In an industry dominated by men, Rathika Ramasamy leads the charge as India’s first female wildlife photographer. From battling sticky situations in the jungle to choosing her favorite wildlife photography destinations, the intrepid photographer handles it all. Travel + Leisure India and South Asia. By Pay Jain
Excerpts from the interview with Rathika Ramasamy:
T+L India: You are often credited as 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 father gave me a movie camera when he was in high school. He would take photos of everything: my home garden, flowers, trees, and even the sweets my parents bought! My camera was my constant companion whenever 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, particularly bird photography. It is challenging, captivating and interesting to learn as well.
It all started around 2003 when I had a chance to visit the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. After seeing the birds, I wanted to capture them. [in a photograph] so that I could enjoy seeing them again. She was also living in New Delhi at the time. It was surrounded by bird sanctuaries and national parks that were the main route for migratory birds. This gave me the opportunity to photograph birds and specialize in bird photography. 19 years have passed since then, and there is no going 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, mirrorless cameras are now used for nature photography! Many people have also started using camera traps and remote control cameras. It is good for wildlife photography. More people are showing interest in wildlife photography and tourism. There is more awareness about 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 to wildlife has increased. It is important to conserve habitats to balance biodiversity. Unregulated tourism is also taking 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 to conserve nature. We have fast-focus lenses and mirrorless cameras, so you don’t miss a thing in nature. So technology-wise, we have some great things going on for wildlife photography.
T+L India: What were some of the challenges you faced entering this field, particularly as a woman?
Rathika Ramasamy: Fortunately, animals do not have gender bias. 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 problem. [One challenge is that] It’s not a nine to five job. It is also a challenge to adapt to places where only basic services are available. Extreme weather conditions can also be difficult. There is a lot of equipment that you have to carry for long hours. At 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 profession. When people come to see your portfolio of work, and if you are good, no one sees you as a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’.
T+L India: He is also the founder of the 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 been running free workshops and conservation talks at colleges and universities for the last 15 years. I thought it was time to give back to nature and reach more people, and so RR Foundation for Wildlife Conservation (RRFWC) It was formed. We want to raise awareness among the young generation about wildlife and educate about the importance of wildlife conservation. We want to show how it is a necessity to sustain the world, using photographs as a medium. We run free workshops for children ages 14 to 25 to teach them the importance of biodiversity and sustainability. We want to promote wildlife conservation by safeguarding livelihood developments 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 prerequisite for wildlife photography should be a passion for nature. Sometimes you won’t find anyone in the woods for hours. In these hours you have to enjoy the environment, otherwise it will be very hard. I like nature and I feel blessed to be in the forest. I like having the opportunity to observe animals and be close to them. I see photography as a means to connect with Mother Nature. For me, it’s like meditation. I feel calm and focused. Being a person who loves nature, I don’t see it as a problem. Wildlife photography is not meant for someone who cannot be far from the hustle and bustle of city life. I can drive up to 30 days!
T+L India: Tell us about some of your most challenging shoots in the wild. Where and how was it shot?
Rathika Ramasamy: Most bird photography requires a lot of walking. Picking a challenging session is hard. One that comes to mind is from a few years ago when I was filming in Sikkim. I think we were 7,000 or 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 levels also dropped. I also carried my 800 meter lens. We finally made it to only the fourth or fifth day! The place also did not have a proper hotel. We weren’t sure if the homestay would have food or not, let alone room to take a proper shower! It was very exhausting.
T+L India: Have you faced difficult or frightening situations while out in nature? How do you ensure your safety?
Rathika Ramasamy: When we enter national parks and tiger reserves, it can be difficult. We need to sign indemnity bonds at the safari booking. It is a form that says that if something happens inside the forest, the government is not responsible. At the end of the day, we are dealing with wild animals.
I come across many poisonous snakes while walking on nature trails to watch birds. Once, in 2000, I was hiking through Jim Corbett National Park. I really wanted to see a tiger. We came to a narrow path where there was a thick forest on one side and a river on the other. Suddenly, I saw an elephant charging towards my vehicle. The driver started to back up, but to our relief, the elephant turned around and went the other way. That was very scary! In a fraction of a second, the elephant could have thrown our vehicle down the valley. People say that 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 images of photographers?
Rathika Ramasamy: If you like to showcase your work, you will have to rely on print media. With the Internet, it’s easy to focus on your work through a website, photography forums, and social networking sites. Previously, inquiries would come through the website. Now, people send messages in the DMs of social networks. So the way of approaching the customer has also changed. It is very interesting because it takes target audience marketing to reach the target audience. People no longer search on Google; they are using Instagram. Social media is great for marketing as an artist.
For me, social media helps me reach more people and be more popular. People are showing 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 stay consistent in the field, then professional and business success must be sought outside of Instagram. Updating your website is also important. One must remain a content creator. Treat photography as an art form. I find that photographs are best enjoyed when viewed in print, especially wildlife photography. They should be on websites for future generations.
T+L India: How can you be more attentive and aware in the jungle?
Rathika Ramasamy: Knowledge of the subject is very important. One has to be observant. Spending more time in the forest helps to learn more about the 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 hard! I love 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 love to visit the Amazon rainforest at least once in my life. Borneo and Malaysia are also on my wish list.
T+L India: Any tips for budding wildlife photographers?
Rathika Ramasamy: Look beyond tigers and elephants. We have many places and species yet to document. Join this camp if you love wildlife and nature. Be thorough with the basics of photography. Knowledge of the subject 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. At the same time, try to be unique and consistent. If you love animals, nothing can stop you.
Related: Learn All About Wildlife Photography From T+L India A-List Member Latika Nath