The name Ganesh Shankar is synonymous with nature photography that is creative, and has a strong art component. An engineer by profession, Ganesh has pursued wildlife photography for close to three decades. Over the years, his work moved from documenting natural history moments to abstract expressions of nature. He has won many awards, with his win (in the category ‘birds’) at the National History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 being the latest feather in his cap. He is one of the founders of Creative Nature Photography (CNP), a forum for wildlife photographers to share their creative, abstract and unique images of nature. Ganesh shares his work at naturelyrics.com.
When did you realise that nature photography was your vice? What early influences led to that?
I have spent my childhood years with my grandmother, in a small coastal village called Bada, near Byndoor, in Karnataka’s Udupi District. My grandmother took care of livestock. I often used to accompany her to the foothills of jungles in the Western Ghats, to bring our buffaloes back home. Those silent, pristine streams and mountains etched some lasting impressions on my mind. I grew up on stories about wildlife that my grandmother told me, about tigers attacking our cows. I also used to see lots of vultures then, though they aren’t many now. All these early experiences left a lasting impression, and nature became my subject. I bought my first point-and-shoot camera in 1993, to make images of the Western Ghats when on a trek. It became a serious hobby a few years later, when a classmate of mine educated me about SLR cameras, and bought one for me. Nature is my subject for everything now, be it natural history, or personified abstract works of subjects in nature.
Would you say you have a distinct style of photography? How did it come about?
I have worried about a signature style several years ago; now I don’t, and I do whatever I like to do. I just want to express my feelings and emotions without worrying about an audience for those creations. Image-making is now more of a monologue for me. I do share some of them, since a few viewers get some pleasure in seeing them.
Most art is open to interpretation, but your style is even more so. Viewers could interpret what you are saying in very different ways. Is it about what you want to convey, or what the audience perceives it to be?
As of now, the act of making an image is like smiling or weeping for me – should others care how I smile or weep? Grammar, correctness, and meanings, which others can relate to in my creations, are not important for me now. Every image I make means something to me for sure. For the others, they may or may not hold meaning. ‘Meaning’ loses it meaning beyond a point anyways! Currently, I don’t make my living selling my prints; I am fortunate to be in this situation, and I hope this continues.
You’ve often spoken about non-visual inspirations that have helped you create better visual stories. Could you shed some light on how they are all linked, and how they come together to help you make an image?
I think all art forms help achieve a similar purpose, of expressing our feelings and emotions; they differ merely in semantics or language. It is not difficult to draw parallels between two different forms of expressions. Silence in music may get represented as empty space in an image. Soothing, calm music may have its parallels in some shades of violets in an image. It is a very involved topic, and I am still learning. I love Da.Ra.Bendre’s poems a lot; they are very authentic experiences of life. I also draw inspiration from some of the works of Chandrashekhara Kambar, Gopalakrishna Adiga and Dr DVG’s Mankuthimmana Kagga. Life has been unnecessarily very hectic, I guess. Someday, I would like to go back to a small village where there are no cell phone towers or internet connections, and settle down there. For now, I would love to go alone to the seashore near my village, sit on a stone after sunset, and listen to a song like ‘Yaava Mohana’, penned by Gopalakrishna Adiga.
We know you revisit some of your favourite places, like Corbett and Bharatpur. What is it about these places? Any favourites in Karnataka?
I love photographing at the places where I have full freedom. The place need not be exotic. I have this freedom at Bharatpur. In Karnataka, I have enjoyed photographing at Daroji and Bhimgad a lot.
From destinations on the map to destinations on the internet – you founded Creative Nature Photography (CNP). How did that come about? What do you feel about CNP’s journey over the years?
CNP was founded by a few friends of mine – Vijay Mohan Raj, Shivakumar L, Pramod SV, Praveen P Mohandas, Ashwini Kumar Bhat, Shankar Kiragi and me. We co-founded it a little over eight years ago. At that time, we felt that ‘visions’ were drying up. We did not see novelty in nature photography. It had become monotonous, with the same ‘bird on a stick’ or ‘bird with a feed’, and of course, a tiger walking, sleeping, looking, or not doing anything at all. We wanted to encourage people to try and present visions that are very unique. We have come long way in that effort. The journey has been very fascinating.
At the start of our journey, I began to realise that the fear of judgment and creativity don’t go together. So we encouraged people to fearlessly post ‘their’ vision. Blurs, clutter, in-focus, out-of-focus, were all encouraged, as long as those images meant something in the minds and hearts of the member who posted them. It need not look good to the whole world. As I mentioned earlier too, in the world of art, there is nothing right or wrong. The other thing we ensured we didn’t do is to moderate an image before it showed up in our critique galleries. We felt that would be detrimental to the creative freedom of the poster. We wanted to err towards the so called ‘meaningless’ images rather than curtailing our members’ novel visions. We had immense learning from this small family of like-minded nature photographers.
The journey hasn’t been the smoothest. In the beginning, we often heard jokes “If the image is (accidentally?) blurred, post it on CNP, else post it on XYZ forum!” We laughed at and ignored those jokes. During the last eight years, the works of several CNP members have been showcased in various international publications and well-known contests. Today, I see the works of several young nature photographers in India whose current works are clearly influenced by the involved discussions we had around creative nature photography and art, on CNP.
As much as I love posting images on CNP, I sometimes feel that I don’t make many images that are worthy of the high standard the forum has evolved into over the years. This is very satisfying, and a challenging feeling for me. Fortunately, we have fresh new perspectives that flow in everyday, by this small family of CNP members.
While accolades have been aplenty, the recent and very notable one has been the WPOY for 2016. Could you share the story behind that image?
This image was an interesting natural history moment. When I saw this occurring, I decided to stay there longer, to make as many images of this interesting action as possible. I made a series of images for 2-3 days, staying put at that location. The parakeets use to come and attack the monitor lizard once in a while. The window of opportunity to photograph lasted just a couple of seconds during every attack. After the third day, the parakeets gave up!
It was a back-lit situation. So, I had to over-expose by about 2 stops to get the exposure right on the parakeets. This resulted in a white background, which I liked. It is puzzling to a lot of people, and in one of the online forums, a few people concluded that the image was heavily Photoshopped. I loved reading that!
I often use subjects in nature in very abstractly. I try to relate them to my personal experiences of life, and personify the subjects in nature. However, at times, when I see a compelling natural history moment, I document them too. This image is one of those.
I think you coined the term, and have maintained that you are a very proud ‘weekend warrior’. Do you consider, at some point, of pursuing only photography?
No, that phrase existed earlier; I was just one of the users of it. I have not thought about full-time photography yet. I am eagerly waiting for the day when I can pursue photography full-time, and yet not depend on it for my living; I am not sure how far away that day is! For now, I would love to compile some of the images I have made during the past 20+ years into a beautiful book, though. Let’s see.