What does it take to be an ambassador for the natural world? If you ask Dhritiman Mukherjee, the answer is every breath and every moment. The award-winning photographer speaks to Tanvi Dhulia about his journey and philosophy.
When pursuing the Bengal Florican in the grasslands of the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, in Uttar Pradesh, Dhritiman Mukherjee would make his way to a twig covered hide at 4:00 am, in complete darkness. He would refrain from using a torch so as to avoid disturbing creatures in the night, sometimes pausing at the sound of a rumbling growl, which he knew belonged to a tigress, vigilantly protecting her three cubs.
For eight days, the celebrated wildlife and nature photographer spent up to nine hours in the hide, waiting to document one of the most endangered birds in the country. It was only on the eighth day that he managed to capture an image he was satisfied with.
For him, a day without pictures isn’t considered a day wasted. He says, “Each day I learn more about the subject’s behaviour and their peculiar habits. It helps me prepare to make a good image of it in the future.”
“I always considered myself talentless in photography. I never understood how people could take good photos. After a long time, I began to understand it mathematically.” Even though his skillfully framed pictures would say otherwise, Mukherjee will often emphasise that he is not an artist. “I am a documentary photographer,” he explains. “I don’t use nature to express myself. Instead, my goal is to use existing art in order to create a record that would benefit science and inform the masses.”
The Fundamentals of Caring
After two decades of wildlife photography, the most notable evolution, for Dhritiman, is the way his sense of purpose has reshaped itself. When he bought his first camera in 1997, photography was all about the thrill of the experience. “Each expedition I went on was some sort of adventure. It was an escape from the dullness of regular life where one constantly has to answer to society.” Over time, he recognised a troubling disconnect between people and nature. And disturbingly, a lot of administrative and political officials were—and still are—uninterested in furthering their understanding of our dependency on the natural world.
“If I name an obscure animal that you’ve never seen, and say that they’re in desperate need for conservation, would you really feel anything?” His question stresses on the significance of the visual medium in efforts to create mindfulness amongst people. “Without visual representation, people tend to have no emotional connection,” he says. “My goal is to make insightful images that help people become conscious, and to inspire them to take action. Just being aware is not enough.” Photography, for him, is no longer about the pursuit of thrill. It is now about contributing to a greater purpose. It’s about showing the world all the rare, startling beauty it stands to lose due to ignorance and inaction.
To achieve this sense of awe, he will often put himself in seemingly uncomfortable, and arguably perilous situations. For instance, he insists that sufficient precautions were taken when he was underwater with American crocodiles off the coast of Mexico. The only two things separating him from the resting jaws of the predators were water and his camera rig, the lens sometimes being just six inches away from a crocs’ snout.
However, it’s pertinent to note that he only felt confident enough to do this because of extensive research which told him that crocodiles were unlikely to behave aggressively when out of the mangroves, which were their natural surroundings.
“Even so, I had to stay alert as there were times that there were three in front of me and two right behind.” He adds reassuringly that a safety diver was nearby at all times, armed with a long pole to force the crocs away if the situation turned awry.
“I have photographed a lot of so-called dangerous creatures up close. And people are often incredulous when they ask, “How do you do it?” But for me, it’s a simple equation. All it takes is common sense and knowledge, which one gains from research and experience.” This enables him to predict different situations in the wild, an important aspect of this kind of photography. “Sure, you could get some fantastic images based on luck alone, but you cannot sustain a career without the right kind of knowledge.”
Mukherjee’s expeditions are usually focused on single species. He begins his process by looking up work that has already been done on the subject of his interest. “If a lot of photo documentation already exists on it, then I don’t usually pursue it.” But when he does zero down on the species or location he’d like to photograph, he ensures that he can gather as much information as possible about the animal’s behaviour, along with its relationship with the ecosystem and the seasons. “In this line of work, understanding natural history is imperative. Most of my job needs to be done before I even set out to make a picture.”
