In a male-dominated industry, Rathika Ramasamy leads the way as India’s first female wildlife photographer. From battling difficult situations in the jungle to choosing her favorite wildlife photography destinations, the fearless shutterbug bears it all. Travel + Leisure India & South Asia. By Bayar Jain
Excerpts from the interview with Rathika Ramasamy:
T+L India: You are often seen as the first female wildlife photographer from India. How did you get into this creative field?
Rathika Ramasamy: My interest in photography started as a hobby in school. Since then it has grown into a passion. My father gave me a movie camera when I was in high school. I would photograph everything – my house garden, flowers, trees and even the candy my parents bought! My camera was my constant companion when I traveled. I was interested in all kinds of photography, but the experience of being outdoors in nature led me to specialize in this genre, especially bird photography. It is challenging, engaging and also interesting to learn.
It all started around 2003 when I got the chance to visit Bharatpur . Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. After seeing the birds, I wanted to capture them [in a photograph] so I could enjoy seeing them again. I also lived in New Delhi at the time. I was surrounded by birds, sanctuaries and national parks which were the main route for migratory birds. This gave me the opportunity to photograph birds and to specialize in bird photography. It’s been 19 years and there’s no turning back. The journey is going great!
T+L India: What changes have you noticed in wildlife photography over the years?
Rathika Ramasamy: Of course the subjects are the same, but the technology has changed – from film cameras and a digital SLR to now using mirrorless cameras to shoot in the wild! Many people have also started using camera traps and remote controlled cameras. It is good for nature photography. More and more people are showing an interest in nature photography and tourism. There is more attention for Wildlife Day or Tiger Day. Social media has also contributed to the popularity of wildlife photography.
But at the same time, the number of species has started to decrease since I started 19 years ago. The threat to wild animals has increased. It is important to preserve habitats to balance biodiversity. Unregulated tourism also takes a heavy toll on wildlife and forests. It is not enough to take beautiful pictures. That said, we can use the images as a great resource to preserve nature. We have fast focus lenses and mirrorless cameras so you don’t miss a thing in the wild. So technologically, we have great things to do for wildlife photography.
T+L India: What were some challenges you faced when entering this field, especially as a woman?
Rathika Ramasamy: Fortunately, animals are not gender biased. Our forests are safe, so photographing the forests is a breeze. But if you are mentally and physically strong, there are of course no problems. [One challenge is that] it’s not a nine to five job. It’s also a challenge to adapt to places where only basic amenities are available. The extreme weather conditions can also be severe. There is a lot of equipment that you have to wear for long hours. In the beginning it was very hard to be in the field all day. Once you get used to it, it’s fine.
Being a homebody, being away from home and traveling a lot is also difficult. It’s all part of the job. When people see your work portfolio, and if you’re good, no one sees you as a “woman” or “man.”
T+L India: You are also the founder of RR Foundation for Wildlife Conservation (RRFWC). Tell us more about the NGO.
Rathika Ramasamy: Our motto is to save nature for the future. I have conducted free workshops and conservation talks at colleges and universities for the past 15 years. I thought it was time to give back to the wild and reach more people, and so RR Foundation for Nature Conservation (RRFWC) had been formed. We want to make the young generation aware of wildlife and educate about the importance of nature conservation. We want to show the necessity of preserving the world by using photos as a medium. We provide free workshops for children aged 14 to 25 to teach them the importance of biodiversity and sustainability. We want to promote conservation by ensuring livelihood development for local communities.
T+L India: Wildlife photography can be a lonely profession that requires hours of patience. How do you deal with this mentally?
Rathika Ramasamy: The basic requirement for nature photography should be passion for nature. Sometimes you don’t meet anyone in the woods for hours. In these hours one has to enjoy the environment, otherwise it becomes very heavy. I love nature and feel blessed to be in the forest. I like having the chance to watch animals and be close to them. I see photography as a medium to connect with Mother Nature. For me it is like meditation. I feel calm and focused. As a nature loving person I don’t see it as a problem. Nature photography is not for someone who can’t get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. I can even handle 30 days!
T+L India: Tell us about some of your most challenging shoots in the wild. Where and how was the shooting done?
Rathika Ramasamy: Most bird photography requires a lot of walking. Choosing a challenging shoot is difficult. One that comes to mind is from a few years ago when I was shooting in Sikkim. I think we were 7,000-8,000 feet above sea level, trying to capture the Himalayan Monal. The first day we were 5,000 feet above ground level. After that, the oxygen content also decreased. I also had my 800 meter lens with me. We finally reached on the fourth or fifth day! The place also had no real hotel. We weren’t sure if the homestay would have food or not let alone space to take a proper shower! It was very exhausting.
T+L India: Have you experienced difficult or scary situations in the wild? How do you ensure your safety?
Rathika Ramasamy: When we enter national parks and tiger reserves, it can be tough. When booking safaris we have to sign a release certificate. It’s a form that says that if something happens in the forest, the government is not responsible. Ultimately, we are dealing with wild animals.
I come across many venomous snakes while hiking on nature trails for bird watching. Once, in 2000, I was walking around Jim Corbett National Park. I wanted to see a tiger. We came to a narrow road with a thick forest on one side and a river on the other. Suddenly I saw an elephant charging towards my vehicle. The driver started backing up, but to our relief the elephant turned and went the other way. That was very scary! In a split second, the elephant could have thrown our vehicle into the valley. People say tigers and lions are dangerous, but elephants can be worse. We have to be very careful.
T+L India: With the rise of social media, do you see a shift in the mindset and imagery of photographers?
Rathika Ramasamy: If you like to show your work, you have to rely on print media. With the internet, you can easily focus on your work through a website, photography forums, and social networking sites. In the past, questions came via the website. Now, people are posting on social media DMs. So the way of approaching the customer has also changed. It is very interesting because audience marketing is necessary to reach the intended audience. People no longer search on Google; they use Instagram. Social media is great for marketing as an artist.
For me, social media helps me reach more people and become more popular. People show an interest in birds, mammals and marine photography. This is a good thing! New-age photographers tend to take photos for documentation. It is a more dynamic medium.
At the same time, if one wants to remain consistent in the field, professional and commercial success must be sought outside of Instagram. Updating your website is also important. One must remain a content creator. Think of photography as an art form. I believe that you can enjoy photos best when you see them in print, especially wildlife photography. They should be on websites for future generations.
T+L India: How can one be more mindful and aware in the jungle?
Rathika Ramasamy: Expertise is very important. One must be observant. By spending more time in the forest, you will learn more about animals and birds. One must be calm and follow the rules of the local park. Respect the jungle and the forest. Follow the ethics of wildlife photography. If we respect them, they will reward us.
T+L India: Your favorite destination for wildlife photography?
Rathika Ramasamy: This is heavy! I like Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary for bird photography. For animals, it’s always Jim Corbett National Park. It is a beautiful landscape and the park never ceases to amaze me.
T+L India: A bucket list destination?
Rathika Ramasamy: I would like to visit the Amazon rainforest at least once in my life. Borneo and Malaysia are also on my bucket list.
T+L India: Advice for novice nature photographers?
Rathika Ramasamy: Look beyond tigers and elephants. We have many places and species that are yet to be documented. Join this field if you love wildlife and nature. Be thorough with the basics of photography. Expertise is important. You should be able to change your camera settings without looking through the viewfinder; it should be second nature to you. My advice is to specialize in wildlife photography if you have passion and perseverance. You will be rewarded with memorable photos. Try to be unique and consistent at the same time. If you love animals, nothing can stop you.