A Lifelong Journey of Connecting People with Nature through Photography
Dhritiman Mukherjee is one of the most respected professional nature, wildlife and conservation photographers from India and widely acclaimed worldwide for his photography work as well as contributions towards conservation. On the occasion of World Photography Day, 19th August 2020, ecoNE talks to him about his journey and philosophy in the field of photography.
Please tell us about your journey into wildlife photography?
From my childhood, I used to travel with my parents to different places. It started when I was only one-year-old and the first trip was to Darjeeling. Since then every year we used to go to places till I was at 12th standard. And after that I started travelling alone. And it was that time I started trekking. In 1994, I joined a mountaineering club and started rock climbing. That time I was shooting almost everything and wildlife was nowhere in my mind. Although I did graduation in physics, I got involved in outdoor activities too much and even stopped my studies in between. Suddenly I felt that all my friends were doing something and I was the only one doing nothing. Then I joined post graduate diploma in ecology & environment which was all together a different experience for me as I had no prior relation with biology. In fact, just to avoid biology I introduced statistics to my school! It was during that course that I eventually developed interest in wildlife because of ecology, as you know ecology is kind of physics of the natural world! In fact, I bought my first camera in 1997 and during 1998 to 2000, I did this ecology and environment course.
In 2000, I joined in Prakiti Sangsad where I got chance to involved in bird surveys and I started bird watching, started taking photographs of birds and other things and developed interest in it. I can say it was from 2000 onwards that I started shooting wildlife. I locally started bird watching and got involved in bird survey with Prakiti Sangsad in different places like Sundarbans, Neora Valley etc. In 2001, I did one workshops with Dr. Asad Rahmani and later did a course on ornithology from BNHS. While most of these trips were hardcore surveys and not much of photography involved, they got me interested in wildlife more and more.
In 2001-2002, I decided that photography should be my profession and I should stop all other kinds of earnings so that there is no other comfort zone. Thereafter I left all other means of earning and got into it. At that time, I couldn’t even earn ten thousand per year from photography. In 2006 it was twenty-five thousand per year and increasing slowly. But I didn’t stop my trips. Somehow I tried to manage it other ways including hard work. I still remember, in 2003 I went to an expedition in Gangotri Glacier, and at that time the budget was very low. I went alone with only one porter. I carried all utensils, food, cameras everything, used to cook myself and lot of other things. I went to the same place in 2009 and during that time I had nine porters with me! So the situation changed actually. But it was not that I didn’t do things earlier due to the financial constraints. Frequency was same, number of trip was same but the difference was only in budget. And it started like this! It was quite a struggle but surprisingly I can’t remember the painful part now. I just feel there was no struggle in my life as I forgot everything except for the joy of my trips and photography.
Snow Leopard in the wild
Being probably the only truly professional wildlife photographer from India, how difficult was your struggle to survive the challenges and still keep motivating yourself to keep doing what you love?
I started wildlife photography when it was not the digital era and I used to shoot with films. Numbers of photographers were less, lot of areas were untouched, especially places like northeast India. When I first photographed species like gibbons and posted, most of our country’s people they didn’t even have any idea about all these species. And that means when I started, there were much more new and unexplored areas. So it became new to a lot of publications and media fields. But If you compare with that time and now, the print media is in the soup. Online media is picking up for sure, but the number of buyers is becoming less compared to the huge number of photographers available. Simply, supply is more than demand and there is a huge disparity making it unsustainable now a days. You may be able to sell few photos but can’t entirely depend on it for a living.
Moreover, the cost to run the show is huge, including expensive equipment and trips. Because I started earlier I am surviving somehow and I have few options. So every time I tell people this is a great hobby. If you want to enjoy life or nature, you can do it. But as a full time profession it is still possible but it’s like huge difficulty. I am not confident to suggest anyone only to do this for a career. It is very hard to see someone purely dependent only on the income from publishing photos and not by doing photography tours and workshops. I am surviving solely on publishing photos because I have a huge stock as I travelled many places earlier.
