Kalyan Varma. The name immediately brings to one’s mind a charismatic young man who gave up a thriving career in IT to pursue his passion – wildlife. Over the years, with his body of work, and with a few awards under his belt, he has become an icon for anyone who aspires to make such a switch. Kalyan uses the power of photography to create awareness about conservation issues and his images have been instrumental in influencing decisions taken by governments. In this interview, meet Kalyan the wildlife photographer and filmmaker.

  1. From a corporate set-up to wildlife, how did you make the leap? You were one of the first to make a switch like that and have inspired many to follow their dreams.

I do not draw the distinction like that at all. Sure, I was in a corporate set-up, but I really enjoyed my work there and was working because I was doing what I loved and the company encouraged that. I always loved wildlife and started spending more and more time in forests. The shift actually started out as a sabbatical, to do something totally different for a few months and then get back to my job. But that was more than 10 years ago, and I never went back.

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Photographing hornbills from a hide in Pakke Tiger Reserve – 2011

  1. How was your experience working as a naturalist? Has that connect with BR Hills stayed on with you?

When I took the sabbatical, it was in BR Hills that I started working as a naturalist. Since it was the first place where I spent many months and learnt the fundamentals of natural history, the place has always remained close to me. While working there, I engaged with local communities and NGOs. Even today, I work with them actively and if all goes well, the plan is to shift there some day.

Since my time there 10 years ago, BR Hills has always been and will be the core of my work. During this time, we have setup a community-based ecotourism resort and have worked on community rights for the local people. I have to thank JLR for giving me that platform to pursue my passion.

This image reveals a worker jumping ant Harpegnathos saltator murdering the queen. The queen had just torn off her own wings after a successful mating and was scouring the forest floor in search for a suitable nest site. Though this de-alated queen was 'murdered', a large number of her sisters successfully established nests, thus completing their life's mission - passing on the colony's genes.

Photographed in BR Hills, this image of a worker Jumping Ant – Harpegnathos saltator – murdering the queen won Kalyan Varma the Sanctuary Asia Photographer of the Year award in 2005 and BBC’s Best of 2008 in BBC Wildlife Magazine.

  1. You have worked extensively in the Western Ghats; what is it that lures you to these parts?

Everything! We are blessed to be in Bangalore. With just a few hours’ drive to the west, we are in one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, and we still know so little about it. Imagine the fact that you could bump into a new species of frog one day or the fact that in a two-meter radius around you, there could be a few thousand different creatures.

It is imperative for all of us to understand how important the Ghats are to people, especially in South India, where our lives, livelihoods, climate and water security are dependent on the mountain range. I can never get enough of the Western Ghats.

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One of Kalyan’s earliest and most memorable images – a Bonnet Macaque troop from BR Hills

  1. Your recent work on the elephants of Hassan was lauded and widely viewed. It must have been a very moving experience witnessing that first hand. How was it to be on the field documenting it?

It was almost an accidental encounter. I have been reading about the Hassan elephant issue for a while now, but when I hit the ground to document the capture of the elephants, everything broke down. The very first capture, which lasted over 6 hours, was one of the largest tuskers ever caught. The resilience of the elephant and the end of its wild spirit took its mental and psychological toll on me. I remember I was there with my friends and all of us were literally crying for the elephant.

I was there for subsequent captures too and during one of those captures, the local villagers were angry with me for only caring for the big giants, and heckled me. This is when I spent the next few months with the people to understand their side of the story. Both the elephants and the people have suffered a lot.

This is often too common in conservation. It is a good vs good issue, it is impossible to take sides, and the worst thing to do is to pit one against the other. This is where it has to be a long-term engagement and with NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation) starting work there, I hope there will be some light at the end of the tunnel.

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  1. You’ve spent a lot of time with elephants on the field. Is there one memorable moment you would like to share with us?

I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time with elephants, both in well-known parks, and outside parks, like in Valparai. But one moment that stayed with me in recent times was again in Hassan. It was amazing to see the relationship between the wild elephants that were being caught and the capture Kumkis (Tamil name for captive, trained elephants) that were being used to catch the wild ones.

The Kumkis have been trained to push, nudge and poke the wild captured elephants on the instructions of the mahout. But when the mahouts were out, these elephants would walk up by themselves to the captured elephants and comfort them by caressing their foreheads with their trunks, and then sliding their trunk in the anguished elephants’ mouths. For me, this display of empathy between the elephants was stronger than some human bonds.

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The Kumki Abhimanyu tries to calm the captured tusker by sliding his trunk into the elephant’s mouth.

  1. You have been a voice for sharing work through Creative Commons. How has this influenced your career?

Before getting into photography, I was actively involved with free and open-source hacking culture – a culture that challenged the traditional, closed systems of software and in the process created some of the best OS and software in the world. After I started photography, it was obvious to me that the same culture was needed.

Traditional systems asked photographers to never put up their work, else people would steal it. But we need to learn a thing or two from other art forms. Take movies and music for example. Even with wide-spread piracy, movies make money in billions of dollars and with free music online, all the artists are making more money than ever before. And this is not just about finances, but the fact that people have easy access to works of art.

The traditional models of photography are dead and people need to invent new ways of putting their work out. Not only will it increase the value of the photographer, but also when others use the photos and create a body of work, there is nothing more satisfying than that.

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Speaking on the topic ‘Free Art is Profitable’ at INK Talks, Jaipur – 2011

  1. Your images have often played a crucial role in turning around or implementing policies. Do you believe photography has a strong role to play in conservation?

I want my work to be a part of the conversation in environmental and social issues, and to be engaged with the world on a deeply serious level. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. I don’t want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the equipment. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of issues that I photograph.

So yes, photography is not just about taking pretty photographs, but is about a medium to communicate. With our environment in the state that it is in, we will need more and more nature photographers to come up and highlight both the good and the bad, so that we can actually protect these forests.

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Kalyan’s documentation of the lives of the endangered Lion-tailed Macaques in Valparai drew the attention of the authorities to their plight.

  1. What is your view on photographers crossing the line for the sake of an image? How can one follow ethical nature photography?

I think photography is one of the most honest mediums. When you photograph something, it is not for fame and awards, but for yourself, to keep a record of how amazing nature is. It upsets me a lot when photographers cross the line for that perfect photograph. I must say, I am guilty too, but as time goes by, we learn and I hope other photographers do too and eventually photograph in way where it does not affect the natural world of the wildlife we are photographing.

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Kalyan shot these two aerial photographs to portray why conservation in India is so hard. As per government records, some 350-400 million people depend on the forests and yet about 22% of India is still under forest cover.

  1. INW is synonymous with wildlife photography in India and the forum is now ten years old. Looking back, is this how you envisioned the wildlife photography scene to pan out?

When I started wildlife photography more than a decade ago, there was no Facebook, Instagram or Flickr. Many photographers in India were making wonderful images, but had no platform to share them. Besides, the wildlife photography community was very small back then and we could make do with a mailing list where we used to share images.

At some point, I and my three other co-founders (Sudhir, Yathin and Vijay) got thinking that we needed a web platform for people to share their wildlife images and build a community around it. What started small has now become one of the largest wildlife photography platforms in the world. We have over 10,000 active users now who post few hundred photographs daily. But more than the photographs themselves, INW created this amazing community of wildlife photographers. People share ideas, locations and plan trips together. 

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An image from the series ‘When a Million Turtles Land’, a documentation of the mass nesting of Olive Ridley Turtles, Odisha – 2015

  1. NIF has had two successful runs now. What was the idea behind this venture and how are you planning to take it forward from here?

NIF started as an extension of INW. I attend many wildlife conferences abroad and have realised over time is that they are great platforms to experience new work and to interact with the professionals in the industry. The photography landscape is changing all the time and conferences like these give you a fresh perspective. We do not have anything like that in India and when I was discussing this issue with Rohit Varma, he was enthusiastic about doing it. That’s how NIF came about. After 2 years, we are very happy with how it has shaped up. We eventually want to spin it as non-profit, and make it a community-based annual event.

  1. You have been a part of many landmark BBC films – projects that spanned across a few years. How was your experience working on such productions? Waiting months to get probably 20 seconds of footage must require a very different mindset, besides meticulous planning?

I was inspired to pursue wildlife photography after watching countless hours of nature documentaries, mostly hosted by the incredible David Attenborough. While watching them, I always thought that it would be amazing to be a part of the filming team. Thankfully, 8 years ago, that dream came true when BBC asked me to work for them. Since then, I have worked on many blue-chip programs for both BBC and National Geographic. 

Working with them has been a fabulous ride. Yes, it is a long process. Typically for one hour of final film, it takes many months of paperwork, elaborate background set-up, hundreds of hours in the field and finally a few more months in the editing room. I mostly spend time in the field and the waiting game can really break you. But for me, that’s the best part – heading out each day not knowing what you will get and being able to go out with an open mind.

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Filming from a hide in Kutch for BBC Wonders of the Monsoon series. Kalyan spent a month in that hide to film fox pups as they grew up – 2014

  1. Is there any species/landscape that you are longing to photograph? What’s on top of your wish-list right now?

Tough to answer. I am generally biased towards rainforests, so the two places on the top of my list are Papua & New Guinea and Congo. Both places are politically unstable and I wonder when I will get to go visit them. Meanwhile, there is so much more to explore within India itself. But I am hoping to visit Namibia and Mongolia in the next few months.

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This image of a Cheetah hunting down a young Impala won Kalyan the first prize in the category Animal Behaviour at the Por el Planeta awards – 2015

  1. Who are your favourite photographers and filmmakers? Whose work do you admire the most?

The one person, who has influenced me a lot in my wildlife photography career has been Michael ’Nick’ Nichols. I love his style of photography and for close to 15 years, I have admired and followed his remarkable work. But there are so many more people today. Photographers like Steve Winter, Paul Nicklen and filmmakers like Rolf Stienmann and others have inspired me with their work and commitment for wildlife.

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This image of the seed of an Andaman Redwood (Pterocarpus dalbergioides) was ‘Commended’ in the NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest in the category Botanical Realms – 2013

  1. Peepli is one of the best platforms today for relevant and good conservation reporting. How has this format of story telling influenced your work?

I think the idea of long-form visual journalism has finally come of age. When we work on documenting an issue, we usually spend a lot of time – talking to people, researching, photographing and discovering. Most often, people go through the process, come back, and report the findings in form of an article. With Peepli, we tried to take the reader along as a part of the discovery process, to learn and understand issues at the same time that we learn ourselves and I think in this way people can really understand the intricate and delicate sides to environment issues.

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Filming BBC Life Stories in Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar – 2012

  1. What next? What projects are you working on?

I am hoping to engage more in the areas of climate-change (not the sea level issues, but how it impacts everyone), environmental rights and community conservation related issues. The work will be both in terms of reporting on these issues and also some ground level grassroots programs to help solve many of the problems.