Molecular ecologist turned photographer Prasenjeet Yadav (Photo: Ian Lockwood)
Molecular ecologist turned photographer Prasenjeet Yadav (Photo: Ian Lockwood)

The Big Picture: Photographer Prasenjeet Yadav on the Role of Science in Storytelling, the Western Ghats, Kodai Bison, and Much More

The piercing stare of a leopard on a desolate terrain. The melancholy blue-black of a mountainous landscape. A gang of goats in Ladakh. The glow of a campfire in a remote town reflecting on the faces of people living close to nature.

Bangalore-based wildlife photographer Prasenjeet Yadav takes heart-stopping pictures of creatures of all species in their element. From the Himalayas to the American Midwest to the Western Ghats, his lens trains on the very soul of interactions between animals and homo sapiens—and has a lot to tell the layperson.

Images from Yadav’s Instagram feed

A molecular ecologist turned explorer and National Geographic photographer, he uses his training as a scientist to convey powerful stories about lived ecologies. He has worked on a variety of complex stories, one of which showcased climate change and its effects on high-elevation Himalayas, as well as how windmills impact surrounding ecosystems. Importantly, he has produced a story on the evolution of species in the Shola sky islands of the Western Ghats, which was published by National Geographic and exhibited at Telluride, Banff, and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Represented by National Geographic Creative, he is currently working in the high mountains of Central Asia and in the Western Ghats of India.

The Kodai Chronicle caught up with the intrepid photographer between assignments. Here are edited excerpts.

Prasenjeet Yadav at work (Photo: Ian Lockwood)
Yadav photographs a variety of wildlife
Yadav photographs a variety of wildlife (Photos courtesy Prasenjeet Yadav)

Rajni George (RG): You are a part of a larger movement around conservation: talking about biodiversity and the need to preserve it by just recording it. How did this begin?

Prasenjeet Yadav (PY): I literally grew up in the middle of the jungle because my father had this farm around an hour’s drive from Nagpur city. Tigers used to come by and walk around on our lawn. So wildlife was never something that we had to go out to find—it was always part of home.

Photography came much later for me. I studied at NCBS in Bangalore, where I trained as a molecular biologist. That work involved conservation using genetics. We were trying to develop new techniques to study tigers, leopards and other animals. We had this paper on hotspots of leopard poaching, for example, and all of this was using genetics. While doing this work, deep inside, I realised that I was more of a storyteller. I enjoyed practising science. So I took a six-month sabbatical—and it has been eight years since.

I think of myself not as an environmentalist but as a photographer who tells stories about nature. Today I do feel a part of the [conservation] community, but I don’t want to fool myself that I’m going to change the world by taking pictures. There are multiple ways we can help, though, and one is to get people involved in natural history.

Many of my stories are driven by curiosity, and they speak of beauty in our country and how evolution works.

Once people are interested, I talk about why it is necessary to take care of different species. We discuss why someone who lives 1,000 miles away from Kodaikanal should care about a particular little bird that lives there and how that bird actually impacts their life. I know it is important to tell these stories, but I don’t want to keep harping on about the doom and gloom. Once I have their attention, I speak of the dangers posed to the environment.

RG: It’s the details that make us pay attention to the larger picture. When you focus, for example, on a sholakili or on a species that shows us the bigger picture in Kodai, do you often end up focussing for a long time on that particular story? Especially in the Western Ghats—what was it like to be here, and were you tempted to stay on?

Prasenjeet Yadav speaks on storytelling through photography at the Nature in Focus photography Festival 2017

PY: I am a little slow in life. I like to immerse myself in an experience. I don’t want to go with a camera for a few days and have locals tell me what exactly to photograph. That’s the reason most of my stories take at least a year or two. I live with the local people, speak to them and learn from them. It takes a lot of time. I feel that is how storytelling should be. It is much more immersive and intimate when I tell stories from my own perspective.

The Western Ghats story was about sky islands and how mountains play a role in the formation of new species. I was focusing on a short film called Shola Creek. It was supposed to be a six-month project and I ended up working on it for two and a half years. It started off as a photo story and then came a film component. Then we did a kind of beatboxing rock show around it and it became much bigger. I still haven’t finished it. I keep revisiting the Western Ghats.

