A camera gifted by a father to his daughter on her 11th birthday was what changed the course of her destiny. The young girl, excited by such an unexpected gift went about clicking pictures. What started as fun turned into a hobby, a passion and finally a profession at which she excelled.
Now, twelve years later, her passion has fetched Aishwarya Sridhar world fame and recognition. The award for Best Wildlife Photographer of the Year which she won recently was picked from more than 50,000 entries from among the world’s finest wildlife photographers drawn from more than 80 countries. Mumbai-based Aishwarya is the first and the only Indian to win this accolade in the prestigious award’s 56-year-old history. The award was announced at the Natural History Museum in London.
The award-winning photograph titled “Lights of Passion” is a brilliant study in contrast. Against the backdrop of a night sky in the Bhandaradhara forests stands a tree illuminated with the luminescent glow of a zillion fireflies. It’s a frame of gold clicked after hours of patient and painstaking wait in the dead of night in the heart of wildlife habitat.
It all began as a hobby
As she grew up, Aishwarya, daughter of Palakkad natives Sridhar Ranganathan and Rani Sridhar, loved photography only as much as she cared for other hobbies like dancing, swimming and writing. Her initial locations were her home in Panvel and the scenic settings around and her models, the peacocks, butterflies, cuckoos and sparrows that flitted around in her garden. The garden used to be frequented by wild boars, which also became subjects of her photoshoots. She would go about stealthily to get their best views. Aishwarya recalls that those were her baby steps into the realm of wildlife photography.
Call of the wild
Right from childhood, the lure of the wild got embedded in her as Aishwarya accompanied her father on treks and short trips into the forest. That’s how her camera became an inseparable part of her identity. At every turn there lay a photo opportunity. The more prints she took of her clicks, the more inspired she turned. Her decision to turn to wildlife photography and film direction as a career option came soon after she graduated in mass communication.
Wildlife photographers Kalyan Varma and Radhika Ramaswamy are her role models.
Though Aishwarya comes down to meet up with relatives in Kozhikode, Guruvayur and Palakkad, these places have not had much of an appeal for her. The only place she’s love to go to over and over again is the Silent Valley, the ideal spot for her experiments in wildlife observation, where she did a documentary on the famed lion-tailed monkey.
Filming wildlife has thrown up several unforgettable moments, says Aishwarya as she recalls her trip into the forests of Gujarat to copy on camera the life, food habits and living conditions of hyenas. Once while clicking pictures of black-headed gulls on a beach in Mumbai, she failed to notice the deep sandpits on the beach. She was deep in concentration when all of a sudden, the birds took flight. As she stepped back, she was caught in a deep, perilous sandpit from which she saved herself with much difficulty.
The image of a tiger an 11-year-old Aishwarya saw in the Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh left a lasting impression on her mind. The picture was also clicked by her point-and-shoot camera. But the young girl was shattered to learn that the tiger was later hunted down and killed. This incident gave her the impetus to start writing on environmental issues. She took up her save animals crusade through her writings and documentaries, a mission she has not given up. She regularly holds awareness workshops and camps. She’s a familiar face on television as a wildlife presenter.
Coming back to the picture which fetched her the coveted award, she says what worked for her was an article in the dailies about this rare phenomenon of fireflies lighting up the dark. She trekked for hours in the dark to the snake-infested, wildlife-rich place and waited patiently for the right moment. The rest of course is history. At the age of 23, Aishwarya is the youngest photographer to win the award.
She is now into her next endeavour of photographing the Himalayan snow leopard. Due to the Covid travel restrictions, the award ceremony scheduled to be held in London was instead, a virtual one.
Her family, her support
While the award is indeed a recognition for the young photographer’ parents … her mother Rani who gave up her job to raise her daughter and her father, who initiated her into the amazing world of photography, say it’s a well-deserved recognition for their daughter’s hard work and commitment.
They have seen her struggling through the thick and thin of it all, trekking all by herself into the dark wilderness, crossing mountains and rivers, waiting for hours in pitch darkness for that one defining moment.
Aishwarya used to take part in all photography competitions while still in school. Apart from winning the Sanctuary Asia Young Naturalist award at the age of 14, she has in her kitty the International Camera Fair award, Women Icon award, the Princess Diana Award instituted by the British royal family, the Excellence in Short Film award, the New York Wildlife Film Festival’s Best Amateur Film award, the Young Digital Camera Photographer award and now, the World Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.