Meet Rathika Ramasamy, India’s First Woman Wildlife Photographer

In a male-dominated industry, Rathika Ramasamy is leading the way as India’s first female wildlife photographer. From battling tough jungle situations to choosing her favorite wildlife photography destinations, the fearless photographer can take it all Travel + Leisure India & South Asia. By Bayar Jain

Excerpts from the interview with Rathika Ramasamy:

T+L India: You are often credited as India’s first wildlife photographer. How did you enter this creative field?

Rathika Ramasamy: My interest in photography started as a hobby at school. Since then it has grown into a passion. My father gave me a movie camera when I was in high school. I would photograph everything – my home garden, flowers, trees and even the candy my parents bought! My camera was my constant companion whenever I was out and about. I was interested in all types of photography, but the experience of being outdoors in nature led me to specialize in this genre, especially bird photography. It is challenging, engaging and also interesting to learn.

It all started around 2003 when I had the opportunity to visit the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. After seeing the birds, I wanted to capture them [in a photograph] so I can enjoy seeing her again. I was also living in New Delhi at the time. I was surrounded by birds, sanctuaries and national parks which were the main route for migratory birds. This gave me the opportunity to photograph birds and to specialize in bird photography. 19 years have passed since then and there is no turning back. The journey continues wonderfully!

T+L India: What changes have you noticed in wildlife photography over the years?

India's first wildlife photographer

Rathika Ramasamy: Of course, the themes are the same, but the technology has changed – from film cameras and a digital SLR to using mirrorless cameras for shooting in the wild! Many people have also started using camera traps and remote controlled cameras. It is good for wildlife photography. More and more people are interested in wildlife photography and tourism. There is more awareness for wildlife day or tiger day. Social media has also helped increase the popularity of wildlife photography.

But at the same time the number of species started to decrease since I started 19 years ago. The threat to wildlife has increased. It is important to conserve habitats to balance biodiversity. Unregulated tourism also takes a heavy toll on wildlife and forests. It is not enough to take beautiful photos. Still, we can use the images as a great tool to preserve nature. We have fast focusing lenses and mirrorless cameras so you don’t miss a thing in the wild. So technically, we have great things going for wildlife photography.

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T+L India: What challenges did you face when entering this field, especially as a woman?

Rathika Ramasamy: Fortunately, animals are not gender specific. Our forests are safe, so photographing the forests is a smooth ride. But of course, if you are mentally and physically strong, there will be no problems. [One challenge is that] it’s not a nine-to-five job. It’s also challenging to adapt to places where only basic amenities are available. The extreme weather conditions can also be tough. There is a lot of gear that you have to carry for hours. At first it was very hard to be in the field all day. Once you get used to it, it’s fine.

It’s also difficult being a homebody, being away from home and traveling a lot. It’s all part of the job. When people see your work portfolio and you’re good, nobody sees you as a “woman” or “man”.

T+L India: You are also the founder of the RR Foundation for Wildlife Conservation (RRFWC). Tell us more about the NGO.

India's first wildlife photographer

Rathika Ramasamy: Our motto is to preserve nature for the future. I have been conducting free workshops and conservation lectures at colleges and universities for 15 years. I thought it was time to give back to the wild and reach out to more people, so the RR Foundation for Wildlife Conservation (RRFWC) was formed. We want to raise awareness of wild animals among the younger generation and educate them about the importance of species protection. We want to show how necessary it is to preserve the world by using photography as a medium. We run free workshops for children aged 14-25 to teach them the importance of biodiversity and sustainability. We want to promote species protection by ensuring the development of livelihoods for local communities.

T+L India: Wildlife photography can be a lonely profession that requires hours of patience. How do you deal with that mentally?

