Welcome to this second post in my Face to Face series of interviews with people who travel or provide travel-related services. Today’s guest is a bit unique. While Mahendra Jain is a traveler, his journeys, destinations, and subjects are very different from my own. And that inspired me to invite him for a chat. Mahendra Jain is a wildlife photographer and enthusiast. He also happens to be my elementary schoolmate. Talk about catching up after several decades!
Wildlife videos, photography, and animal behavior have long fascinated me! In the last few years, with the amount of technical advancement in wildlife film making and editing, watching the films becomes an experience in itself, for the viewer. It’s as if we have been taken to the location and are watching events unfold in person. I have often wondered about the experiences of the people who spend days, weeks, or perhaps, months, filming such wildlife stories. I have pondered about their passion, commitment, drive, patience and frustrations, their itineraries, equipment, and their desires and skills. Until I reconnected with Mahendra Jain (or MJ, as I shall call him henceforth), I did not know anyone who owned such a skill set that I could ask.
A chance call from a mutual friend put me in touch with my elementary schoolmates and MJ. I saw some photos that he shared with that group, and quickly it became evident that what he called a hobby was truly more of a passion. Over the last few years, I have seen his burgeoning body of fantastic work. Our recent South African safari drove home the difficulties of being a wildlife photographer and spurred me to reach out to MJ. He agreed without hesitation.
After discussing the topic with MJ at length, I decided to do this post as a story/interview session. I hope it captures the people behind the lenses as well as a slice of their workday. I also hope it details the depth of MJ’s passion, patience, and his love for wildlife photography.
MJ lives in Bengaluru, the Silicon Valley of India, where he works full-time as a Chartered and Cost Accountant and is currently a partner with one of the Big Four accounting firms in the city. As I mentioned before, wildlife photography is his hobby.
JJ: How did you pick up wildlife photography as a hobby?
MJ: Photography has always attracted me. In 2003, I moved from Bengaluru to Chennai. I owned what we called the “HotShot Camera” in those days – a point and shoot, film roll camera. In Chennai, I visited the beach on the weekends, which made me want to upgrade my camera to an SLR. At a camera store, I liked a particular, albeit pricey one at INR 45k (in 2003, USD 1050). That camera remained with me for about a decade before I upgraded to a DSLR. During this time, I had moved back to Bengaluru and was primarily clicking landscapes and people. Occasionally, I enjoyed visits to the forests of Karnataka (the state where Bengaluru is located). A significant shift happened when one of my partners showed me photos of a trip to Kenya. I was thrilled to see the wildlife captured from such proximity. Instantly, I made up my mind to visit Kenya and did in 2014. To this day, I can’t forget that first trip to Kenya, where I got to see various animals and birds in the wild.
JJ: How did your focus shift to wildlife photography after the Kenya trip?
MJ: After having visited Kenya, I had a good bunch of snaps on my hard drive. During the latter part of 2014, I submitted an entry to a wildlife photography contest run by the Times of India (TOI) newspaper. A jury would choose the 20 best photographers for a dream trip to Kaziranga (wildlife sanctuary in Assam) in the eastern part of India. The trip was to be mentored by a renowned wildlife photographer, Rajesh Bedi, and sponsored by TOI. I was thrilled to find myself in the elite 20, chosen from over 3000 entries. Kaziranga is one of India’s most beautiful forests and is home to the one-horned rhino. That trip was excellent, where I learned a lot and made new friends. From then on, there was no turning back, and my love for the wild grew.
JJ: Where have you traveled so far to shoot in India? What’s your favorite destination, by far? Why?
MJ: I have visited several forests in India, including Jim Corbett, Ranthambhore, Kabini, Bandhavgarh, Tadoba, Bandipur, Pench, Ranakpur, etc. for mammals, birds, and landscape; Tal Chappar, Bharatpur, Dandeli, Bhadra, Sattal and Pangot specifically for birds and scenery, and Agumbe in the Western Ghats and Amboli in Maharashtra for herping. Each of the forests has its own story to narrate. It isn’t easy to pick a favorite destination. However, I would choose Jim Corbett as one of India’s most beautiful parks and Ranthambhore for the ease of spotting a wildcat.
