Nature through a lens! a wild perspective...
Interview: Thomas Vijayan - Wild Life Photographer
We are in conversation with Wildlife Photographer, Thomas Vijayan. Originally from Bangalore and currently settled in Canada, he is an architect by profession and a photographer by passion. This passion has taken him across the 7 continents, from the North Pole to the South, and everything in between. All this in search of that ‘perfect frame’.
But as Thomas believes, perfection does not exist. A photograph is an experience, in which he learns something new, especially by giving importance to quality over quantity. Words of wisdom, which can be applied to every walk of life.
Photography for Thomas combines his love for nature, travel, practice, patience, passion, care, friends and gear. But for the most part he feels it is a blessing witness the marvellous creations of nature. His patience over the years has borne fruit and he has got over 1000 awards for Wildlife Photography. Including being a Brand Ambassador for one of the most established brands in the market, Nikon.
Q: When did you realise that you have a natural talent for photography?
A: Being born into a photography family, photography was in my blood; my brothers Mohan Thomas and Thomas Rajan are also into photography. We 3 love big cat photography the most, hence we were even called “Cat Brothers”. From my childhood I used to love nature and spent a good amount of time admiring its beauty. There was a bird sanctuary near my house and I’d go there with my analogue camera to take pictures of birds. All my pocket money would go into buying film rolls. During those days’ camera films were expensive and we had limited options of 24-36 films. Each shot was crucial and couldn’t afford to be squandered. This was a challenge for an action-oriented wildlife photographer.
Q: Did you expect that this particular photo (orangutan) will win the award or do you think you clicked a better photo than the one which got awarded?
A: This is indeed a special frame to me hence I was expecting it to win. Behind this shot was months long waiting for the right season and hours long waiting in the location on the shooting day to get this frame correct. I had visited this location sometime back and this frame stuck in my mind. I wanted to capture all 4 elements in one frame; the sky, the water, the amazing habitat they live in, and the subject facing me. It was a difficult shot I am happy it won and all of you are now able to see it. The motivation behind this shot was the pitying situation of the Orangutans. When I visited them, their face looked like they really had something to communicate to us. When I looked around, I could see 1000 years old highly matured trees were cut down for palm oil plantation and these poor helpless beings were losing their habitat. They only know to live on trees and feed on fruits they get from these trees, but we humans have so many alternatives for cooking instead of using palm oil. Hence, I felt the need to do something for them in my own way and the thought of such a frame came into my mind.
Q: Tell us about your photography journey over the years.
A: I started photography from my school days, at first Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary and later I ventured to other parts of India chasing felines. I have picturized countless tigers in India, later I spent a lot of time shooting the Mara wildlife and other countries and also covered both the poles. Right now, I am doing a project on the rarest of the rare, the Amur Leopard in Russia.
Q: Share your experiences and happenings about the award photo. How it was made possible? And what is the theme behind that?
A: After spending few days in Borneo, I got this frame stuck in my mind. Firstly, to get this shot, I selected a tree that was in the water so that I can get a good reflection of the sky and its leaves on the tree on water forming a mirror like effect which will make the image look upside down. Then I waited for a month to enter rainy season only then the water will collect below the tree. Finally, on the day of the shoot we began our journey with a 3-hour boat ride across a sea with waves that get as high as 5 feet tall, in small fibre boats that can barely fit 2 people. We entered the mouth of a small river that only has an opening between high tide and low tide; which made it impossible for us to leave the location in the afternoon as the tide departed and the ocean became too rough for our boat to pass through. As we got closer to the targeted location, the trees and jungle got too thick for our boat to pass so we were forced to continue on foot. Trekking through tree limbs with huge crocodile-infested waist deep water and cameras held above our head. I made it to my final destination, the huge tree and I climbed up on it for this shot and waited for a nearby orangutang to climb up and pass me. I purposely wanted to get the beautiful sky as well as the subject facing me. Since the orangutan only likes to face upwards as it climbs, I knew the only way I could combine these two elements in one frame was to be above the orangutan and point downwards to capture the face and perfect reflection of the sky in the still water below it. The most challenging part of this experience was staying calm while the orangutan was in front of me.
Q: Is it possible for middle-class people who are interested to explore the world and travel, considering the expenditure is high?
A: Yes, it is a costly affair. But definitely if you are passionate then you can achieve it.
Q: What are the hazards/ problems/ challenges you face when you travel abroad? And how is the language barrier managed? As well as the food and culture?
A: Weather, safety, language all these are a cause of concern when you go to a new location. Hence it is always better to have a local guide if you are going to any place for the first time.
Q: Tell us about some interesting anecdote from your photographer’s diary.
A: After spending years in photography and clicking most of the commonly photographed species, now I am keener on shooting the rarest ones. To shoot these I travel to the unexplored corners of the world which is challenging at times. Few of the challenges that I face is reaching to such a location. For example, the recently awarded Orangutan shoot was to cross the crocodile infested river. My ongoing project in Siberia is where I stayed, with bare minimum living conditions. In this location there is a chance of temperature dropping below -40°C. If it drops then camera will not work. In Antarctica, I had walked an average of 8 hours per day in thick snow in search of a perfect frame. Likewise, there are many stories like this from different shoots.
Q: Since you are a wildlife photographer, have you ever seen a human/ animal conflict?
A: Yes, that has been there always in every corner of the world.
Q: How do you prepare yourself in terms of safety when you are on a mission?
A: We cannot be fully prepared, since we don’t know what is in store in each location, as we are not accustomed to it if we are travelling there for the first time. But I do a study about the area which helps to a great extent. Then I try to be with a local guide and I always carry dry fruits, cheese, my satellite phone, drinking water, torch and other essentials in my backpack in all my shoots.
Q: Are you an automobile enthusiast? What is in your garage and what is your preferred machine for your shoots?
A: Yes, I, like others, love cars and bikes. I own a custom-built Rolls Royce, G63, Tesla X & bikes. While in safari I prefer ATV`s.
Q: What is your suggestions for students who are passionate and want to choose wildlife or travel photography?
A: My advice to young budding photographers is do much of the harder shoots that need hiking, climbing, divining and many more when they are still young. Easy jeep safaris could be done at any point of life. And always go for quality over quantity. Take part in competitions, it will improve your shooting style and will also give you a chance to see many other good frames.
Q: What is your future plan?
A: I want to shoot frames in such a way that it should stand out from the rest of the frames and can easily point straight to the photographer, even when the photographer`s watermark is not on the picture.