In a male-dominated industry, Rathika Ramasamy is leading the charge as India’s first female wildlife photographer. Whether it’s battling tough situations in the jungle or choosing his favorite destinations for wildlife photography, the intrepid photographer puts up with it all to Travel + Leisure India & South Asia. By Bayar Jain
Excerpts from the interview with Rathika Ramasamy:
T+L India: You are often considered India’s first female wildlife photographer. How did you get into this creative field?
Rathika Ramasamy: My interest in photography started as a hobby in school. Since then, it has become a passion. My dad gave me a camera when I was in high school. I would photograph everything – my garden, the flowers, the trees and even the sweets my parents bought! My camera was my constant companion when traveling. I was interested in all kinds of photography, but the experience of being outside in nature led me to specialize in this genre, especially bird photography. It’s challenging, engaging and interesting to learn too.
It all started around 2003 when I had the opportunity to visit Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. After seeing the birds, I wanted to capture them [in a photograph] so that I can enjoy seeing them again. I was also living in New Delhi at the time. I was surrounded by birds, sanctuaries and national parks which were the main route for migrating birds. It gave me the opportunity to photograph birds and specialize in bird photography. It’s been 19 years, and there’s no turning back. The trip is going wonderfully!
T+L India: Over the years, what changes have you noticed in wildlife photography?
Rathika Ramasamy: Of course, the subjects are the same, but the technology has changed – from film cameras and a digital SLR, to using mirrorless cameras for shooting in nature! Many people have also started using camera traps and remote control cameras. It is good for wildlife photography. More and more people are interested in wildlife photography and tourism. There is more awareness for Wildlife Day or Tiger Day. Social media has also helped increase the popularity of wildlife photography.
But at the same time, the number of species has started to decline since I started 19 years ago. The threat of wildlife increased. It is important to conserve habitats to balance biodiversity. Unregulated tourism also takes a heavy toll on wildlife and forests. It is not enough to take beautiful photos. That said, we can use images as a great tool for conserving nature. We have fast focus lenses and mirrorless cameras, so you won’t miss a thing in nature. So technologically, we have great things going on for wildlife photography.
T+L India: What were the challenges you faced entering this field, especially as a woman?
Rathika Ramasamy: Fortunately, animals are not sexist. Our forests are safe, so photographing the forests is a smooth ride. But, of course, if you are mentally and physically strong, there will be no problems. [One challenge is that] it’s not a nine-to-five job. It is also difficult to adapt to places where only basic amenities are available. Extreme weather conditions can also be difficult. There are a lot of gears that you have to carry around for long hours. At the beginning, it was very difficult to be on the pitch 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 a “man.”
T+L India: You are also the founder of the RR Foundation for Wildlife Conservation (RRFWC). Tell us about the NGO.
Rathika Ramasamy: Our motto is to save nature for the future. I have been leading free workshops and conferences on conservation at colleges and universities for 15 years. I thought it was time to give back to nature and reach more people, and so RR Foundation for Wildlife Conservation (RRFWC) was formed. We want to educate the younger generation about wildlife and educate them on the importance of wildlife conservation. We want to show how it is a necessity to support the world, using photography as a medium. We run free workshops for kids ages 14-25 to teach them about the importance of biodiversity and sustainability. We want to promote wildlife conservation by safeguarding the development of the livelihoods of local communities.
T+L India: Wildlife photography can be a lonely job that requires hours of patience. How do you deal with that mentally?
Rathika Ramasamy: The basic prerequisite for wildlife photography should be a passion for nature. Sometimes you won’t meet anyone in the forest for hours. At these hours, you have to take advantage of the surroundings otherwise it will be very hard. I love nature and feel blessed to be in the forest. I love having the opportunity to observe animals and be in close contact with them. I see photography as a way to connect with Mother Nature. For me, it’s like meditation. I feel calm and focused. Being a nature lover, I don’t see that as a problem. Wildlife photography is not for someone who cannot be far from the hustle and bustle of city life. I can manage even 30 days!
T+L India: Tell us about some of your toughest nature shoots. Where and how was it shot?
Rathika Ramasamy: Most bird photography requires a lot of walking. Choosing a difficult shoot is difficult. The one that comes to mind is from a few years ago when I was filming in Sikkim. I think we were 7000-8000 feet above sea level trying to capture the Himalayan Monal. The first day we were 5,000 feet above the ground. After that, oxygen levels also dropped. I also wore my 800 meter goal. We finally only reached the fourth or fifth day! The place didn’t have a proper hotel either. We weren’t sure if the host family would have food or not, let alone space to take a good shower! It was very exhausting.
T+L India: Have you faced difficult or scary situations in nature? How do you ensure your safety?
Rathika Ramasamy: When we enter national parks and tiger reserves, it can be difficult. We have to sign indemnification bonds when booking game drives. It’s a form that says if something happens inside the forest, the government is not responsible. Ultimately, we are dealing with wild animals.
I encounter many poisonous snakes while walking on natural birding trails. Once, in 2000, I was walking Jim Corbett National Park. I wanted to see a tiger. We reached a narrow road where on one side was a thick forest and on the other a river. Suddenly, I saw an elephant rush towards my vehicle. The driver started backing up but to our relief the elephant turned around and drove off the other way. It was very scary! In a fraction of a 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 change in the mindset and imagery of photographers?
Rathika Ramasamy: If you enjoy showcasing your work, you will have to depend on the print media. With the internet, it’s easy to focus on your work through a website, photography forums, and social networking sites. Previously, requests came from the website. Now people are messaging on social media DMs. Thus, the way of approaching the customer has also changed. This is very interesting because target audience marketing is necessary to reach the target 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 are interested in birds, mammals and marine photography. This is a good thing! New-age photographers tend to shoot for documentation. It is a more dynamic medium.
At the same time, if one wants to remain consistent in the field, then professional and business success must be sought outside of Instagram. Updating your website is also important. You have to be a content creator. Treat photography as an art form. I believe photographs are best appreciated when printed, especially wildlife photography. They need to be on websites for future generations.
T+L India: How can we be more attentive and aware in the jungle?
Rathika Ramasamy: Knowledge of the subject is very important. You have to be observant. Spending more time in the forest allows you to learn more about animals and birds. Be calm and follow local park rules. 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: It’s hard ! I love Bharatpur bird sanctuary for bird photography. For animals, it’s still Jim Corbett National Park. It’s 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 to-do list.
T+L India: Any advice for budding wildlife photographers?
Rathika Ramasamy: Look beyond the tigers and elephants. We still have many places and species to document. Join this area if you love wildlife and nature. Be thorough with the basics of photography. Knowledge of the subject matter 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 photographs. At the same time, try to be unique and consistent. If you love animals, nothing can stop you.