Currently, I am working on a project in Meghalaya, but I spent the last three years in the higher Himalayas and in Central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, to do a story about mountain goats and snow leopards. That story has been published, but I’ll keep going there because every time I find another layer to a story that you don’t know. And I think the real fun is when you have to revise your assumptions and findings.

RG: I can see that with all your stories, and I’ll get back to the Western Ghats shortly, but I wanted to talk about your series ‘Marvin and Wendy’, where you chose to chronicle homo sapiens. It was one of the most striking and different.

PY: It was a very interesting project. At some point, my editor at National Geographic said, ‘Hey, you know what, you’ve been working with us for a couple of years. I like your work, but most of our senior photographers come from journalism backgrounds, and you have come from a different field. You are a scientist. So I would like you to do a photojournalism course.’

They sent me to a small town in Missouri on a one-week-long assignment. Some of the best photojournalists from around the world were teaching there. I was the only non-white, non-Western person in that crowd of 60 photographers. We had about a day and a half to find a story and another two and a half days to photograph it. It was chaos.

My editors decided to get me out of my comfort zone and do a people story, so I ended up meeting this family, the Hollands. I spent three days with Marvin and Wendy, which completely changed my perspective towards life. I’ve never spoken about that story before because no one has asked me about it.

Marvin and Wendy had their six biological kids, who grew up and left home, and they then started taking care of other children (via adoption) because they thought it was God’s work. That was the first time I saw this completely different aspect of religion. They have this big wall in their house that has about 70–80 photos of their family—and now there is a photo of me with them on that wall. They had their picture on the front page of the local newspaper because I won the contest.

Family in Missouri, USA - Prasenjeet Yadav
One of Yadav’s most unusual projects deals with homo sapiens, shot in Missouri, USA (Image courtesy Prasenjeet Yadav)

RG: Were you tempted to do this again, photograph homo sapiens? I see that you’ve returned to animals and wildlife.

PY: Not entirely. Now, most of my stories are about human and animal interactions. That is the future of photojournalism as far as I am concerned. Conservation is not only about animals but about how we connect and interact with them.

RG: In our second issue, our wildlife theme focused on the interplay between humans and gaur. We had two stories, one of which reported on how humans and gaur are living together. A lot of people responded. Do you think we talk enough about this theme?

PY: At times, the human-animal relationship is oversimplified or glorified. Just because one wild animal approaches you and you pet it, it becomes a positive story. On the other hand, if a leopard walks next to your house, the entire locality goes completely haywire. They start putting out leopard traps. There is no balance. That is the reality of it.

And there is no balance in the storytelling either, because not everyone has the experience of living near wildlife. I don’t think it is easy to comprehend what it means to live in an isolated house with two or three kids, without electricity, and tigers right outside. I don’t think people understand what that very real fear is. It’s essentially the local people who share spaces with wildlife. In the case of bison it is not as scary as it is with elephants, tigers or leopards, who can harm you.

So it is the local people who are paying the cost of conservation, and we need to understand their perspective deeply. There are a bunch of researchers who are doing extensive and very impactful work right now, but I wish this had begun 20 years ago.

RG: Yes, it’s so true that wildlife is often either romanticised or demonised. Do you have any bison stories from when you were here?

PY: I saw a lot of bison. One day, I was in the town and there was this huge herd of bison that went down the middle of the road. Everyone just moved to either side. I looked at them pass and found it very beautiful. People just moved, vehicles moved, and this herd passed down one turn and dispersed into a small patch. I think that is very common. Every time I have visited Kodai, I have come across bison. They seem chilled out. They know their way around and how to avoid us humans. And it is probably something they have gradually learnt.

In Kodai, the bison are always there. It will lead to some tension if elephants, who do not know how to move around in this suddenly modified landscape, show up suddenly. Here the human population has grown with the bison population, so it is much more peaceful.

RG: Well, elephants are now coming to Pethuparai! (See our story ‘Elephant in My Backyard’.) Tell us more about your time in the Western Ghats.

