“There are no limits to what you can accomplish, except the limits you place on your thinking!” The famous quote by Brian Tracy is what inspires this wildlife photographer, who carved her niche in this field at a very young age. Now, she aims to use her camera for a cause—to drive change through conservation photography! Having bagged the title of Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2020, she is soaring high at the young age of 24.
Aishwarya Sridhar—a wildlife photographer, filmmaker and presenter—is India’s first female photographer to win this prestigious award. She admires the work of famous photographers like Rathika Ramaswamy, Kalyan Verma and Shaaz Jung and is inspired by the work of the renowned duo Dereck and Beverley Joubert on big cats.
As World Photography Day (August 19) approaches, The Weather Channel India highlights the incredible work of a few such photographers whose work takes us across the length and breadth of this beautiful world and provides a new perspective. As we kick-start this series with young talent Aishwarya, she tells us about conservation photography, her viral photo ‘Lights of Passion’ and more in this exclusive interview.
How did you get started with wildlife photography? What attracted you to it?
It would be my childhood! I grew up in Panvel (near Mumbai), surrounded by nature—from greenery to animals. A lot of birds used to come into my backyard. Through this, I formed a bond with mother nature at a very young age. And that helped and shaped me into who I am today.
I never spent too much time indoors, playing video games or watching TV. After finishing my homework and studies, I often spent time chasing butterflies in my garden or running in meadows. And gradually, I began liking to spend more of my time outdoors rather than being locked indoors.
One more incident that drew me towards photography happened when I guess I was ten years old. I read this news of a tiger being poached, which made me very emotional. And later, for a class assignment, I decided to write a poem on it, and my teachers liked it and motivated me to get it published. I reached out to some magazines, but they all returned with a message that they needed a picture for publication. And I didn’t have any! Eventually, it did get published later by Sanctuary Asia, but without the image.
This whole incident taught me that images play an important role to back your story. After this, I insisted on getting a camera. Finally, on my 11th birthday, my father gifted me a camera. And that became my favourite toy, and the rest is history.
More than a decade later, now it’s my pleasure to inform you that I got accepted as an emerging fellow by the International League of Conservation Photographers.
What’s the best/most favourite photo of yours? What’s the story behind that shot?
I would say the fireflies’ photos, named ‘The Light of Passion.’ It is the photo that went viral! It received a lot of recognition and appreciation from across the globe and was my best work so far.
In the year 2019, I clicked this photograph during a spontaneous trip to Bhandardara in Maharashtra. Just a few days back, I had seen a newspaper article that said that fireflies are thronging the place. In a very short amount of time, I planned everything. I checked the Moon calendar, and luckily for me, the moonset was very early on. I was assured that the moon’s light would not hamper my image, and I can click the fireflies without the ambient light—a huge advantage in getting the right image.
Moreover, I did some prior research for the location and took help from the local guides. They guided me to the place where fireflies can be seen. It was a long trek of 1 and half hours through the jungle in the evening hours.
Finally, there I was! I glanced upon this one tree which was completely covered with fireflies from top to bottom. For me, it was like standing in the world of Narnia or Harry potter—it was very magical and surreal.
It was very special to capture these tiny creatures. When we talk about wildlife photography, most of the things that come to our mind are tigers, elephants or other megafauna. No one looks at these tiny lesser-known species. If I could put some spotlight on them, then I would consider myself very fortunate.
Do you have a favourite destination for clicking photographs?
No favourite destination as such! I really enjoy working in all sorts of habitats—each of them offers something unique with a different story to tell. One of my most visited destinations has been Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. And there are many dream locations where I would wish to shoot in the future, such as underwater ocean worlds, snow leopards in the Himalayas, coral reefs, to name a few.
Do you have a favourite subject—any being that you’ll never tire of capturing through your lens? What are the challenges?
I enjoy capturing the smallest of small creatures to the largest of large. I enjoy the whole spectrum because each species has some unique behaviour, characteristics that need to be told. Something that I never get tired of would be tigers—they are so majestic and enigmatic. For that matter, any big cat.
Sometimes I have to wait for hours and sometimes even days to get the perfect shot for animals like Tiger. In some cases, when you are lucky enough, you immediately get the sighting as imagined in the forest. On the other hand, in the small animal world, you have to leverage creativity in terms of lights. But again, even in the macro world, we have to be really quick to capture that precise moment as nothing happens twice in nature. You have one moment either you get it or miss it.
It is all very timely and spontaneous. Even for smaller creatures, sometimes I have to repeatedly go back a number of times to get that perfect shot, which I have in mind, sometimes it never happens.
Any scary moments you would like to share?
Thankfully, I never had many scary moments in the wild. All the animals were pretty well behaved when I was there. Animals are more well-behaved than humans!
