FOR Kalyan Varma, wildlife photography was the realisation of a childhood dream. He would spend hours glued to the television, watching programmes on National Geographic and BBC, equally entranced by the captivating visuals and the mellifluous voice of David Attenborough. But, soon he realised that “it had become a medium for me to explore and showcase our wonderful wildlife and more importantly how badly we are screwing it up”. With his roots in wildlife photography, the 35-year-old is also a successful film-maker today with BBC and National Geographic and a naturalist focusing on environmental and ecological issues. “I want my work to be part of the conversation on environment and social issues, and to be engaged with the world on a deeply serious level,” explains Varma. His goal: to provoke debate and discussion with his pictures about issues that really matter.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved wildlife, and I was always keen on photography.” But, hailing from a regular middle-class family meant he had to follow a conventional career path. Varma completed his engineering in Bengaluru and started working at Yahoo. He enjoyed being a part of the startup scene, but was asked to move to the US by his company. “I never wanted to settle there. The only option left for me was to be a people manager, which I did not want to do. So, I decided to take a break and quit.”
Varma enjoyed painting in school and photography took over that role in his life. “When I quit my job and decided to pursue wildlife photography, I packed my bags to spend all my time in the forests.” This led him to BR hills, a small wildlife sanctuary in southern Karnataka, where he focused on trying to photograph and understand its natural history. He was helped in his endeavour by the Soligas, the local communities, who have been living in these forests for centuries. “Working and learning from them changed my perspective about the relationship between people and wildlife. We all grow up with the notion that people are bad for wildlife and we need protected areas. I no longer subscribe to that, and for me, what makes conservation work in India is the delicate relationship that people and local communities have.”
With photography established as his true calling, Varma took the radical step of keeping his photographs free. “When I was in college, I was inspired by the ideas of creative commons and free software. I used to work with hackers who would share code and software freely, so that the programme would overall improve. With creative commons, it was one step further — to put out your creative work so that others can consume and improve upon it. Today I am a successful artist by keeping my work free, since people eventually pay you for your services. Like in the music world today, where artists keep their music free and earn their living on gigs, I applied the same for photography and it has worked.” Varma’s work was featured on the DVD of the Hollywood movie Snakes on a Plane, and he landed a gig photographing for National Geographic. “While watching countless hours of nature programming as a child, I always thought it would be amazing to be part of the filming team. Thankfully eight years ago, that dream came true when BBC asked me to work for them, and since then I have worked on many blue chip programmes for both BBC and National Geographic.” His projects include documentaries such as Mountain of the Monsoons, Million Snake Bites and Secrets of Wild India; he has also freelanced with Nature, The Guardian, GEO, Smithsonian and Lonely Planet, among other magazines.
Varma is also co-founder of India Nature Watch, an online community that is one of the largest photography platforms in the world. “When I got into wildlife photography, more than a decade ago, there were all these photographers in India who were doing amazing photography, but had no platform to share their photographs. Me and three other co-founders got thinking that we need a web platform for people to share their wildlife images and build a community around it. We have over 10,000 active users now who post a few hundred photographs daily. More than the photographs themselves, it created this amazing community of wildlife photographers.”
Varma is currently on a break from his commercial filming projects to concentrate on photo journalism and is one of the four co-founders of peepli.org, a collective of long-form visual storytelling on the critical environmental issues of our time. “If you are a nature photographer, you go to all these amazing places and document the local landscapes and wildlife. But, most often, you also see that these landscapes are changing and the wildlife you have photographed this year might not be around two years from now. In my years of working, I have realised that photography can be a powerful tool to make people stand up and notice and eventually make them act. Today this is what I see my photography as.