Image courtesy Prasenjeet Yadav
Image courtesy Prasenjeet Yadav

PY: I worked across all the three states: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In Karnataka I worked in the northern part of the Western Ghats and then moved to the entire Ooty-Nilgiris landscape and the Annamalais in Tamil Nadu. Then I went farther down. These were different trips during different seasons over a span of two and a half years. Essentially the idea was to get a sense of all these high-elevation mountains and understand which of them qualify as sky islands.

I was working closely with Dr Robin Vijayan [a scientist who works at IISER-Tirupati] and converting his research work into a visual narrative. We did many trips together, and the Western Ghats have a completely different place in my heart. That’s why I keep visiting there every year.

Earlier this year I was in Kerala to find and photograph some new species. I have a diary in which I detail the things I’ve done and the things I need to do. And still, what I’ve done is less than what I want to do. So whenever an opportunity arises, I will go there. This personal project in Kerala comes purely from a place of joy. It is not part of any assignment. Maybe 10–15 years down the line, I will still be working on it.

RG: Are you tempted to come back to Kodai soon? Does it make your top three list?

PY: It has been for a long time! I was there maybe four years ago.

Robin and I used to visit [the environmentalists] Bob [Stewart] and Tanya [Balcar] quite often, but after they passed away, I haven’t been back. When [writer and photographer] Ian Lockwood comes we sync up somewhere, either in Kodai or Bangalore. Kodai will always be there in the top three list. It is one of the epic sky islands. There are peaks I want to return to, which Ian has explored. He is currently working on topographic maps of them.

Prasenjeet Yadav shooting images at night (Photo: Ian Lockwood)

RG: Yes, these will be important. We lack proper maps, and it would be good to chart this territory.

PY: Yes, Ian has walked that entire land. He is a treasure trove of information. And it is not information passed on by someone but that he has acquired himself. I think that is powerful.

RG: Communicating this information is so vital. And photographs are so powerful. Not enough people read today, but I think we definitely appreciate images. What do you make of this?

PY: Absolutely. I think photography has enormous power, even when there is such an overload of images. Only good pictures are remembered now. Photos have impacted people. You may watch a documentary once and never come back to it, but photos you keep seeing again and again. They stay in your mind for a long time. So whether it is through photographs or other forms, stories about science and nature need to be communicated.

People always talk about conservation, but they forget that ecology is the backbone of conservation. Until and unless you understand the system, you understand the species, you understand its behaviour, there is no way you can figure out how to save it.

RG: How do we make that transition? Books like Pranay Lal’s Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent found a substantial readership. But how do we get over that barrier?

PY: It’s a challenge. Academicians are mostly chasing data. And I think that is how science is and has to be. Science must be very objective for its own reasons. Language has to be technical for its own reasons. So it is a little difficult or maybe unfair to expect every scientist to be a great communicator. Of course, it is a skill set, and I wish every scientist had it. But they are good at what they do.

More images from Yadav’s Instagram feed

When I quit academics to tell stories using photos, some of my professors said, ‘What’s wrong with you? What are you going to do as a photographer?’ I knew they were saying this out of concern. But it worked out because I stumbled upon a bunch of stories.

Back then there were journalists who would write about science. They were highlighting what was relevant to the audience. That is not entirely science communication. Science communication is getting people excited about things that are not relevant to them today but might be 50 years down the line.

I spent a month or two in Sikkim, and I came back and put together the stories of seven to eight different scientists doing completely different research. But it was all weaved under the umbrella of climate change and how it is impacting Sikkim’s biodiversity at different elevations. I gave that story a short film format and a photo story format, and scientists and researchers then attended a bigger meeting where, along with the data, they showed what was happening on ground.

I realised that it is not difficult to bring scientists out of their ivory towers when they understand the background and relevance of storytelling and communication. When they understand that they need public support, this brings them out there.

Rajni George

Rajni George is founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Kodai Chronicle. She has worked at Penguin Random House, Granta and The Caravan. Her work has been published in The New Internationalist, The New York Times, and Mint Lounge. She works remotely in climate change adaptation, and lives between Bangkok and St Mary's Road.

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