MJ revisited Kenya in 2016 and 2017 to witness the wildebeest migration. He looks for opportunities to explore wildlife while on other trips, such as the time he spent exploring bald eagles while in Seattle or walking with the lions while in Mauritius.
JJ: What does planning a photography trip involve? Besides buying a ticket and the gear?
MJ: Planning ahead is critical and key to any photography trip.
- Firstly, pick the right time to visit. For instance, my visits would have to match those months when rare migratory birds visit. Planning requires discussions with the forest authorities, and help from the local guides. I made three specific trips to Jim Corbett to photograph the beautiful long-tailed broadbill and was fortunate to capture it on the third try. Summer is the best time to spot wildcats as they frequent water holes.
- Second, pick the right person behind the wheel and for a guide. And try to use the same team on all subsequent trips since expectations are set.
- Third, pick the right company (i.e., like-minded). Wildlife photography requires a lot of patience and stillness. Silence is often rewarded with good sightings. Avoiding distractions such as loud noises, shouting children, and constant chatter helps.
- Fourth, pick the right kind of clothing. Duller colors or camouflage clothing merge well with the greens of the forest. Wearing comfortable clothes is essential for prolonged sitting in the vehicle. Long-sleeved clothes help in rain forests.
- Fifth, other must-haves: Wet wipes, sanitizer (a must post-COVID), sunscreen lotions, insect repellants, umbrella, torch, spare batteries, a hat/cap, scarfs/masks (to avoid dust), sunglasses.
- Sixth, check for specific requirements in certain geographical locations like Yellow Fever vaccination for Kenya.
MJ travels with family for pleasure, but most of his trips for shooting photos are made either solo or with two or three other photography enthusiasts, at the most. He carries all his camera, video equipment, lenses, tripods, batteries, hard disks, storage, back-ups in his carry-on with very little personal luggage. He frequently chooses a safari vehicle (three rows of seats, generally, in India) with the middle seat removed so he has adequate space to house himself, his gear and still get a 360-degree view of the area around him.
Safari visits in many parts of India, are of two kinds. It can be an all-day affair, usually from 6 am to 6 pm, with unrestricted access to various zones of the park, but a minimal number of vehicles are allowed each day. More commonly, drives are split between morning and afternoon drives with rest time in between but are restricted to specific zones of the parks. MJ tries to get the all-day safari pass for its unrestricted access to all zones of a park. Besides, the afternoon’s lack of traffic gives greater access to sightings and privacy, which he enjoys. However, a day-long safari means long hours in the vehicle, of sitting still, with periods of boredom waiting for a sighting or several hours of excitement watching the action unfold, of harsh heat and cold rain, hunger and thirst. He has the hotel where he stays deliver a morning breakfast, and a lunch to a predetermined location at a particular time, ensuring the team gets their sustenance for the day. The roads the team drives on are muddy tracks. So MJ uses pillows or soft cushions to protect his camera gear. He also carries weighted bean bags and a tripod to ensure he gets clearer pictures. This set-up also helps to avoid a shaky video clip. He can spend anywhere from three to four days on a short trip at one park and about seven days on a longer one. On occasion, he has spent about twelve to thirteen days split over three parks.
JJ: You mentioned that your focus in wildlife capture has changed again over the last few years. How so?
MJ: In the last couple of years, I have realized that I have shot a lot more videos and taken fewer photos. I am not sure if this is a natural shift for anyone who likes to take photographs in the wild. But a video always tells a better story than a picture. Videography is far more complicated than photography. That is a hard reality I have understood over time. It is easy to look at a photo and determine whether to keep it or delete it. However, in videography, one needs to go through the entire clip and like only a small portion of it. I would still need to watch the sixty-second clip to identify that particular five-second clip that I want. I usually have many such small clips, so the task becomes more arduous.