A California Sea lion patroling throug a huge school of Sardines at Los Islotes in Gulf of California
What motivates you as a wildlife photographer the most? Is it your passion for wildlife, passion for adventure, the artistic mind behind the camera or anything else? When someone starts doing wildlife photography, the trill and surprises attract a lot and I was no exception to it. I was a field guy. So I always loved to be in nature. The thrill part initially attracted me a lot, but slowly the motivation changed. I started realizing that this is wrong. It you try to understand what is thrill, imagine an elephant chasing you, a shark charging you, a rhino charging you. But what these situations explain is that you have entered into the very personal space of these animals so much that it makes them uncomfortable to a great deal.
A selfie while exploring the icy ocean of Antarctica
Therefore, I never encouraged myself for thrill anymore and changed my goal because I realized that thrill in wildlife is not healthy at all. I started thinking why I am here and found that it is my love to be in the nature and developed the attraction in the journey. If I find something during the journey that is always an immense pleasure, but not getting anything is also an outcome and we must accept it that way. Thrill is a momentary pleasure that comes and goes but the journey gives me a flat happiness and over the years I have practiced my journey to become my goal.
What drives your constant pursuit to keep making images that look different than the others?
When I took photograph in field, I found lot of happiness which I consider as my personal thing. But in the same time I realized it can also contribute to the society because I can actually spread awareness, I can satisfy scientific community, so here I found a new goal which is greater than my personal interests. In conservation, connecting more and more people to nature is the first step. In India there are almost 1.3 billion people but among them how many know about wildlife? What we are doing is at a very small scale and within a very small community. I think the number will not even cross one crore. So only one crore people are connected with nature but rest of the people are more or less disconnected with the natural world. I believe visuals can build a strong connectivity. You have to think about it step by step. It is very hard to explain to a common man on the need of nature and the species that are part of an ecosystem, and the effect of removing one element from the ecosystem, unless they visualize it and feel it.
What we can do here is try to make them realize few indirect needs. For example, people see National Geography Channel because through wildlife they share visual entertainment. Similarly, what we are creating with the help of photos is the connection. When people see something on wildlife, if it is entertaining or emotional then it will create the connection which will lead to empathy for the wildlife. If you are connected, then only empathy will come to your mind. Ultimately it becomes a need. What a photo does is that it creates emotional connection. It also serves the purpose of building scientific connections and then creates awareness. Once responsibility adds with awareness, it becomes consciousness. So all these steps can connect common people with the natural world. And it is only possible if you can bring something new to the audiences. People will start loving, liking and enjoying things only if it is new for them, which gives them surprises. So, I believe that to engage people every time, I have to go for something new. Although it is not easy, but have to keep thinking about it.
Brown Pelican fishing in Magdalena bay in Mexico
You have done some exceptional work with wide angle lenses and made images with perspectives unimaginable to others. What is your take on wildlife photography with wide angles in general, from the point of view of photographers’ safety and disturbance to the animal concerned?
I started doing wild angle work since 2008 onwards. The baseline of such kind of photography is of course understanding of natural history. If you don’t understand natural history it is very difficult to work on them. There are ways like camera trapping, remote cameras from which you can take wide angle photos where it will not disturb the animal. The important point is, if you want to camera trap also, you need to understand the natural history. It is not easy. For example, when I tried rhino photography in Kaziranga, I still remember I stayed within in a distance of one and a half kilometer from the entry of Western Zone for 14 days just to identify in which track the rhino can probably come. Animals generally avoid or may attack any kind of foreign body in their natural environment. Very few individuals will be comfortable with the foreign body and my goal was to identify that particular individual which very much indifferent. This is required for remote triggered cameras. Another thing is actually in most cases people think I use lot of remote cameras but it is not! Rather, I try to find out a comfortable individual. You need to understand the whole situation to make them comfortable. Also it is better to sometimes let the animal come to you than you approaching them directly. You need to have some patience. This is very much understanding and experience based practice and a life long journey that one can achieve slowly.
