Meet Ganesh H. Shankar
Photo Courtesy: Ganesh H. Shankar.
Winner of numerous awards from Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016, Birds Category (Natural History Museum, London) to first place in the macro category in Nature Photography Network, Ganesh H. Shankar is also the co-author of the book, Daroji – An Ecological Destination and the founding member of Creative Nature Photography, a popular online photography forum. He has also served on the jury of several photography awards including the Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2017. As a nature photographer, Shankar believes that his is a long and never-ending journey in search of art, and he is always on the lookout for forms, shapes, details, postures, light and more that is relatable to life’s experiences. His artistry is evident in his images that take the reader to a whole new level of visual experience. He speaks to Lakshmy Raman about his work and why he believes that photographers must choose to define the intent behind their imagery.
Why wildlife photography? How did you become interested in photography?
I completed my post-graduation in Computer Science and joined government service as a scientist. Though I am an engineer by profession, photography is my true passion. I took it up as a hobby over two decades ago. I bought my first point-and-shoot camera in 1993 to capture the beauty of the Western Ghats during a trek. A few years later, a classmate of mine introduced me to SLR cameras and bought one for me. I was hooked! I spent all my spare time exploring natural habitats and trying to capture some of its magic and glory. I taught myself the basics of nature photography by reading a series of books written by the great John Shaw.
Who were your influences while growing up?
I spent much of my childhood years with my grandmother in a small coastal village called Bada near Byndoor in the Udupi district of Karnataka. She truly played a key role in my love for nature. My grandmother had the task of managing the household livestock. I often accompanied her to the nearby foothills of the Western Ghats to bring back our cows and buffaloes. Those silent, pristine streams and mountains and valleys etched lasting impressions in my mind. I grew up listening wide-eyed to stories my grandmother regaled me with about tigers attacking our cows, about King Vultures and more. I often saw vultures in the wild then, but sadly they are now a rarity. All these early experiences moulded my interests and made me who I am today.
What excites you about being a photographer?
Photography satisfies my creative urge. It nourishes my soul. To me, the words nature photography go beyond our natural world – landscapes, seascapes, night skies and their denizens, though I do enjoy photographing these. Over the years I have shot thousands of such images trying to capture the colours, patterns, designs, behaviours, actions, and the mood and emotions they invoke. What I try to photograph these days is the very essence of life. Nature photography for me is everything the universe gives us – its laws, principles, the totality of all things that exist, the natural forces that exist, create and control the universe. Nothing that we humans have created so far is as mysterious, as magical, as mind blowing as ‘life’ is, be it in science or art that we have indulged in all these years. Next time you see a seed sprouting take a moment to think about the emerging new life! It will grow, new seeds will germinate, so will new sprouts during the next monsoon. It needs to be felt, not just seen. My work is very personal and as I said earlier, it serves my emotional needs. I enjoy portraying beauty from the artistic rendering of nature to philosophy now.
Photo: Ganesh H. Shankar.
What according to you makes a great photograph?
I think any photograph (and the photographer), great or otherwise, is not greater than the subject itself. That said, I asked this question myself a few years ago. I turned to Google then. If you searched for the ‘greatest photographs’ you will see several lists popping up – ‘Top 10 greatest photographs’, ‘20 of the greatest, most iconic photos ever taken’ and so on. Of these lists, 99 per cent of photographs portray war atrocities, human suffering, racial discrimination, misery… basically, themes around death. I have not seen any lists that include a beautiful mountain or a stunning waterfall.
Why is this? I think Darwin answered this – survival. Subjects around survival of the human species and morality take precedence over everything else that gets photographed. We love ourselves more than any other subject. ”The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and (Edward) Weston are photographing rocks!” This is what Henry Cartier Bresson said about acclaimed photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. If we interchange the subjects in Kevin Carter’s ‘Famine in Sudan’, to one of a dying vulture and an onlooker, would it have won the Pulitzer prize? At best, it would have become yet another ‘conservation photograph’ and been forgotten the next day.
It is not that that I am unmoved by photographs of human suffering. However, the formula of depicting misery and human suffering to make a ‘great’ photograph is not one that I agree with. At the same time, as a nature photographer who currently enjoys wondering about the mysteries of nature in the micro and macro universe, I will not categorise a ‘great photograph’ as in doing so I am sure to exclude categories that I am not familiar with or which are not as popular.
You have spent hours and hours out in the field. What has been your toughest moment?
I hate being stuck amidst 50 tiger chasing safari gypsies in our national parks. I consciously try to avoid spots where tigers are found in popular parks such as Corbett. I do enjoy photographing the majestic tiger but just not in the crazy melee that ensues when a tiger is spotted. I wish all visitors to the park learned to behave from the wildlife they come to see.
Is there one wildlife image you have taken that is particularly dear to you?
Honestly none! I have taken tens of thousands of images and each image made sense to me when I shot it and may or may not necessarily now. My images reflect my changing interests over time.
