Quite like the elusive subjects he loves shooting, it is difficult to pin down wildlife photographer Sudhir Shivaram for an interview. It also leads one to speculate on the immense popularity of wildlife photography, the one area that still remains untouched by the seeming democratisation of photography that mobile technology has wrought.
"My schedule's totally hectic," he echoes when he sits down for a quick conversation with us. An engineer who'd been moonlighting as a wildlife photographer for 17 years, Shivaram decided to heed to the call of the wild and quit his corporate career to focus only his passion, last November.
"I realised that I wasn't doing justice to either of the jobs," he recalls, "so while at work I would be thinking of my next trip to shoot, during my trips, I'd be thinking about work." A year since taking that important decision, Shivaram today is a "total freelancer" who spends his time with his Canon camera in a forest or conducting wildlife photography workshops, teaching interested students all that he knows about the subject which, going by his photos that have made magazine covers and won him awards like Sanctuary Magazine's Best Wildlife Photographer Award for 2012, is quite substantial.
"What I do is 'pure teaching' of the craft and not photo tours that other people offer in the name of wildlife photography workshops," Shivaram says before getting into details of what a typical photography workshop he conducts looks like.
"Mostly targeted at beginners, my workshops are very hectic and intense," he explains about his well-planned and detailed classes which are held in popular wildlife sanctuaries in the country – Bandipur,Kabini, Velavandar, Bharatpur, Kanha, Rann of Kutch — and in Masai Mara, Kenya as well. Starting with webinars where he interacts with students "to give them a brief introduction of what the program will entail and also to get an understanding of what they want," the workshops themselves are an exciting mix of "intense classroom sessions along with safaris where students take photos."
Post the workshops, he continues to tutor students based on their interest, through webinars he conducts on his eponymous website. For those who are really serious about wildlife photography, he even expends efforts in helping build a portfolio. Shivaram almost sounds like a professor when he chooses to discuss the theoretical aspect of the subject. "I prefer calling the essential components as 'four pillars' and they include subject knowledge, core concepts, equipment know-how and techniques and lastly, post-processing," he says before fervently adding, "whether my classes are for three days or a week, I teach every aspect of the subject in-depth."
Of course, the interesting aspect of these programmes is the more practical activity, of going around and shooting the subjects — a stealthy leopard, a roaring tiger, a stork in flight. Students are let loose to apply their knowledge following which they have to share their photos with Shivaram because certificates are given only after they have won his appreciation. "I am extremely critical of the photos that are shot. I do not hesitate in telling a student that a photo doesn't work," he candidly admits but going by the repeat participants and full registrations, you know that's proving to be no deterrent.
But if one were to assume, based on these revelations, about the glamorous life of a wildlife photographer, Shivaram is quick to shoot it down. "That is a complete myth. Trying to make a career solely as a wildlife photographer, where you earn 'only' from it, is not possible. Except for one photographer in India that I know of, the rest of the fraternity hold other jobs to sustain themselves."
"Wildlife photography is expensive and with no-returns," he reiterates but then that doesn't stop Shivaram from treading into the jungles because, "I do it for the love it."Sudhir Shivaram will be conducting a Wildlife Photography Workshop, August 24-26, at The Serai, Kabini.