60 Minutes Environment

‘Man vs. Wild needs to die’, says Emmy-nominated wildlife filmmaker Kalyan Varma

Kalyan Varma  

Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer and filmmaker Kalyan Varma, whose work has featured on BBC Wildlife and National Geographic, is out with his latest project, a documentary on that most elusive of cats, the swamp tiger of the Sundarbans. The documentary, part of BBC’s Super Cats series, has been nominated for this year’s Emmy Awards. Varma talks about what drove him to give up an IT job for a career photographing wildlife, and his 600-hour sail through the mangroves in search of the Royal Bengal Tiger. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You made a pretty radical switch from an IT job to a career in wildlife photography. What was the turning point?

Well, I was quite fascinated by the natural world even when I was working for Yahoo!. I would travel out on weekends. Then I decided to take a break for six months, spend it entirely in the forest. I asked the Karnataka Jungle Lodges and Resorts in BR Hills if I could stay in their lodge for a couple of months, and they said, why don’t you just work here as a naturalist. So, basically I was supposed to show tourists around, explain a thing or two about wildlife. I spent a lot of time with the Soliga tribes too. So that was really where my learning began.

There’s a growing number of amateurs and professionals committed to serious wildlife photography in India — they document everything from road ecology to urban wildlife. Is photography becoming a tool for conservation?

I think it’s a double-edged sword, to be honest. I think, yes, an average Bengalurean knows quite a bit about wildlife beyond tigers and elephants, there’s a lot of interest in bird life in their backyard, for instance; and when there’s a plan to cut trees, there’s quite a bit of protest. I think that’s very good. But there is also an overcrowding of our national parks and sanctuaries. And what I feel really bad about is that exploring wildlife has become an activity of the privileged. A rural person who wants to explore wildlife just cannot afford to. I think the forest departments should have systems in place to make protected areas accessible to everyone.

In this age of tiger selfies, animal baiting and drone cameras, is there also a growing sense among photographers and videographers that an ethical code must be followed while shooting wildlife?

To get that great shot, photographers sometimes cross a line — but what is that line? That is not defined. Of course there are laws, for instance you can’t get off vehicles in protected areas. But ethics is more about questioning yourself. I remember when I started photography, 10 years ago, you didn’t have those big lenses. Photographers were extremely competitive. Say they found a nest of a tailor bird, the impulse was to clear out all the branches so they could get a clear shot — now the reason the bird has nested there is so predators don’t see it. Now, some photography contests don’t accept bird nest pictures any more. A lot of flash photography at night has also reduced, partly because of the advances in technology where you can shoot in low light. I must have done things too that I wouldn’t do now.

Your documentary on the Sundarbans tiger, for the BBC series Super Cats, has been nominated for the Emmys. You spent 600 hours on a boat that eventually broke down. Was filming the notoriously elusive Sundarbans tiger even tougher than you expected?

More than being physically demanding, it needed a lot of mental strength. I was scanning the islands with my binoculars from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — spotting a tiger through vegetation means you have to be on high alert always or you might just sail past it. Halfway through the shoot I realised I hadn’t even seen the tail of a tiger and the pressure was building. It was an expensive shoot after all. But just two days before we were to wrap up we saw pug marks on an island. We circled it and eventually, the tiger showed up. We were in a tiny country boat, and the engine shook the boat; the tide made the boat turn and sometimes move closer to the shore. That could have been dangerous. The tiger happened to be territory marking, so I could capture it as it walked for some two kilometres along the shore. At one point it even sat by the water and then disappeared into the forest. This is probably the only high-end video of the Sundarbans tiger there is.

You don’t believe in charging for your pictures and all your material is up on open source platforms. What prompted the decision? And how does it work for you?

I think that decision had something to do with my previous job in IT. I was an advocate of free and open source software. Yes, I have to survive and pay my bills. But what got me into wildlife photography was not money, it was the joy of documenting wildlife that you can share with people. That couldn’t happen if I kept it behind copyright. A lot of my photographer friends were very angry with me and said I was insulting the whole profession. But for me, photography is an art. And it does pay off eventually. People recognised my work and commissioned projects and bought high quality prints. Today 80% of what I do is ‘pretty pictures’, but I still get to do some hard-hitting conservation stories, which hopefully will have some positive impact.

What do you make of wildlife programming on TV where nature is always somehow ‘deadly’ and ‘dangerous’, and where anchors must often wrangle with it?

Yes, that is a bit of a cultural thing, very different from the David Attenborough-style of filmmaking where he’d be on camera but he’d leave the animals alone. But these presenter-led, animal-handling shows are cheap to make. You go along with a snake-catcher for a few days and you have a half-hour programme ready. But now with online platforms, budgets are increasing everywhere and people are appreciating these shows less and less. The only such show that is still around is Man vs. Wild, which needs to die. It probably will do so soon, with all the criticism.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 2:05:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/man-vs-wild-needs-to-die-says-emmy-nominated-wildlife-filmmaker-kalyan-varma/article29468004.ece

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