Over the years, MJ has made many trips to follow individual tiger families, like Krishna and her cubs, or Noor and her cub Sultana in Ranthambore. On one of the visits, he came across Noor and her cub fighting for territorial authority. Here is MJ’s version of this sighting.
MJ: It was a bright and sunny afternoon with temperatures upward of 40 degrees C. We saw Noor resting in the water. All of a sudden, about 50 feet away, we saw another tiger approach with caution. It was Noor’s daughter, Sultana. Noor soon got out of the water and walked away. Sultana then got into the water. But to our surprise, she quickly got out and started walking in the direction of Noor. It didn’t take us long to realize she wanted to fight her mother for the territory. I have never witnessed such a brutal fight in the middle of a forest path, not far from our vehicle. The two tigers roared and fought vigorously. To our surprise, Noor gave up in the end. Sultana was a little under three years old when she won this fight and established her territory.
MJ says that watching that rare live-action, from such a short distance, was thrilling and not scary as he knew the animals were not after their human spectators. But he has had the privilege of being chased down by a tigress in Jim Corbett Park not once but twice. Each time she charged about 40 to 50 meters (150 feet) after their vehicle. But the driver was a seasoned one. He anticipated the charge and drove them to safety. They’re still not sure what spooked her, but such moments of excitement are part of a day’s work, in MJ’s world.
After following the tigress Krishna and her cubs for about five years, MJ has put his COVID downtime to good use by creating a short film, Krishna, that he released on his YouTube channel. Here are his thoughts on the tigress and the film that she inspired.
MJ: Krishna is a celebrity in Ranthambhore. She is the daughter of the legendary Machli and has had three litters of her own. Krishna was thrown out of her previous territory by her female cub, Arrowhead. The film on Krishna was not by design. Based on more than a dozen trips spanning five years, I collected sufficient material to consolidate into a short film. Keen observers of the film would note the transition from still photos at the start to live-action videos. In wildlife, capturing a wildcat making a kill is rare. I was fortunate to have witnessed this, although the final charge happened in tall grass. Watching Krishna’s strategy and her execution of the kill was just breathtaking. Capturing the moments over the two days after the kill and her interactions with her three sub-adult cubs made it further exciting. The thrill of the kill and the beauty of these exchanges pushed me into making a short film on Krishna.
The final version that MJ released was probably the 104th or 105th revision of the film he created, which speaks volumes about his patience and commitment to this field. That led me to the next question.
JJ: What inspires you the most when you film? What do you get out of this passion?
MJ: When you are in the wild, everything is a surprise. There is no guarantee of a sighting, and one can never be sure of what the day will bring. This surprise element is what inspires me most when I film. The test of patience, the wait, the suddenness, and the unpredictability of the moment inspire me most. As for what I get out of this? Over time, I realized that spending time with nature and visiting the forests is very relaxing. I lose track of time when I am in nature, and I connect with my inner self in these settings. I love the smell of the fresh morning air and the birds’ songs that are so soothing to the ears and the mind. Unlike Kenya, wildlife sightings in India are highly unpredictable, and so, catching a glimpse of these wild animals and being in such proximity is an indescribable feeling!
In addition to capturing wildcats, MJ also spends time on birding and herping. Unlike photographing cats, these involve a lot of walking with a guide, both by day and at night. He has an extensive set of photos of birds and snakes, and I have shared a few. But his biggest passion lies in watching and capturing animals and I think that isn’t going to change any time soon. MJ has so far managed to juggle full-time work and yet, be devoted to his passion. But there will come a day soon when he might have to choose. And I, for one, hope he chooses wisely and well! For now, he says he is “just enjoying doing what I love the most and would want to do it a lot more going forward.”
All the photos in this post are courtesy of MJ Photography. MJ sent me so many beautiful ones and I could not do justice to them all. I have tried to choose a variety and include as many as relevant to the interview and some others in the slideshow below.
MJ’s work can be found in the following links
Instagram – @mahendrajain2015
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Photography.MJ.2014
YouTube channel link to Krishna, the movie is embedded below.