests and taking in the life there. Nazeer is her inspiration.
She attended a photo camp by him, at Chimmini Wildlife Sanctuary. Subsequently she attended two more and was hooked, not just by the photography but also the promise of time spent in the forest. She enjoys treks often in the company of photographer friends. “We get to spend more time in Kerala forests as opposed to those in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu or elsewhere. You get only a limited amount of time there and often, you might not find anything much within that time.” The denser foliage in our forests makes it more of a challenge compared to the other forests where it is sparse. “Getting a tiger here is like a Nobel Prize.”
Her guides during her initial journeys were Nazeer’s accounts of each forest. “I wanted to see if these were the forests that Nazeer’s eyes had seen. I was very curious.” She travels into the forest at least once a month.
There are many shots that excite her. But Seema would rather not focus just on the biggies – “I like to zoom in on the smaller creatures too, and I don’t just mean size-wise, in terms of importance too. Like, for instance, monkeys. They are so common and very rarely is the camera trained on them. But I like to shoot them, they have very expressive faces.”
There have been many memorable moments and shots these last five-odd years. Like for instance when she and fellow photographers came across a tiger on the drive from Wayanad to Bandipur. “We froze. It was the first time I was seeing tiger.” Then there was the time when she, her photographer friends and a forest department official were travelling near Parambikulam that a Black Panther jumped across the jeep. Since she is part of trekking-photo expeditions, she says, taking the help of forest officials is advisable. They would be familiar with the forest and it’s safer that way.
While on safety, the inevitable question is about being a woman in what is essentially a man’s profession. “You have to take care of your safety. There is no point in taking unnecessary risks, but being confident is of utmost importance.”
That confidence propels the photographer in her to go that extra mile, like what she did at the Tadoba National park, Maharashtra. Over days the promise of a tiger sighting didn’t materialise and she and her photographer friends decided to return home. “We heard that there had been a sighting, I ditched all plans of returning and went back into the reserve with a friend to shoot the tigers.”
Seema is part of Thrissur-based Photo Muse, an organisation of photographers, and works with budding photographers.
Jim Corbett, the Himalayas, Sikkim and a trip to Meeshapulimala feature in her immediate plans. What about those abroad, like for instance Masai Mara? “You get everything there. What is the fun in that?”
Aparna Purushothaman, first, stumbled onto photography; the wildlife part came much later. A camera, gifted by her husband, set off her photography. “When we’d travel by train, and see beautiful sights, I’d tell my husband that having a camera would be nice,” says Aparna over phone from Kottayam of how she got her first camera. She is one of the few women wildlife photographers, not only in Kerala but also the country.
With her basic camera in hand, she’d shoot anything that came her way – usually sunsets, life shots and scenery – and post them Facebook (FB). Her husband Ashok D., an assistant engineer with the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) was posted at Sholayar at the time. On holidays there, she’d shoot the flora and fauna . The response on FB, most which complimented her composition, was encouragement. Suggestions included one to get a better camera.
Armed with an upgrade, a basic DSLR camera with basic lens, she and her husband would ride in the forests looking for wildlife.
“We would go on bike rides; my husband is an excellent spotter. He’d show and I’d shoot. The forest is very dense.” These forests are inhabited by a by a few government employees and tribals.
On one such ride, the couple saw the elusive Nilgiri Marten. At the time they didn’t know what it was or that its conservation status was vulnerable. Very few photographers have photographed it. A friend told her what it was. That one photograph trained the spotlight on her. An unforgettable experience, she calls it. This was the first time it had ever been spotted at Sholayar, N.A. Nazeer, wildlife photographer and writer, had seen it at Pampadumchola in Munnar.
The shots from Sholayar were well appreciated and were followed by another equipment upgrade. “My frames obviously got better. With my background in physics I began experimenting with lighting and various exposures. Over time it built my confidence,” says Aparna, a Plus Two physics teacher at Kottayam currently working on her Ph.D thesis.
With a research scholar’s meticulousness to catalogues her photographs following it up with research, reading up on the ‘subjects’ in detail, the teacher in her works toward spreading awareness about wildlife, conducting camps and workshops for school kids and college students. While at Kannur she started a Nature Club at the school and the children, in appreciation named her their role model – a memory she cherishes.
She conducted a photography exhibition at Kottayam and was staggered by the response; her photos have also featured in exhibitions conducted by the forest department. She has been to forests in different States in south India.
Spotting a tiger or a leopard do not interest her. Birds attract her, especially the rarely seen ones such as the Great Indian Hornbill – the malamuzhakki vezhaambal. After almost four years on the field, she says she recently got a good shot, at Sholayar. She has caught on camera eight different kinds of owls at Thattekad, there are around three more that she has to frame – “I keep going back looking for owls. They are not easy.”
Aparna doesn’t like travelling with more than three-four people while on photography expeditions. “I want the bird to be still sitting on the same branch once I am done clicking. If there are more people, it tends to disturb them.” Conservation is a cause close to her heart. Also she prefers to find her animals and birds, that, she says is the challenge.
Safety is, obviously a concern as she says, “The risk is rarely from the animals. We have to be careful.”