Kalyani is a science television researcher and a travel and wildlife photographer. Her adventures have taken her to the peaks of the Himalayas to the depths of the South African oceans. As a biologist and science communicator, wildlife photography and filmmaking is her main passion and she has been fortunate to have slept in bear hides in Finland, diving with sharks and she even slept through a leopard attack in India.
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
Obviously Covid-19 has hit us all really hard and has disrupted our lives, mostly for the worse. I went back from London to Leicester to help my parents out in their pharmacy whilst I wasn’t working but I was really lucky because I had access to their car and was able to head out to the countryside most evenings and weekends. I didn’t grow up around nature and have always lived in cities so being able to experience my local countryside was just mindblowing! I’ve always thought of Leicester as being grey and industrial, as those were the areas I grew up in but in just a few days I saw so many incredible species! Red kites, buzzards, kestrels, and even some Ospreys; one of Britiain’s most rare birds of prey that was extinct in England for over 150 years! I invested in a cheap camera trap, left it in a corner of a family woodlands and I was just astonished by the biodiversity in that tiny little area. I originally went out to see some badgers, found what looked like an active sett and got the camera rolling. Not only did I find plenty of badgers (including an adorable 3-legged badger – who looks healthy so don’t worry!), in 3 days I saw a fox, plenty of birds, muntjac, voles, squirrels (of course) and even a weasel; the smallest member of the Carnivora order in the world. Words can’t even express how that made me feel. Going to check it every day was like anticipating opening your advent calendar at Christmas, except you never knew what you were going to find! Sometimes it wouldn’t be much more than a pigeon or a squirrel but that makes the moments where you find something cool even more special.
How would describe what wonder is and what it feels like?
Wonder is such a huge word and an even bigger feeling. Wonder to me is seeing the magnitude in absolutely everything around us, asking ourselves questions and never being satisfied. Not in a greedy way, but because you just want to know more and more. Each answer leads to a new door which opens up to so many more questions. Wonder is the dislike of remaining static and the desire to constantly explore, learn and experience. To me it feels dynamic, exciting and fresh. The word reminds me of the sea because it has so many different states and moods and when you change your perspectives, i.e. if you go under the surface, you see it completely differently. If there’s a storm at the surface, with waves taller than buildings, it can be calm underneath. It can be a bustling reef or the emptiness of the big blue. Wonder is both exciting and also calming and humbling at the same time.
Why is the natural world so wonderful?
Where do I even start?! Nature makes me feel so small and insignificant and I love that feeling because I forget I exist in the sense that your bubble bursts and you’re not the centre of the world anymore. Nothing is about me or anyone else I know for that matter. The magnitude of life is something that blows my mind. The fact that at some point, billions of years ago, atoms and inanimate objects got that spark that we call life is just too big to even comprehend. Fast forward to today and that same spark is in us, in bears, sharks, ants, grass and even celery! It’s wonderful because it exists and we exist for some unknown reason. It’s a place where problems just become completely insignificant and you can just focus on this concept that’s simultaneously so abstract yet so objective. My heart feels so full and warm and I feel like I’m going to burst but also so still at the same time. The fact that nature exists on this tiny planet of ours is pure magic.
You’ve been on some epic adventures and witnessed some awesome sights and animals. What is your most awe inspiring place in the world you’ve visited? Can you tell me more about the experience?
I couldn’t compare any of them! They all have a special place to me because they’re all so different. Everytime I see a fox on my way home from the pub, I feel just the same as I did when I saw a blue whale! Iceland has such dramatic landscapes, Madagascar has thick, luscious, incomprehensibly biodiverse forests, India is my second home that just has everything, Ethiopia has wonderfully diverse cultures and history. But, if I had to pick one experience, it would probably have to be shark diving. I’ve been so lucky to have been in the water with so many incredible shark species – great whites, tiger sharks, hammerheads, bull sharks etc. Diving with hammerheads was one of the best days of my life. You just drop into the blue, there’s a small reef on the ocean floor and we had a little look around it. Then you just hear clangling of metal on a tank, look up and you think your eyes have gone fuzzy. But the longer you look, the more you can see. It’s like when you look up at the stars. The longer you look, the better your eyes adjust and stars just pop out against the deep black sky. Floating in the blue, hanging in the middle of the ocean, with the surface way above you and the ocean floor barely visible, your eyes start adjusting and then they just become clearer and clearer. Thousands of schooling hammerheads, slowly and gently gliding against the current for as far as you can see. Once I saw them I just gasped and I had to remind myself to breathe. The magnitude of what was happening was on another level. It’s far away from my home in industrial Leicester, right in the middle of the country and far away from the seaside! I remember kicking as hard as I could against the current but it was just way too strong and I couldn’t get closer. A few days before, I had seen my first tiger shark and the guys who were on the same dive trip said my face lit up like a kid who had just seen the moon for the first time and I can imagine that’s what my face looked like with hammerheads, but times a thousand!
Do you have a favourite animal and why?
No! I have a list of 5 though. I struggle to pick favourites of anything because everything has its own qualities that are just incomparable, and it’s the same with animals. Dogs are way up there just because of their personalities and the bond that we have created with them over thousands of years. They’re really special animals. Generally, I love animals people love to hate. My other top animals are orcas: I find them fascinating because they have the capability to be cruel, just because they want to be rather than it being an instinct. They play with their food, they terrorise other sea animals but they’re also socially complex and are capable of deep emotions like empathy and sorrow. Sharks are another favourite. They’re such a diverse group of animals from the 6 inch dwarf lantern shark to whale sharks that can grow 40ft! Hyenas are a new addition to the list. I had the good fortune to see them up close and personal in Ethiopia and I was captivated by them. I could go on and on but I’ll save that! And finally, we have octopuses. Again, they’re highly intelligent animals that are capable of the most unimaginable feats such as changing their skin colour and texture. I think they’re the closest we’ll ever get to seeing aliens in our lifetime.
As a photographer, what draws you to capturing nature in a picture?
As I’ve mentioned, growing up in an industrial city, I was never surrounded by nature or even people who liked nature. Most of my family actively dislike or even fear wildlife (they go as far as crossing the road when they see cats). For me, capturing nature is a way to share my excitement and share what makes the natural world so special. Its diversity, its colour, its ups and downs, its shapes and patterns. It’s the need to document why people should love it and why people should care and to show people things they might have never seen before. Photography for me started as a way to share what I was doing in India, before I went to university, with my family and friends, and it’s since grown into wanting to tell stories to connect different worlds together.
Is a photo more than just a memory?
100%! The memory aspect is a huge thing for me. My memory is awful and I often have gaps in a day where I can’t remember anything at all. I don’t remember much from my childhood, what I ate for lunch yesterday, or what my boss told me in a meeting, so capturing an image is a way to visually remind myself of an event and, most importantly, to take me back to the feeling of being there. Memories are great but they come with feelings. Photographs can capture a hundredth of a second but don’t necessarily capture the atmosphere, the sounds, the smells, the wind or anything and I guess that’s why we do things – to experience them.
Beyond the memories, I think photos share things, they transport people to other worlds and they’re so incredibly powerful! Think about propaganda photographs and the way they’re manipulated to tell stories that become so deep rooted in cultures that fit the narrative of the photographer or even entire countries and cultures. They have a way of capturing people’s imaginations and the capability to educate, whilst also entertaining. At the end of the day, photography is an art form with so many possibilities, from documentary to abstract, conceptual art.
What elements make a fantastic photo?
Okay, this one is a hard one for me to answer. I’m completely self taught and I’m not very technical, I photograph based on what I see and feel. I’ve never really understood who chooses the criteria about what makes a photograph ‘good’. Of course, framing makes or breaks a photo. Lighting, you can work with but if the framing or angles aren’t right, that’s something you can’t fix in post. Framing really captures an environment and helps tell the stories you set out to tell. So for me, that’s the most important thing. As someone who photographs wildlife and aspects of my travel, I have no control over anything (the weather, the light, the way the animal moves etc ) so it’s important to be able to act fast and off the cuff.
What are the challenges of taking that elusive perfect shot?
Wow, another huge question! The biggest challenge is time. Patience is key, especially in wildlife photography. But sometimes, especially if it’s not a full time job, you just don’t have that luxury! Some of the top wildlife photographers spend weeks or months in a spot to get that “perfect” shot and you have to have the means (time and money) to be able to do that. Even if you don’t have that long, being able to wait patiently and focus on one thing, rather than running around grabbing half-decent shots of everything, is tough. Mix that in with weather, lighting conditions, accessibility, language barriers…a lot of it is down to chance and luck!
When does a photographer stop being curious and become a voyeur?
It’s the intention and the impact of your photographs, particularly in photojournalism and travel photography. One of my favourite photojournalists, Ruddy Roye, says: It’s asking yourself “why am I doing this work?” and having an answer that does not benefit only you. I think that pretty much sums it up. The white, male gaze is a huge stain on photojournalism with even some of the biggest names exploiting vulnerable people. There was recently something on Twitter where photographers were calling out Martin Parr who describes a photographer as ‘crafty’ and praised him for disguising himself as a surveyor and taking photographs of sex workers without their permission. Parr describes this as: “very exciting to see this new energy and direction. This wonderful set of photos makes a positive contribution to a developing trend”. It becomes voyeuristic when your own interests come before the interests of the subject that you are shooting. Whether that’s people or disturbing the habitats or behaviours of wildlife for the ‘perfect shot’. Being a photographer goes hand in hand with ethics, intention and privilege. It’s a privilege in so many ways to photograph anything, let alone people and their cultures so when people exploit that, you move way over the line of curiosity into voyeurism and abuse.
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