Rathika Ramasamy: The basic requirement for wildlife photography should be a passion for nature. Sometimes you don’t meet anyone in the forest for hours. In these hours you should enjoy the surroundings otherwise it will be very exhausting. I like nature and feel blessed to be in the forest. I enjoy having the opportunity to observe and be close to animals. I see photography as a medium to connect with Mother Nature. For me it’s like meditation. I feel calm and focused. As a nature-loving person, I don’t see that as a problem. Wildlife photography is not for someone who can’t stay away from the hustle and bustle of city life. I can even do 30 days!

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T+L India: Tell us about some of your most challenging shots in the wild. Where and how was the shooting?


Rathika Ramasamy: Most bird shots require a lot of walking. Choosing a challenging shoot is difficult. One that comes to mind is from a few years ago when I was filming in Sikkim. I believe we were 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level trying to capture the Monal in the Himalayas. The first day we were 5,000 feet above the ground. After that, the oxygen content also decreased. I also had my 800 meter lens with me. We finally got there on the fourth or fifth day! The place also had no real hotel. We weren’t sure if the homestay would have food or not, let alone space to shower! It was very tiring.

T+L India: Have you faced difficult or scary situations in the wild? How do you ensure your safety?

Rathika Ramasamy: When we enter national parks and tiger reserves, things can get tough. When booking safaris we have to sign indemnity bonds. It’s a form that says the government is not responsible if something happens in the forest. After all, we are dealing with wild animals.

I encounter many venomous snakes while walking along nature trails for bird watching. Once, in 2000, I was walking through Jim Corbett National Park. I was keen to see a tiger. We reached a narrow road where there was dense forest on one side and a river on the other. Suddenly I saw an elephant charging towards my vehicle. The driver started backing away, but to our great relief, the elephant turned and went the other way. That was very scary! In a fraction of a second, the elephant could have thrown our vehicle into the valley. People say tigers and lions are dangerous, but elephants can be worse. We have to be very careful.

T+L India: With the rise of social media, do you see a change in the way photographers think and imagery?

Jim Corbett National Park

Rathika Ramasamy: Those who like to present their work are dependent on print media. With the Internet, it is easy to focus on your work through a website, photo forums and social networks. Requests used to come through the website. Now people are sending messages on social media DMs. The way you approach customers has also changed. It is very interesting because target marketing is required to reach the target audience. People don’t search on Google anymore; They use Instagram. Social media is great for marketing as an artist.

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Social media helps me reach more people and become more popular. People show interest in birds, mammals and marine photography. That is a good thing! New Age photographers tend to take photos for documentation. It’s a more dynamic medium.

At the same time, if one wants to remain consistent in this area, professional and commercial success must be sought outside of Instagram. Keeping your website up to date is also important. One should remain a content creator. Think of photography as an art form. I think photographs are best enjoyed when you see them in print, especially wildlife photography. They must be present on websites for future generations.

T+L India: How can you be more mindful and aware in the jungle?

Rathika Ramasamy: Expertise is very important. You have to be careful. Spending more time in the forest helps to learn more about animals and birds. One should be calm and follow the rules of the local park. Respect the jungle and the forest. Follow wildlife photography ethics. If we respect them, they will reward us.

T+L India: Your favorite wildlife photography destination?

Stag by Rathika Ramasamy

Rathika Ramasamy: That is hard! I love Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary for bird photography. For animals, it’s always Jim Corbett National Park. It is a beautiful landscape and the park never ceases to amaze me.

T+L India: A bucket list goal?

Rathika Ramasamy: I would like to visit the Amazon rainforest at least once in my life. Borneo and Malaysia are also on my bucket list.

T+L India: Any advice for aspiring nature photographers?

Rathika Ramasamy: Look beyond tigers and elephants. We have many locations and species that have yet to be documented. Join this field if you love wildlife and nature. Be thorough with the basics of photography. Expertise is important. You should be able to change your camera settings without looking through the viewfinder; it should become second nature to you. My advice is to specialize in wildlife photography if you have passion and perseverance. You will be rewarded with unforgettable photos. Try to be unique and consistent at the same time. If you love animals, nothing can stop you.

See also: Learn all about wildlife photography from T+L India’s A-List member Latika Nath

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