Wildlife photographer Shovna Upadhyay, whose photo book My Tiger My Stories is just out, speaks to Bhumika Popli about celebrating and capturing the majesty of the wild.
Q. How did you get interested in wildlife photography and how did you go about pursuing this dream?
A. My first trip was to Kaziranga National Park, just to use my new DSLR camera. I had no idea about wildlife photography. All the childhood memories, when I used to observe whatever I could find—snails, frogs, centipedes, bees, wasps, jackals, bats etc.— came flooding back to me. Then, on my next two consecutive trips, the eyeball-to-eyeball incidents with tigresses, named T17 and Kankatti, got me hooked. That happened three times in a row, and so this became my calling. It also came at the right time. My children were already independent, so I just had to go after my calling, which I did without hesitation.
Q. Could you recall your most memorable encounters from the wild?
A. I have been fortunate as every trip is as memorable as the last one. During my first trip to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, tigress T17 lifted her head and looked straight at me, which changed my life. Making loud mating calls, Bamera, a huge tiger, walked towards Kankatti, the one-eyed tigress. So my first tiger and tigress encounter in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve ended in seeing them mating. Some amazing time spent with Paarwali in a waterhole in Dhikala, Corbett Tiger Reserve, and the cubs of T19 frolicking in the Rajbagh area of Ranthambhore are also among the memorable sightings.
The elephant is another animal that amazes me every time. I always think that I have seen almost every elephant behaviour possible, and then they do something totally different.
Q. You spend a lot of time photographing tigers. What makes this animal a great subject for photographers?
A. The most mesmerising part of a tiger are the eyes. They haunt you in your dreams. I love their majestic stride, the swing of the tail for balance, the “I could care less” attitude, the colour and stripes that blend so well with the surroundings. And, to tell you frankly, everything about a tiger is hypnotically photographable.
Q. How can wildlife photography contribute to tiger conservation campaigns in India?
A. Photography and conservation have worked hand in hand since the time of Ansel Adams, who was not only a photographer but also an environmentalist. His photography helped in the conservation of the wilds. In recent times, photographers in India have helped in identifying tigers that have been poached; raised alarms and concerns when tigers that are regularly visible are not seen for a long period; assisted in identifying tigers that have moved far away from their birthplace and in keeping track of the cubs.
Moreover, photographs of tiger behaviours in print and social media have been able to awaken people into realising that these majestic animals do need protection. Photographs have helped in making the authorities sit up and take stock of encroachments into protected areas and act against illegal mining, poaching; they have provoked the public to question the authorities on their shortcomings. The photographs of tigers killed for their organs for “medicinal purposes” and skins for coats and wraps have rattled the conscience of the global citizens, so much so that they, especially the celebrities (who can influence the opinion of the general public), have given voice to the voiceless.
Q. How can those practising wildlife photography be more empathetic to their subjects? Is there an ethical code they should abide by?
A. Tigers are the apex predators in the wild. So yes, we need to take precaution. I decided to publishMy Tigers My Stories as an introduction to tigers, so that people can see them through different eyes and not as the ferocious and bloodthirsty animals they have always been viewed as. I think we give ourselves too much importance by thinking that tigers are always looking for ways to kill humans.
From my own experience, I can say that I have become empathetic to not only to the subjects I have been photographing but also towards the whole animal kingdom and their habitat. I have always loved animals, but after going to the jungles for photography, the changes in me are deeper and more proactive. I am more vocal and encourage people not to use products that harm wildlife and their habitat. I also try to give a helping hand to those organisations that not only plant saplings but also take care of them. If there are parents who are willing to listen, then I request them to introduce their children to wildlife and nature while they are young and at an impressionable age, so that they may do something for conservation, where the generation before them failed miserably.
To follow ethical rules has always been important, and even more so today, as more and more people are going to the jungles to fulfil their passion and to de-stress. It is understandable that everyone wants to see a tiger. However, we should refrain from letting our enthusiasm take over our responsibility towards the denizens of the jungle. We must respect them and give them space to move about freely. We must control our excitement and be as quiet as possible and abide by all the rules set not only by the authorities but also by our conscience.
Q. What do you like most about spending time in the wild?
A. I feel blessed that I can go to the forest and once inside, I just lose myself to nature. As mentioned in my book,My Tigers, My Stories, it is there that all your senses work to their full potential, without you even realising it. You come back rejuvenated and ready to face the pollution, traffic, noise and you can be positive again! The best thing is the change I see and feel in myself—I have become more patient, have developed a deeper empathy and have become more compassionate.
Q. Which is your favourite place in India to photograph tigers in their natural habitat?
A. I love Dhikala in Corbett. I love the place for its beauty. Here, you can see tigers and elephants among the tall sal trees, with the hills or elephant grasses in the grassland as the background; the misty mornings in winter. I love it for the way we go about trying to find our tigers; for being able to stay inside the Forest Rest House and hear the tiger roar in the middle of the night. And of course, I love Ranthambhore too, especially around the Raj Bagh area.
Q. What are the technical difficulties faced by wildlife photographers in general?
A. Situations that are bad—you may not get a single good shot. Worse, you may get a good opportunity but the light may be harsh. Even worse are the good sightings when you run out of memory card, or the battery dies exactly when the tiger is ready for some action and you forgot to take spare ones. When your camera settings are all wrong because you forgot to check.All these have happened to me.
Q. Any word of advice for people looking to delve into wildlife photography?
A. If you’re looking to make good money, then that may be difficult. Equipment is expensive, so are the safaris. Having said that, I have met young people who have done assignments for top magazines and galleries, and who specialise in a very particular type of photography. They even get to set their terms and conditions before they sign for an assignment.