Interview with Wildlife Photographer Jayanth Sharma
About Jayanth Sharma
I don’t think Jayanth Sharma needs an introduction from me. He is a wildlife photographer who has won several awards and CEO of Toehold. In his wildlife photography, he adds a dimension of conservation of animals he photographs, and that makes his work unique. When I was studying his work, I was amazed by the different types of photographs he has taken, the techniques he has used and, more importantly, the reason he photographs the wild. Through his images, he achieves what he intends to achieve — to touch the hearts of the others by making us aware of the beauty of life on our planet. And his company Toehold does a great job in helping people travel and motivating them to add value to their lives. His answers show the depth of passion in his work. I am sure these questions will help you understand him and his work. It will make you think about your photography from a different angle.
How did you start photography? What motivated you? When you look back now, how do you think your photography has matured over the years and influenced your life?
My father is a photographer and used to run a studio, so I grew up with a camera in my hands. When I got introduced to wildlife, I was simply swept away by the charm of it, and it was a no-brainer to connect the two. Photography has pushed me to explore new places and discover new experiences that I may not have bothered without it.
You have bagged several wildlife photography awards. Please share some of them and tell us why you like those images.
I actually seldom enter photography contests, but one image that comes to mind is the silhouette of a charging Asian elephant I made on the banks of the Kabini river in Nagarahole National Park in 2006. I like it because it was made with a very inexpensive lens, so it was a result more of technique and natural history knowledge than any technological wizardry.
How important is winning awards in photography? How do you choose the right image to send for contests?
Awards can be both a boon and a bane, and it all depends really on what you make of them. Boon because it gets you recognition and encouragement, which can help you keep at your passion especially in light of the challenges inherent to photography, but bane because they can also prevent you from enjoying photography just for the sake of it without expecting a reward additional to the pleasure of photography itself.
The choice of image for a contest really depends on the contest itself; different contests tend to have different ‘psyches’. When entering a contest, it’s important to peek a bit into the history of the contest and see what types of images they tend most to honour. But generally what most contests look for is a synergy between content and presentation; between uniqueness and aesthetics. Most of all, the image should be able to bring a judge to a pause.
Hummingbirds are difficult to photograph because of their speed and quick movements. Could you explain the multi-flash technique to photograph Hummingbird?
Yes. Hummingbirds are blazingly fast, with a wing-beat speed of more than 10 times a second. The multi-flash setup we use lights the scene from various directions to ensure there’s sufficient light to freeze the motion while also letting us use a small aperture and achieve adequate depth of field for the whole bird to be in focus and extract exquisite detail from their colourful plumes.
In the field, it might be difficult to find the subjects to photograph. Do you study something about the animals such as habitat or behavior? How important is it in wildlife photography?
It’s critical of course to learn about your subjects to have some sense of what you’re going after. This doesn’t mean you need to have in-depth academic knowledge; just the basics will help. The key is interest and love. The more interested and curious you are about the subject you intend to photograph, the more you’re in love with it, the more you’ll learn about it and the better placed you’ll be to be in the right place at the right time and prepared to take the picture that matters.
It was virtually impossible to check all your images as there are so many of them. It is difficult to avoid taking the same type of photographs especially when the subject is same. What are the creative challenges you face to take different sorts of photographs?
Well, I think creativity for the sake of it doesn’t work. It has to be the result of your longing to portray something in a unique way; it must be a product of the wanderings of your mind’s eyes into unchartered domains. In that case, you don’t need to avoid a temptation to take the same old picture; you’ll naturally manifest your vision.
This is a common question I ask photographers: Photography is a process and it isn’t about just taking photos. It involves planning, travelling, staying, missing moments or opportunities, managing finance. What do you hate about this process? And what part would give you the energy to stay on track?
I think hate is a strong word. There are minor annoyances in travel sometimes; some pains, such as red-eye flights and long overlays. But these are just that: minor. You can never really break any ground if you’re not willing to put up with some discomfort. And when you want something as badly as I do photography, they barely matter. That’s precisely what gives me the energy: just the love of my subjects and the experiences I can enjoy when I get to my destination. But sometimes the transit is very interesting and memorable because there’s something to learn every step of the way.
What are some of the challenges you face as a wildlife photographer (from finance to taking photos in the field), and how do you tackle them?
Finances are certainly a challenge when it comes to visiting exotic places, but the beauty of photography is that you don’t always need to! If you have the eye, there’s often plenty of wildlife to photograph in your very backyard. I think main challenge of wildlife photography is the inherent uncontrollable nature of it. You can make your plans all you want, but ultimately, you’re at nature’s mercy to get an opportunity. If that tiger or polar bear simply doesn’t want to show, it won’t, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. This lofty constraint wildlife photography places, testing your ability to handle your own expectations and retain your equilibrium under trying circumstances and squeeze out whatever you can within the prevailing situation is something I find very interesting.
I have seen some wildlife photographs in black and white in your work. What inspires you to make images in black and white? How is it different from the coloured version?
Black and white photography, or more accurately monochrome photography (for what we call black and white are actually different shades of grey with no other colour), is my beloved way of adding a touch of class and artistry to my portfolio. I love the simplicity – almost a singularity – that it brings to a photograph. But as important as it is to know when to convert a photo to monochrome is also to know when not to. The pictures that look outstanding in monochrome are those that have simple shapes, contours and a certain minimalism or order of elements, and a lot of contrast. Have too much clutter in your image and it’ll fall flat in monochrome. But when you get it right, nothing is as evocative and fragrant as a monochrome photograph.
