Photographer Senthil Kumaran, recipient of the 2007 Geographical Photographer of the Year Award and a nominee for the 2019 World Press Photo Talent Program 6×6 Asia Region, has had no professional training in photography. He recalls his carefree childhood in the company of animals as the earliest indications of the profession he would eventually pursue — that of social and environmental documentary photography. “I used to spend most of my time caring for birds, fishing, taking care of street puppies and getting along with animals,” Kumaran says in an email interview with Firstpost. Also memorable were his early travel experiences. “I enjoyed sitting at the windows of buses and observing the visuals as they passed by,” he adds.
His first tryst with photography happened when he saw a magnificent photo of a sunset. “I had never witnesses such a scene in my lifetime. It became my biggest desire to take such a picture,” he says. Soon after, he entered a painting competition in college, in which he won the first prize of Rs 1,500. Kumaran used the money to buy a second-hand camera from his cousin, armed with which he photographed the sunset every day for eight months. Through this exercise, the photographer gained clarity on the intricacies and variety of colours in a sunset, and the play of light and shadow in a photograph.
Since then, his self-study for the past 20 years has included shooting various genres — from people and festivals, to street photography and photojournalism. Among the photographers who've made an impact on Kumaran are Sebastião Salgado, Josef Koudelka, Pep Bonet, and Michael Ackerman. The biggest influence on his photography, however, was French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work Senthil stumbled upon at a bookshop in 2002. He describes this as the most important day in his life, and adds: “His photographs had such a great impact on me that I became speechless for a day”. This experience is what prompted him to take up documentary photography.
Kumaran's gear of choice is the Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III with 24–70 millimeter-lens. However, he quickly adds that for him, the “subject is more important than the tools,” explaining that tools cannot determine subjects, only the photographer can.
Photography, for Kumaran, isn’t just about the handling of the camera or the aesthetics of the picture taken — it’s a tool for social and political change, and he describes photography as his “greatest weapon”.
Accordingly, much of his documentary work is driven by the question: “Twenty years later, what photo are you going to show your children?”
In line with this, his photography revolves around social and environmental issues, especially documenting the disturbing dynamics of the human-animal conflict. Within the conflict, he has special interest in documenting tigers, which stems from a personal instance. After first seeing a tiger on black and white television aged 10, it had been his dream to see one in the flesh, in all its majesty and litheness. Almost 25 years later, while working on a project, he got a message from Tamil Nadu’s Valparai about a tiger who had entered the town. The sight he saw there greatly disturbed him – with barely any flesh on it, the tiger lay on the mud, and almost a hundred people surrounded it with poles and other weapons in hand. “The eagerness to see the majestic tiger ended with great disappointment,” he recalls, that “it was those scenes" that made him "realise the dark side of the tiger and its contemporary ecology”.
Other than tigers, he also documents the prevailing condition of elephants, and is involved in projects related to manual scavenging, tribal relocation, marine research, and Cambodia’s illegal animal trade. “The value of your work is yourself and your integrity,” Kumaran says about his choices. He adds that as a photographer, his belief is that “curiosity, excitement and wonder should never be lost on the artist”. He strives to always be “creative with a vision, [with] an enthusiasm for knowledge and action.” “You are the creator of your work and you are the spectator,” he adds, driving home the idea that taking photographs he is personally proud of is always his highest priority.
Senthil Kumaran is a speaker at the 2019 Indian Photography Festival which will take place at the State Art Gallery, Hyderabad, from 19 September to 20 October. More details here.
Kumaran's ongoing project Boundaries: Human and Tiger Conflict documents the complex challenges of the human-animal conflict.
Given the push for growth of tiger population, India currently has 50 tiger reserves, all surrounded by villages. For these villagers, agriculture and forest resources are the sole means of livelihood. "The tiger reserves are constituted on a ‘core-buffer strategy’," explains Kumaran in the project, adding: "The core area is kept free of biotic disturbances and forestry operations, where collection of minor forest produce, grazing, and human disturbances are not allowed. The buffer zone is managed as a ‘multiple use area’ with the twin objectives of providing habitat to the spill-over population of wild animals from the core conservation unit, and to provide site specific eco-development inputs to surrounding villages for relieving the impact on the core".
As human population increases, and the country develops, wildlife habitat has been fragmented and encroached upon. The resulting low prey base has driven tigers to enter human settlements, also sometimes turning into man-eaters. "In reciprocating to the behaviour of the tiger, the local people poison their livestock to kill the tiger," adds the project. The government's response to this conflict has been human relocation. "There are 56,000 families living inside the various reserves and 12,000 families were relocated from the corezone, which also has many practical hurdles," concludes Kumaran.
Here are some select photos from Senthil Kumaran's Boundaries: Human and Tiger Conflict: