Meet The 17 Year Old Sanctuary Asia Award Winner

In The House


A serene and soothing environment at the Corbett national park. Daylight, but not a single creature in sight. Then, just out nowhere, a crouching tiger jumps up at an approaching doe. A spellbinding chase follows that ends within seconds, with a final leap that snaps the doe’s neck. This scene was captured by a 17-year old with his lens. You read it right, 17! The picture won Sanctuary Asia Award 2014.

Daanish Shastri, another one of those ‘doing it just because he feels like doing it and because he wants to unite with nature’ cases.

Madness?

So here for you is our conversation with this young, wild and surprisingly clear-headed
man.

Let’s begin with an introduction, for those who aren’t associated with photography, or wildlife photography for that matter. Please tell us who Daanish Shastri is?

 (Chuckles) Okay, so I started photography when I was about seven. My mom is a filmmaker and my dad is a wildlife lover, so that’s where I got my first camera from. And as of now Daanish Shastri is someone who is giving his 12th-board examinations and hoping to get into a good Delhi university college. I think it’s just my love for the forest that I keep going there so often and get an opportunity to click such pictures. It’s good to be there.

Wildlife Photography

 

How did it all begin? Was there a course related to professional photography or was it an in-house tutoring by your mother? How did you learn?

No, there was no schooling. My mom just taught me the basics, after that I started sitting in peoples’ cars. Professionals Shivang Mehta and Dhritiman Mukherjee, used to teach me and I used watch and learn, and keep clicking.

So wildlife photography – you do it professionally or is it a passion and a hobby sort-of a thing?  You are 17 now, where are you planning to take it in the coming years?

Well, the future options that I have on my mind are not exactly related to photography, but they sure are related to the camera. Probably cinematography or film making of some sort. It would be right to say that my mother is my inspiration. What I really want or aim to do is a bit different though. My earnings as a cinematographer are always going to be directed towards forest conservation. Moving villages, digging wells, arming a forest guard. There is just so much you can give to the forest with the money you make.

Great! Now moving back in time Daanish, can you recall you first “WOW” photograph? Please tell us a bit about what it was and how it happened.

Sure. The picture won the special mention in Sanctuary Asia 2012. It was a picture of a hunt at the Corbett. A deer running across the road chased by a tiger. You could say it was one those lucky shots. I was with my friend, sitting in the backseat of his car. He stood up on the front seat and we started clicking on the left, where there was no action. Then for a split second I took my eyes off the camera to look at the road and saw a deer running towards it. Instinctively, I directed the camera to the road and clicked. The first shot was of the deer crossing the road followed by four shots of the
tiger.

Wildlife Photography

And if I may ask, how old were you then?

13 or 14.

14?! Amazing! Here is an elaborate question. What is your style of photography? Why is wildlife so important for you and how do you, as a photographer, help in conserving it? I mean, there must be something that you want a viewer to take from your work. What is it?

Well, this is something I feel strong about. See, I never developed any “style” of photography. You can branch out photography into fine art photography and natural history photography. Now, the special mention picture, as well as the winning picture both fall in the natural history category. Fine art is more about using your camera creatively to express emotions through the nature. Both the types can be used to help in the conservation of nature. Natural history shows action while with an artistic image, you can make the people connect with nature as well as make them feel sad at the same time, by showing them some beautiful aspect of the nature. But again, the latter is a tricky thing to do, and it’s difficult to master that. You are trying to touch peoples’ emotions and sensitise them towards conserving forests by showing them the beauty of nature. This is what I really aim to do.

And what about wildlife? Why is it so important to you?

Frankly, photography is just a pass time for me while I’m in the forest. Being there, tracking the tigers, feeling one with nature and conserving the forest is what is important for me. That is actually what I aim to do in life, even if I’m working as a cinematographer. I’ll be putting any money I earn, back in the forests.

The award-winning photograph that you clicked, well, I will have to say it’s one of the most amazing pictures that I have seen. I would want to know why you think that it won. According to you, what separates a great photographer from an average one?

If you think about why it won, well that is completely subjective to the contest it was submitted to. For instance, Sanctuary Asia always looks at natural history moments. Apart from my picture, the second image that won, which was a completely outstanding click by Keerthana Balaji, was also a picture of action between an elephant and a group of wild dogs. So, the fact that I was able to capture some great action there and was able to submit it in a Sanctuary Asia competition, is important. If I would have submitted the same entry to BBC, I wouldn’t have won, for they prefer the artistic photographs.

Talking about the winning photograph, please share with us its story. How did it happen?

