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A walk on the wild side: An interview with wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee

The art of wildlife photography, straight from the horse’s mouth…

If there’s one Indian wildlife photographer whose work speaks for itself, it is Dhritiman Mukherjee. His stunning images from across the country (and the world) have featured in top outlets like National Geographic, Lonely Planet, WWF, BBC, Daily Mail, The Guardian and Sanctuary Asia. He has won many prestigious awards, including the Royal Bank of Scotland Earth Hero award in the ‘Inspire’ category (2014), the Carl Zeiss Conservation Award (2013) and the Kirloskar Vasundhara Mitra Award. We caught up with him to try and get the inside scoop on the art of wildlife photography.

“I was never an artist, and I’m not one now”, says Dhritiman Mukherjee. “What I do is document, and I try to do it in a way that creates inquisitiveness, and a connection between the subject and the viewer. I think it’s important to lobby for the natural world. You’re not going to want to save something you’ve never heard of, seen, or had a connection with. That’s what I see myself doing.”

Wildlife photography
A snow leopard stares into Dhritman’s lens.

Beginnings

Mukherjee’s journey began as a teenager. He never liked biology and did his best to avoid it. In a gap year following a graduation in physics, he found himself wanting to do some mountaineering. It was then that he bought a camera, and took up a course in ecology. “No love, no motivation, nothing… I just took the course,” says Mukherjee.

He explains his two main reasons for choosing mountains at the time: “Those days, photography was about going to national parks and sanctuaries and shooting the same subject. They were expensive even then, and I had no money. Secondly, mountains were entirely unexplored by photographers, and known only to some researchers. Since mountains were my strength, that’s where I began.”

Wildlife photography
A Himalayan Tahr jumps across a waterfall

In fact, the mountains were so unexplored and unknown, that many in the wildlife community didn’t even know that there was an ape species in the Himalayas (the Gibbon) until they saw his photographs! And this was as recently as 2004 or 2005!

Secrets for success?

It’s not easy work though. Far from it. It takes patience, planning and indepth knowledge of the subject and the terrain, and most importantly, respect for nature. When he set out to capture a shot of a charging one-horned rhinoceros from ground level, it took him two weeks of eight hour days, trudging up and down a 1.5 km stretch, painstakingly identifying the perfect rhinoceros, the perfect spot and the perfect setting for the shot. He got the shot of the rhino charging on day 13 – the camera was sent flying 10 feet, but somehow survived!

Wildlife photography
This shot took over 100 hours of work to achieve

Like most professional wildlife photographers, he too is concerned about people crossing that sacred boundary from observer to participant. “If the animal charges at me, and I am the cause, that’s not okay. If an animal charge at something in its natural environment, then, that’s great for me,” says Mukherjee.

Patience and optimism also seem to be ingrained into Mukherjee. He told us about trying to get the perfect shot of the Himalayan brown bear since 2004… He’s made 12 treks already, to different areas, trying to find the elusive bear. He even came across a sloth of five bears once, but wasn’t satisfied with the photographs that resulted. He isn’t disheartened though, and plans to return again soon. “Not getting a photo is very important information, just like in science. It tells us something – maybe the species you’re looking for is not there, or it’s there but is aware of your presence and is avoiding you, or else you’re not aware of some behavioural pattern of that animal. It’s also a way to improve. For example, when trying to remotely photograph a leopard in a cave I failed. Later I learnt that there was another exit to the cave! You learn from your failures.”

Wildlife photography
A fish taking the bait

The patience needed seems almost superhuman to us. Whilst talking, he casually mentions that three weeks ago he finally got good shots of the Red Panda… after 10 years of trying!

On a trip to Singalia National Park (North Bengal) in 2007 to try and shoot the pandas, he didn’t see any red pandas, but he did get a glimpse of a Satyr tragopan (a pheasant-like bird). In 2013, when he went back to try and shoot the tragopans, he got the shot in 4 days. However, it wasn’t just 4 days of work, because it was all setup over 40 days in 2007 and 4 days in 2013… his is a continuous journey of experiences.

For science!

He’s travelled the world too. He’s been to Lake Baikal to photograph the world’s only freshwater seal, and to get his underwater shots he had to cut holes in ice sheets a metre thick on the lake! He’s also been to the Arctic, East Africa, Indonesia, Madagascar, Rwanda, and also hopes to go to Antarctica soon.

Wildlife photography
You have to be an adventurer to get into this line

He is not just a photography role, and he loves working with researchers and scientists. A recently completed visit to Rajaji National Park was to help scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India figure out a better way to estimate animal populations from the air. His passion isn’t just about documenting nature, but also to do his bit to help conserve it. If his photographs help science in some way, that’s meaningful, but if it can also help create awareness and move some of us to care more about conservation of nature, then that’s just perfect for him.

Technology

Technology has invaded everything, and everyone with a smartphone has essentially become an amateur photographer. It’s also invaded the world of professional photography.

Mukherjee says, “The device isn’t important for me it’s the result that matters. I use drones extensively (currently using a Phantom 4) and have used them for various shoots. I also use two kinds of remotely triggered equipment – infrared cameras where the animal essentially takes its own photo, and a live view camera where I see what is happening in real-time. Technology is just a tool though, and the most important skill is knowing what to do (and what not to do) in order to get an animal in front of your camera, and getting it done quickly.”

He has more than half a dozen camera bodies and a whole bunch of lenses. His most expensive body is a Nikon D4s, while his 400m f2.8 costs almost as much as that camera. Much of his equipment is Nikon, although on rare assignments he has used Canon.

Wildlife photography
Here’s a green turtle amidst coral and reef fish

Some kinds of photography are particularly expensive with investment in time and money, like underwater photography – you can’t just know how to swim, you need to obtain a certification in diving and also buy expensive housing (protective underwater covering) for the camera, which can cost lakhs!

No bosses!

“Nobody tells me to do anything – I rarely do assignments, and in most cases, I plan my own travel. My strengths are my local connections and researchers, and all of that comes together to make the final image.”

Mukherjee doesn’t see it as a competition either. “If you take a photo that I don’t have, I’m happy that the job is done. It’s not about you or me, it’s not about us competing. If there’s a rare bird in its nest, and we all go there to shoot it, eventually the bird will abandon the nest and its eggs. How is that helping nature? All photographers and all photos are important. They cannot be compared.”

What’s next?

Where’s he going next? To the least explored places of course! Mukherjee concedes that the north east of India in Arunachal, Mizoram and parts of Nagaland haven’t been well explored. Even India as a whole is relatively unexplored. Ten per cent is his guess, which means he wants to tell you the story of the remaining 90 per cent of India. He’s also headed to Mexico in a few weeks.

At the end of the interview, we asked him what his favourite species is. We should have known better: “I’d recommend that others don’t chase the best species, the best location or the best photo. This is an unhealthy approach. All species have their own role, and you decide what to photograph based on what is documented and what isn’t. This same rule works for locations as well.”

This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Akshay Surendra