Tell us about yourself
To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles… And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.” wrote Hunter S. Thompson in letter to his friend Hume Logan.
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During his journey, Prasenjeet Yadav has shuffled his choices, from what may seem being a ‘floater’ to a ‘swimmer’. He started out as a science student from a small city (Nagpur) who worked his way up to get a research position at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), as well as improve his linguistic skills in English. While pursuing research on Tiger genetics as a research fellow, he made the choice of leaving academia and to take up science photography professionally. In this interview he speaks to Club SciWri about his story.
I.J. When and how did you fall in love with science?
P.Y. I was always curious about the world around me and it was the result of my curiosity that made me start caring about science and nature. I grew up in Central India, on my father’s farm near Nagpur surrounded by jungle. ‘How?s’ bothered me as much as ‘what?s’ did. I wanted to understand the behavior of animals, stripes of tigers, color of the snakes, and calls of the birds I would see around me. The folk tales I heard while growing up were laced with wild jungle characters and I would wonder why they behave the way they do. I often got anecdotal responses from the elders in the village, which did not sound reasonable even then.Science was the lens through which the behaviors made sense. Back in school it was the only subject I studied for,and managed to pass (laughs).
I.J. When was your first brush with the camera?
P.Y. (long story) I was the guy in the school class who did not care about cricket, not a very common place thing among children of my generation in India. I was met with jibes and taunts when I would abruptly talk about the leopard I saw. I knew then pictures would be the proof of my experiences. I anyways liked the idea of taking a moment from time and give it to infinity. It was profound, so fascinating. My father had some interest in photography. He gifted me a ‘hot shot camera’. It had one roll, one view finder, a lens and you click. I actually had to earn the roll and the allowance to develop by cleaning my dad’s vehicles every morning at 6 AM. I spent my time looking at the world through the viewfinder of that hot shot camera trying to get that one perfect shot. Things changed when I bought my first SLR camera, after coming to Bangalore. After setting up thousands of PCR reactions, I would spend my evening capturing ants and frogs and snakes at the herbarium in the campus.
I.J. When did you decide to make the call of going over to an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career such as photography?
P.Y. It was during the time, a year almost, that I spent at the herbarium that made me realize my interest and potential in photography. Honestly, I knew I wasn’t an academic genius, but I was hard-working. I felt that despite getting my work published in decent journals,I was not sure if that is what I wanted to do any longer. However, during my time as a researcher, I spent a lot of my time talking to my engineer friends who only perceived me as a tiger poop collector. I took some efforts to explain them my research, and I realized I enjoy communicating science. It keeps my curiosity alive. During the process of my research, at some point it went into too many details where I felt my curiosity slipping away. While I understand the importance of intricate details in research, I do not feel that I could do this for long.
I.J. You often say, “I am made of my failures”. What are the failures you refer to?
P.Y. I think what you define and perceive as a failure really depends on your perspective. At a time, flunking in chemistry exam was a failure. Looking back at it now, it’s just plain hilarious. There was a time in my academic career that I started feeling that I was not satisfied enough. I was failing my own expectations for a good academic career. I realized I was not doing well and there seemed no point in continuing this. I was in a matrix- of science, conservation, and photography and science communication. I was standing at one end and hoping all of it funnels towards me. Well, that was not happening and I felt, I was failing. I realized I should just change my position in this matrix. Looking back, it was not a very conscious decision, but rather I followed my intuition. I believed if I do what I like; things will eventually fall into place. What was once my ‘failure’, is now my strength. I understand better the science of the subjects that I photograph. I understand the jargons in the community and can make sense of things. The ‘failures’ have set a foundation for leaps in my current choice of career.
I.J. How did people perceive after you ‘quit’?
P.Y. After I quit, I called up my mother who is quite cool, and told her about my decision. She said, ‘Okay, padh-likhleta to acha lagta’ (roughly translates to: Okay, if you had gone on to study, it would have felt better). But gratefully, my parents did not object to my choice. I guess my financial independence also helped. However, I felt like a failure because I quit my research within three years while others had put three decades into their research. I couldn’t help myself out of this. And I feel my own opinions about myself were being reflected in people’s perception of me. And I took their perception seriously; it was a reality check for me to evaluate my situation better.
I.J. What have you been upto since you ‘quit’?
P.Y. I like to observe and observe and observe. I like to identify processes, look for some patterns and tell a story. That’s how I got into science in the first place, seeking a good medium to look for meaningful patterns. I have been experimenting with the camera. I got my first gig by chance. Me and my friend, we were dog-sitting for an NCBS professor while he was away. During that time, a BBC filmmaker KalyanVarma landed up at the house looking for the professor. Instead, they ended up talking to me. They were planning to make a movie on monsoon. I suggested the story of migration by nomadic Dhangars tribe and their relationship with pack of wolves that follow them. Filmmakers got excited by the idea and later I ended up working with them for six months in Central India for the story. After that, I documented a project for NCBS, Govt. of Sikkim and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment that was funded by Department of Biotechnology. I went to Sikkim and documented the work Sikkim students were doing across various fields on diversity and ecosystem of the state. I developed it into a photo story that was appreciated by funding agencies and the researchers alike. After that, a lot of people who in my perception, thought of me as a failure came around and appreciated my work. It felt nice and made me realize that the work like this has a lot of value.
Slowly one thing led to another, and I published with many major magazines and newspaper house In India. I realized that the stories I did were not just specific to Indian audience and had international value. They were stories on conservation, climate change, sustainable energy etc. Then I looked for opportunities and found National Geographic Young Explorer grant. I applied for it and actually got it. That is the time when I felt, did National Geographic just approve of what I have been doing! Since then I have worked on various projects with them. They have helped my growth tremendously by sending me to photojournalism workshops, recommending me for several international film and photo festivals etc. I call myself freelance photographer but in last three years, I have freelanced only with National Geographic (chuckles).