But I do have one scary moment that happened in Kutch. This was the time when I was clicking flamingoes—I completely zoned out, and my concentration was only on the bird. That’s when I got stuck in the quicksand, it pulled me down, and both my legs were stuck. It happened during my early teenage years, and I didn’t realise it was loose sand. And I went on and on clicking, but I was actually sinking.
I only realised this when my dad called out to me, and I was not able to move at all. That was pretty scary. Finally, I was pulled out of the quicksand.
How did you feel after winning at the Wildlife Photographer of Year Awards in 2020?
Firstly, I was really excited, humbled and honoured to be part of the wildlife photographer of the year award. Moreover, to have won this recognition for the fireflies photo was even more exciting. I had some hope as the image was different, but I didn’t know what type of images had been submitted by other people. So when the news came to me, I was thrilled.
I won the ”Highly Commended” Award in the Behaviour Invertebrates category at the 56th Wildlife Photographer of the Year. That made me the first Indian woman to win in the adult category. And it has been a dream come true to have my image displayed at the Natural History Museum of London.
A picture is worth a thousand words! Is there any particular message that you try to convey through your photos?
I’m also a conservation photographer and hope that my images inspire the public to step up and raise their voices to protect nature. I firmly believe that you protect what you love, and you love what you understand. And you understand what you see! You get inspired and begin to love nature that eventually brings individuals one step closer to conserving and protecting it. That’s what I want to convey.
Moreover, I don’t just click wildlife in all its beauty, but I also want to highlight issues revolving around it through my photographs.
Do you think wildlife photography has a role to play in aiding wildlife conservation efforts? If so, how?
Yes, absolutely! There is a difference between wildlife and conservation photography where the former is just clicking a picture of an animal, whereas the latter is about clicking what is happening around the animal.
For example, the close up of a bird looks beautiful, but if I zoom out to the surroundings, you can probably find issues of landfills. Therefore, the depiction of such issues through photographs helps raise awareness about the problems plaguing the planet today. Eventually, photos can also pave the way to the urgency of protection it requires. And at this very moment, we need urgency—it’s either now or never.
Wildlife photography is a vast visual medium—via films, photos—they can play a compelling role in influencing minds by evoking emotions and actions. More importantly, they can change the way you think and the way you act. I want to harness the power of change through my photos.
Could you please elaborate more on the conservation photography that you have undertaken?
I am working with a few local NGOs, indigenous fisherfolk, and the State to protect wetlands in Mumbai and using photography as a medium to create policy level impact for wetlands. Wetlands are as important as our forest. They are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. But today they are being treated as wastelands.
I have been documenting the rampant degradation of wetlands in Panje—the last remaining wetlands of Uran. A few years back, the wetlands were completely dry, I took some photographs of them, and filed a complaint with the authorities.
We searched and found that the inflow of the tidal water to the wetlands was completely blocked. This was the reason why the wetlands had gone dry. The industry has turned the wetlands into completely barren land to develop for residential projects. I have been documenting the Panje wetland struggle for quite some time now.
It is also important for the local fishing community, as they are dependent on the wetlands for their livelihood. This was one of the turning points where the issue was highlighted, and the media stepped in. And my photographs were used by the press to highlight the issue. And finally, the court said that wetlands have to be saved, and it was restored. But still, it is an ongoing battle. We are lobbying with the government to turn it into a conservation reserve. Hopefully, that dream also comes true!
What is the biggest threat that wildlife is facing today in India?
The biggest threat the planet is facing today is the thought that someone else will save it. Threats of habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, and importance to the economy over ecology continue to loom.
Moreover, there is this trend that our GDP is always given more preference than natural capital. They need to go hand in hand! When we raise our GDP, we also have to ensure to maintain our natural capital and not degrade it. We don’t understand this fact. We easily clear reserves and corridors for a national highway project or a dam.
But we don’t realise that a habitat once lost, will take generations to revive elsewhere. We talk about clearing tracks of forest land for several purposes and replanting trees somewhere else. But for those trees to grow and become an ecosystem, it will probably take centuries.
Having already carved your niche in this field at such a young age, how do you plan to explore it further? Do you intend to try anything new or different that you haven’t tried yet?
The way forward for me is definitely filmmaking and camera presenting, as I really enjoy being on camera. Through presenting and filmmaking, we can involve the audience in a more creative and real way. Moreover, through video, you get to relive a moment at any time by watching it again. Hence, I am exploring this field, and I really enjoy being a storyteller.
As a filmmaker, my first documentary on vanishing wetlands of Mumbai aired on DD National in 2018, and my second film- Tiger Queen of Taru, is currently airing worldwide on National Geographic WILD and Disney+ Hotstar. It premiered in India on Earth Day in April and was re-telecast on Global Tiger Day on July 29.
For more of Aishwarya’s amazing work, check out her Instagram.
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