You made an abstract image like this. Often photographers feel the pressure to take aesthetically pleasing photos. What made you choose against it?
Why do you say this image is not aesthetic? (laughs) I know what you mean. It wasn’t a this-or-that situation. Sometimes it is, but not here. I had plenty of time to take all sorts of pictures, and this was one I tried. When a subject is generous with its time and opportunity, trying different things takes your photography forward and often produces the images that you come to be known by, so it’s very important to grab these opportunities, few and far in between as they may be.
Your biography says that you don’t find meaning in wildlife photography if pictures can’t be used to save them, and you see wildlife photography as a means of wildlife conservation. How did you find this interest in conservation? Did you start photography (or wildlife photography per se) for conservation?
I think it was, and I suspect is for most people, a natural consequence of loving wildlife. When you spend significant time following and photographing wildlife, you naturally develop a special affection, and the prospect of impending or ongoing harm to them inevitably grates on your sensibilities and you can’t help but care and do whatever is in your strength to help.
I have noticed that you include the environment of the animals in your frame. When others usually try to get more close up shots, what makes you take these frames? Is it from a conservation point of view?
It depends on what’s the story I’m trying to tell. Sometimes it’s a conservation story, but sometimes it’s just aesthetics. Essentially, I include anything that might add to the image both visually and contextually. That is not to say I don’t take closeup pictures; sometimes a tight portrait is the best shot. I just go by what I want to capture and portray at that time and compose accordingly.
I noticed that you love to capture moments. Moments are important in photography and they make great images, but do you see it from a conservation perspective? Is that type of photographs a better tool for conservation?
For me, anything about my subject is worth portraying. I strongly feel that my subjects are infinitely interesting, and the onus is on me to show them in a way that will strike a chord with the viewer. Sometimes we tend to think that nothing is happening, but in that nothingness could be a way of portraying the subject that could ‘make’ it a ‘moment’ that will move someone. When you sense a scene from the heart and tune in to its essence, it’s always possible to produce something of emotional value that has the power to influence the common folk and the powers that be alike.
As a conservationist, taking photos need not be technically right or artistic. How do you merge these two and why do you think art helps make you a better conservationist?
Documentation is one of the aspects of photography. You go after as many species as possible, or maybe you have a favourite species, and you try to document as many aspects of that animal’s life and behaviour as possible, even if that means photographing in the harsh light of noon on a hot day. I’m not quite into this. My style of photography is to show subjects, habitats and moments at their best and finest; to portray the height of beauty to inspire people to save it to continue to enjoy the privilege of enjoying such subliminal sights in the future. I don’t think there’s necessarily a paradigm for a good conservationist; there’s no model as such. You just be a sensible and responsible citizen with empathy for your fellow creatures, and in the process, do what you can in your own way. As long as you’re not doing something ill-informed or counterproductive, you’re a good ‘conservationist’ in your own way.
In one of your posts, you mentioned that you prefer quality of photographs over quantity. How does that work for you as a conservationist?
There’s no one single approach to making a contribution to conservation. In my experience selectively showing only a few but the very best images works as well as or even better than showing a flurry of mediocre images. The key is to set a standard for yourself and live up to it as well as you can. If you pour passion into your work, it’ll come through, and that, more than anything else, is the greatest influencer.
You are a co-founder of Toehold. Tell us about Toehold, and what inspired you to start it. How do you manage this professional side and your passion for photography?
Toehold is a one-of-a-kind company, in how it brings a range of photography and photography-learning services under one roof. It was born out of a dream to make high-quality photography accessible to more people than before. We train people on the basic and advanced aspects of photography and DSLR use in our classroom workshops, we offer the best and latest cameras and lenses on rent in three cities (Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune), lead photography tours to some sensational places over six continents, and plan vacations for those who want to go off photographing or otherwise on their own. We also have an online store selling very useful merchandise for photographers, and host nature and photography camps for children. All in all, our mantra is to support enthusiasts to rise to the zenith of travel and self-expression through photography.
How do you balance your life as a professional wildlife photographer, CEO of Toehold, and a conservationist?
I don’t think of myself as a conservationist. I think there are other people who are more in tune with the realities of conservation who’re better at it. My role is to bring back striking pictures from the wild so people feel inspired to care. It’s my small way of contributing to saving that which I love. As for being a professional photographer and CEO of Toehold, it’s often the same thing, since my profession as a photographer involves mentoring people in photography. The administrative aspects of running a business that employs several people, ofcourse, is a different challenge
Where have you travelled so far with your Toehold team? And what are your plans next? Is there any story of one of your participants turned into a full-time photographer or conservationist?
Oh, across six continents, actually. From the geologically active remote forests of far east Russia to the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Our plan is always to be at the forefront of quality and innovation; to constantly push the boundaries of travel and discover, enjoy and share new experiences. There’s nobody who’s turned a full-time photographer, but we’ve trained, groomed and inspired dozens of people to take photography as a very passionate hobby. Many of them have won awards, been published in prestigious publications, and some of them have gone on to become photography tutors themselves.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years as a toehold cofounder, a wildlife photographer, and a conservationist?
Like most or all entrepreneurs, making a bigger difference in society is what I care about the most, so certainly, I see or would like to see, myself leading a bigger Toehold five years later, doing more tours, growing sustainably and inclusively while adding genuine value to our customers. On the personal front, being the incessant traveller that I am, I naturally want to explore more of Earth’s wild places; the amount there is to see and learn from in nature is simply unquantifiable. But as they say, the more things change the more they remain the same, so five years down the line, you’ll probably find me under a tree sitting with my tripod for a hippo to yawn with the sun setting in the perfect place behind it.
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