In his case it also means being prepared to face the unmerciful elements of nature. When seeking the Nerpa seal in the frigid winters of Serbia, Mukherjee spent hours crawling over the frozen waters, dressed in white, to avoid startling the shy mammals. His goal was to photograph pups up close, which can prove to be a challenge with these intelligent beings, who learn early on to steer clear of humans, one of their few predators. “There is a very short window if one wants to photograph them from a close distance. In their first month, the pups are always accompanied by parents in the water. Once they begin to venture alone, it barely takes them two weeks to realise that mankind is dangerous.”
Mukherjee, who tends to spend at least 300 days in the field each year, is a tad bit uncomfortable with being appreciated for his commitment to getting the job done. “People are often in awe of my dedication. But what they don’t realise is that I enjoy every minute of what I do.”
“Once you’ve learned how to use a pen, it does not mean that you can also write evocative poetry. Similarly, learning to use a camera is not the same as learning photography.”
After graduating with a degree in Physics, he made the seemingly liberating decision to take a break from studying. “After six months of leisure and travel, I realised that all my friends had moved on with jobs or further studies while I was whiling my time away.” Driven by panic, he joined a postgraduate diploma course on ecology and the environment, which was quite unlike him. “I had spent most of my school life disliking biology, to the extent that I convinced the administration to introduce statistics just for me. I was willing to go to great lengths to avoid that subject.” But the diploma course lit a spark within him. “That’s when I really became interested in wildlife. The course gave me the direction I needed, and in 2000, I decided to pursue wildlife photography in earnest.”
His parents, who have always been incredibly supportive sold a portion of their family home to help him buy equipment. “It was made clear to me early on that I could do whatever I wanted in life, but that I should never compromise my moral sensibility.” Their teachings still have a great influence on him. “I no longer seek a sense of thrill through my work. It is intense, short-lived, and makes a person prone to recklessness.”
Exceedingly modest, he ponders, “When people commend me for doing good work, I wonder if the praise truly belongs to me. If a guide with ten years of experience is assisting me—a person who has only been in the region for ten days—whom does the credit truly belong to? The result we get is a combination of our experiences. I didn’t get here on my own. So many people have contributed to my journey, which has allowed me to do my work today.”
In his interview with RoundGlass Sustain, Megha Moorthy observes, “his sense of equilibrium, this zen-like attitude to life’s agonies and ecstasies—comes from this very rootedness.”
When asked whether he feels a sense of urgency about his work as a conservationist, with the increasing threat of climate change, he says, “The signs have been there for some time now. In Svalbard, you see it in the melting icebergs. When I photographed the Gangotri Glacier in 2000, and then in 2012, the ice had shrunk back visibly.” One shudders to imagine its state today.
“As a photographer I need to keep my eyes peeled for more such signs that people should become aware of. I should also be able to discern between changes occurring due to climate change and human encroachment.” He stresses the importance of making pictures that depict issues like road kills, leopard lynchings, and human encroachment, so that they can be presented to policy makers and the masses so as to prompt immediate protective action. In an effort to educate people, he co-founded Saevus, a wildlife and natural history magazine.
He has made peace with the bitter truth that progress will be slow, and that it will require consistent and collective actions to bring about any measure of change. “It’s not like people don’t want to solve problems, it’s just that they aren’t well informed about the intricacies of different issues.” He believes that prompting action amongst policy makers is key, as they need to understand that true development can only take place when it is inclusive of natural habitats. “People live with this notion that urban progress and nature are exclusive of each other. But real modernity is when one understands the contributions of natural ecosystems and goes the extra mile to create spaces that don’t disrupt them, but allow them to thrive.”
In resounding silence, under an icy lake, Dhritiman Mukherjee watched as a month-old Nerpa pup figured out that it didn’t need to return to an ice hole intermittently for breaths of air. It simply moved to where air released from his diving regulator was trapped under the surface of ice, allowing the photographer to witness a moment of serenity, where the seal seemed to reach for its own reflection.
Moments such as this one strike wonder in an instant. The photographer and conservationist, a witness to innumerable moments of such magic, intends to document many more.
Dhritiman is one of the most prolific and respected nature photographers in India today, with his work featured in BBC, National Geographic, The New York Times, WWF, etc. He is a RoundGlass Ambassador, a Sony Explorer, and recipient of the RBS Earth Hero Award 2014, and the Carl Zeiss Conservation Award 2013.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Better Photography.