A fisherman with his catch in Maguri wetlands of Assam
Over last several years, you have developed a huge collection of images of wildlife from India as well as many other countries around the globe. What is your suggestions for the upcoming wildlife photographers in terms of developing their stock? Should they concentrate on developing a diversity in collection or in-depth involvement with fewer subjects at first?
All possibilities are fine. If someone wants to photograph or become expert on one specific subject, it is their personal choice. What I suggest is to check lot of photos so that you can get an idea on what is already done. It is important to understand the situations. You need to understand the value of a particular situation and related things. This will come only from experiences.
For example, when we were doing photography in Kaziranga during floods, we were taking photos of rhinos, houses submerged in water, thereby trying to explore different aspects and outcomes of the situation. This is very important. When I show the photos of Kaziranga during flood to people, I tell them this is not flood, this is a natural behaviour of a river. We are sitting on the course of the river. The setup of Kaziranga is very good if there were no man made things like roads or other establishments. Thus there are many situations where we need to decide in the field whether or not to take a photograph. This comes only with experience and understanding of the natural world.
Photographer’s vision has to be the strength for him. There might be some unseen aspects in common places or species. People can’t see such things normally. It is our duty to develop that vision to identify interesting situations which we need to bring in front of the people. Therefore, my suggestion to the upcoming photographs is to avoid repeating what is already been done and to develop a better vision to bring out the unseen issues with the help of photos.
Ruddy Shelduck flying over the Brahmaputra in Assam
Tell us about your experience of photography in northeast India. Any special future plan in NE?
Northeast is a very rich place in terms of biodiversity. What I feel is that I did nothing in Northeast till now, even though I have visited so many places in the region. Assam is a very important place due to its location and mixed habitat, being dominating by the Brahmaputra River yet some parts are hills as well. Therefore, Assam has a tremendous diversity and representation of species from plains as well as hills. It is indeed a gold mine for any wildlife photographer. Also there are lot of untouched places in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram etc. I feel like there must be some undiscovered species in there as well. I can’t make a list because it’s too long. What I did is very minimum and close to zero. So it always makes me inspired to think of it more. That way definitely I want to be in Northeast, specially in Mizoram because I am not there much. Mostly I worked in Arunachal, Assam and parts of Meghalaya. I also want to work in the caves of Meghalaya, lesser mammals in Mizoram and Arunachal and many more. So, northeast will definitely be the main area of my future work.
A Phayre's Leaf Monkey from Tripura
Any other message to our readers?
It is always about new work and there is no good or bad photograph. There is no parameter to compare photography. No one can say someone is better than the other, because there is no way to measure it. Photographs are basically very much subjective and all photos are unique. They have some particular information to share and you can’t compare one information with another. We just need to go for new images and new information. That means you always can’t compare photographs you also cannot compare photographers. My take from this is that there is nothing called the best photographer and I have no relation with the word best!
Assam Roofed Turtle
Even you can’t compare species and places. Every species is important every place is important for a healthy ecosystem. I cannot have a favorite species like a mother cannot have a favorite child. Then someone may challenge me asking why I am working on a particular species? The simple answer is, as a mother concentrates more on the weaker child, similarly in the ecosystem we select those species who are in bad shape and give priority to work on them. My goal is to how I can bring out new information with the help of photos for conservation, so that it can contribute to the society, natural world as well as to science. Another huge problem is that we share our photos in the eco chambers, like people who are already aware and share common interest in nature. We need to come out of our eco chambers and need to show our photographs to disconnected people rather than already connected people, so that we can create a huge lobby for the natural world. Every photograph can be a conservation photograph if you show it to a new person which helps establishing a connection with the subject.
All Photos: Courtesy Dhritiman Mukherjee