After lying in wait for hours, invisible to his target, he shoots according to plan. K. Ramnath Chandrashekar, nature photographer and conservationist from Pudukottai, has gone through this scene several times in his head and will discover in a few seconds whether his shot has successfully captured life.
It has been nine years since his first photograph, but Ramnath is yet to turn 23. He grew up around birds, garden lizards, monkeys and people who loved wildlife. Armed with the SLR camera his father gave him, he learnt the basics of bird watching and photography from family friend and ornithologist Vijaykumar Thondaiman.
“The digital era in photography took over a couple of years after I began learning photography and I’m lucky to have learnt my basics on films and transparencies, something present-day photography students cannot afford anymore,” says Ramnath. By the time he was in the ninth grade, Ramnath had decided he would make a career out of photography.
Upon his father’s suggestion, Ramnath joined a camp within the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady and sighted his very first tiger there. “It was during a night walk and I couldn’t understand the excitement that gripped the whole group because back then I didn’t know the tiger was an endangered species,” he says.
His excitement, he recalls, stemmed from the realisation that he truly liked being there and facing that moment.
In a family full of doctors, Ramnath says he too was expected to study medicine and was brought to Chennai for better education. “My mother, despite being against my taking up photography, told me about the film screening where I met my mentor and renowned wildlife film maker Shekar Dattatri,” says Ramnath.
From that point onwards, he placed all his works under the intense scrutiny of Mr. Dattatri, whose straightforward and constructive criticism played a huge role in shaping Ramnath’s personality as a photographer.
Show and tell
Mr. Dattatri and Ramnath founded Youth for Conservation (YFC) to show youngsters what they can do to keep the environment intact.
“The aim of YFC is to document, on still photographs and on film, conservation issues and success stories, provide practical conservation guidelines online and empower with focus points a youth brigade that is interested in conservation, but confused,” says Ramnath.
He feels YFC has given him a platform to seamlessly fuse his photography with his capacity to communicate with people.
“Through my pictures, I want to move people from being intimidated by nature to a point where they realise that they have to do something to preserve the multitudes of other species living beside them.”
Anyone viewing Ramnath’s work can read his “story” of a particular species or place. “There are two kinds of wildlife photography: you either take the picture of a subject that came your way or you make the picture through meticulous planning and execution.”
On the field
To elaborate, he recalls his experience at Augumbe (Karnataka) as part of a team that filmed The Secret Life of King Cobra, a National Geographic documentary. Being the second wettest place in India, Augumbe simulates some of the most difficult working conditions for wildlife documentation, says Ramnath. “After a week of nothing but waiting through incessant rain, 98 per cent humidity and a leech-infested undergrowth, we captured on film, for the first time ever, the nest-building activity of the king cobra, the only one amongst snakes to build a nest.”
Ramnath wants to establish himself as a nature photographer who captures everything, “including the lesser-known and often ignored insect species.” On most occasions, he visualises an image he wants to capture and waits it out patiently till the frame is closest to the image in his mind. “Nobody should enter this field because they think it’s glamourous. Things take time to happen here, sometimes even up to a decade, and it requires lots of perseverance to make a mark.”
In a career that’s nearing a decade, Ramnath has exhibited his works around the country. He was one of the six photographers from India selected for the Fuji Super Six (in 2008) and one of the 13 from the Asia-Pacific region shortlisted for the Rolex Young Laureates Programme (in 2010). He was awarded the Sanctuary Young Naturalist Award by Sanctuary Asia magazine.
Though very particular about planning his shots, Ramnath is quite indulgent of nature’s temperament. “Things are going to happen whether or not you’re there, so I work almost round the clock snatching just a few hours of sleep in between,” he says. He also doesn’t think early mornings and late evenings are the only parts of a day with the best light for wildlife photography.
He doesn’t miss simple comforts when he is out striving to be the kind of photographer who spends months with his subjects.
“Nowadays, all forests are well connected and have good research stations or outposts where you can even cook yourself a simple meal,” he says. As an afterthought, he says he sometimes misses his seven hours of sleep.
Ramnath feels the unrestricted access to equipment and the field has made it necessary for him to constantly redefine his photography. “It must stand out for its professionalism against the works of serious hobbyists.”