Ya sure. So, we had visited the place ten days earlier for four nights but didn’t spot a single tiger. And that place was supposed to have four cubs and a tigress who I fondly call Charamma. Then, ten days later, my tracker wanted to visit so we hopped along and stayed there for two more days. On the second day of our stay, after not being able to spot a single tiger, we packed our stuff and got ready to leave. Just as we were having tea, my driver Arif comes along and says, “My feet are shaking, something is going to happen. Let’s just go for one last round.” So we got into the car for one more round. As expected there was not a single call, no pug marks, no sightings had been there since the morning and the forest was silent. Often, it happens that everything just goes quite. Arif stopped at random in the middle of this chaudh, for no reason at all. He stood up on the top of the gypsy and started looking around. Abruptly, he pointed, “woh dekho, tiger!”. There was a tiger lying low, stalking a deer. The pregnant deer, unaware, started walking towards the tiger. There was a time when my mother whispered in my ear, “I wish I could throw a stone and stop this from happening”, but we couldn’t disturb the nature in any way.

At that moment, I knew that to capture this, I needed to change my 100-400mm lens to a 50mm one. So I asked my dad (who by the way has no clue about photography) to pass the same to me. My dad just put his hand inside, picked a lens which luckily was a 50mm one, passed it on. I put on the lens on, and just as I put my eye to the eyepiece and started clicking, the deer called and ran and the tiger ran behind her. The deer crossed the road and the tiger leaped and got its kill. That evening, the tiger took out the unborn fawn from the deer and fed it to its cubs and then took them to the deer carcass. I have the frame by frame shot of the entire thing.

Wildlife Photography

 

Such instances do leave you in complete awe. Is that your most favourite picture or is there an even better one?

No, no. There is a picture I clicked in May this year. It’s of two elephants at the Ramganga water reservoir with their trunks interlocked. The sun setting above them.

 

Wildlife Photography

 

Now, I have a few technical questions for the aspiring and inquisitive photographers. But before those, there is an important question. Family, Academics, Wildlife Photography – How are these balanced?

Glad you asked that. Well, for all the aspiring photographers, according to me education is important if you want to educate yourself. If you are sure about photography or any other stream, then there is no need for education, especially in India. The education system here is so disgusting, like I absolutely have no clue as to what I am supposed to do with the mathematics book that I am holding right now because it’s so irrelevant. If you go abroad, this sort of mathematics is taught only if you choose to study it. What I am not taught at school is how to open a bank account, which is something I am actually going to use in my life. 

The balancing part - you can only do it to an extent. If I would not be into wildlife I would have definitely pumped up my percentage by about ten percent, but if you ask me, frankly, I would not mind substituting twenty percent of my academics for the wildlife that I have done. Photography can manage my travel expenses. With the money that I have won I can do 45 days in Corbett, and exhibiting the photos I click then, I can do another hundred days. But for my life expenses, for sustaining a family, academics is important.

That is a lot of mental clarity, I must say. Moving on to a bit more technical part. I have wanted to avoid this question, but other photographers and enthusiast would expect this. What cameras/lenses do you use and why?

Okay, so I don’t have much of a choice of what I use. I use an EOS 70D and an EOS 550D. I am happy with the 70D. 550D is average, though that picture was clicked with the 550. The lenses: I use a 50mm 1.8, 100 to 400 mm, and an 18-135mm and also a 90mm 2.8macro. Also an advice, unless you can name the mods you need in a camera at your fingertips and unless you can actually feel the need in the field, don’t go about updating your equipment. Because then you would not be able to appreciate the beauty of a more expensive equipment.

What’s your post-production workflow? Do you process and transform the pictures or do you prefer the raw ones?

Well, that again depends on. When you are clicking a natural history photograph, you try not to make any changes to the image later - you show what you have clicked. Art has no limits, I mean I have done so much to a picture and in the post-production got so much out of it. Personally, I feel making changes to an image later on is completely up to the photographer. You cannot submit it in a competition because of the guidelines, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it for your own satisfaction. Try things on your laptop, make the picture more beautiful and the next time, try clicking it on the field without post-production.

Lighting and weather conditions seem to be a crucial aspect of a successful picture in the wild. How do you handle these unpredictable events?

As for the weather, it plays an important part in changing the animals’ behaviour. Sometimes you get astounding and powerful shots, and sometimes you just have to give in, but you can’t control that and you have to move on. As for the lighting conditions, against the common conception, I feel that a great picture can also be clicked in the light. There are some effects that you just can’t get while parallel to the light. And the vice versa is also true – sometimes, for the light is the way to go. It’s all about honing the skill.

Wildlife Photography

 

So now that you have an esteemed and revered award in your field, is there anything that you’re aiming for next?

BBC. Let’s hope I win it. Though the chances of which are very low because the photographs there are just amazing.

The final one. If not wildlife photography particularly, a lot of people wish to get into photography, in general. But then, they are nervous regarding the career opportunities, slim chances and a platform of a refined competition. Also, there has always been a family and societal pressures against such offbeat career choices. Any tips or advice?

According to me the first option would be to keep a backup in place. Do your academics, keep your parents happy and keep clicking whatever sort of photography it might be. Once you are 18, it’s your life. Do whatever you want to with it, graduate and do a photography course and become a professional. I might sound wrong right now, but, it’s your parents who are paying for you. So, you can’t say no to the academic part completely. But if you can handle it, do it on the side, and when you have a choice, just take it up to a whole new level. Life is long and there is no age-limit to start.

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