You have photographed several wildernesses. Do you have a favourite destination?
As I mentioned earlier, I stay away from crowded places. I love photographing where I have the freedom to explore. It need not be an exotic destination. That’s why I enjoy spending time in Bharatpur National Park and some pristine areas of the Western Ghats. I have not photographed much outside of India. My subjects range from a falling leaf to an ant to an elephant. Any place is good if I can be alone and think peacefully.
How do you plan for a photography trip?
I visit a few parks every year. If I am visiting an area for the first time, I research the work of other photographers to better understand the opportunities and the kind of visuals I may be able to make.
What kind of equipment do you use?
I started with a point-and-shoot film camera and later bought a Nikon N70 and a Nikon F5, which mainly used slides (Fuji Velvia/Provia 100F). I then switched to digital in 2005 when I bought a Nikon D200, D300, D700, D800E, D810, and a 4x5 large format view camera. I use all kinds of lenses from 11 mm. to 600 mm. f/4, and a variety of special equipment.
What are your must-have essentials as a photographer?
For me, it is solitude and peace of mind in the field.
Photo: Ganesh H. Shankar.
What is your opinion regarding the wildlife photography scene in India?
It is great to see a phenomenal increase in new and skilled photographers now, especially very talented young minds.
And your thoughts on the increasing use of technology to manipulate images?
Digital ethics is a slippery topic. What was strictly no-no a decade ago when digital technology took off is an accepted first step in post processing (for example cropping, noise removal, local contrast/brightness adjustments and so on). Whatever is not acceptable today may become acceptable a few years from now. So, it is all relative. I strongly believe that in nature photography we need not faithfully represent what we see. It is not possible to represent the way we see due to technological limitations. What the human eye sees is very different from what is seen through a 600 mm. f/4 lens. Similarly, the use of different flashes, colour gels, shift lenses and other optical manipulations have been accepted due to photographic legacy. We criticise post processing and debate digital manipulation, then why not a debate on optical manipulation? Both are manipulations of reality.
However, that does not mean I think cropping a tiger’s head from an image and placing it on a lion’s is fine. That is a strict no today and will always be so. I am talking about options such as using limitations of recording mediums to our advantages, creative cropping, choosing perspectives, which are readily not apparent to name a few. To summarise, options which go beyond just plain seeing to seeing through our minds.
Could you give us an example?
Take for example my image of a tailed jay butterfly hovering over a flower to sip nectar. I wanted to portray this artistically and decided on very slow shutter speed. I positioned the camera in such a way as to get the shadow of a tree in the background. Due to the constraints of the recording medium, the background appeared black. This is a perfect example of the limitation of the medium even as I used it for artistic merit. If I do not state that the fume-like green parts are the flapping wings of a tailed jay butterfly hovering over a flower, most people would not know. Further, for the plain seeing through 50 mm. eyes of a human being, the composition as presented is not very apparent. One of the lessons I have learnt over the years is to always look through the lens! You learn this only through experience.
Photo: Ganesh H. Shankar.
What about unethical behaviour by some photographers who pick up frogs or snakes and place them against more interesting backgrounds for a better image? Can that be justified as creativity?
Absolutely not. Following an ethical compass in every aspect of your life is vital. I have come across images where nests are physically placed before the photograph was taken or cut/pasted in photoshop. The former is a crime and the latter is unethical if not disclosed. Photographers often fail to mention the intent of their work – if your goal is to capture and celebrate natural history, then follow the ethical requirements for that. If your intent is more artistic, perhaps to capture the curves of an elephant’s back and this is best served in a monochrome rendition with some post processing, then that is equally fair to do so in my view.
The aim should not be to take an image and then manipulate it to be the best or adjust the scene to suit your needs… but rather challenge yourself to become a better photographer. Worship the subject through your image… not the image or the photographer.
How important is it to use photography for conservation?
For me that is a given. Photographs can make a huge difference – camera-trap images are providing us glimpses of life in inaccessible areas, stunning visuals can convince policy makers of the importance of preserving habitats and images of roadkills or abused animals can stir emotions that could translate into action. Photographs must stir emotions – whether it is joy, sadness or anger – it must have the power to move. I also believe that photographs serve to meet the photographer’s own emotional needs. I do make images that I don’t share with anyone – they are for me, almost like breathing for myself.
What is your message to young photographers?
Please think before pressing the shutter. When in doubt, don’t press the shutter. All about seeing can’t be expressed in words and a lot of it is personal. Sometimes when we see nature or wildlife around us, the feeling we get may be very difficult to express. But we may be able to translate some of it into images in our own way. I think the key is to spend time in thinking, exploring possibilities, and pre-visualising. In the field, if we run behind a bird to make a close portrait, we will not achieve our goal of making lasting images.
Check out selected images from Ganesh H. Shankar’s work at www.sanctuaryasia.com. His complete works are available at www.naturelyrics.com
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 10, October 2017.