Chat with Kalyan:
FOR Kalyan Varma, wildlife photography was the realisation of a childhood dream. He would spend hours glued to the television, watching programmes on National Geographic and BBC, equally entranced by the captivating visuals and the mellifluous voice of David Attenborough. But, soon he realised that “it had become a medium for me to explore and showcase our wonderful wildlife and more importantly how badly we are screwing it up”. With his roots in wildlife photography, the 35-year-old is also a successful film-maker today with BBC and National Geographic and a naturalist focusing on environmental and ecological issues. “I want my work to be part of the conversation on environment and social issues, and to be engaged with the world on a deeply serious level,” explains Varma. His goal: to provoke debate and discussion with his pictures about issues that really matter.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved wildlife, and I was always keen on photography.” But, hailing from a regular middle-class family meant he had to follow a conventional career path. Varma completed his engineering in Bengaluru and started working at Yahoo. He enjoyed being a part of the startup scene, but was asked to move to the US by his company. “I never wanted to settle there. The only option left for me was to be a people manager, which I did not want to do. So, I decided to take a break and quit.”
6bridges:Tell us about your story so far from being an engineering student to a corporate career to being a wildlife photographer and a nature enthusiast? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Kalyan Varma: I did my mechanical engineering (from PESIT) and then joined Yahoo from campus. I used to like my work at yahoo. I wasn’t disgruntled by my job nor did I feel stuck in a desk job or in a cubicle though I wanted to do something else. Actually, I grew up watching movies and I always wanted to be a hacker and things like that. I was inclined towards the security field and at college I was doing things on security networking and Linux.
After my mechanical engineering, I got in at Yahoo where I worked with the security team which was great, because every guy in the world wants to break into Yahoo. It was a great and challenging job to be at Yahoo and manage things there. I worked there for about three years and I was working 18 hours a day; not because someone asked me to but because it was fun working in that environment.
It was a free environment and I never had a boss, instead I built up my own challenges. It started off like that. But after three years, two things happened. One was the burnout which was possibly because of 18 hour workdays and working on weekends. Two, Yahoo had changed from a small company to being a company of thousand plus employees. The DNA of the company changed from the time I had joined when it was a small company (I was the fifth employee) and the small start-up became a bigger company where there were systems, processes, people managers and people trying to climb up the ladder etc. It stopped being a company that was cool to work in anymore.
I was kind of disillusioned with Yahoo and needed a break. I decided to quit my job, step back and figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to join any company right away. I resigned and went home and got up the next morning and realized I had nothing to do! I felt great!
6bridges: So you didn’t take a holiday but decided to leave your job?
Kalyan Varma: I decided to leave my job and for sometime after that, I wasn’t doing anything. I was always interested in wildlife photography and as a nature enthusiast I had done some photography. So after leaving my job, I would sometimes go to the jungles and do some wildlife photography. Then I told myself that if I was taking a break, let me take a longer break and not just a week. I used to go to the forests earlier too, even when I was at Yahoo.
So, I went and spoke to one of these eco tourism companies and they said I could work as a naturalist with them. A naturalist is someone who is a guide on wildlife to people. The salary they offered was peanuts but I told them that salary wasn’t a problem. So that was decided then. So 2 months after I quit Yahoo I went and started working in the forest.
What I had thought was that I would stay in the forest for a month and then get back. Instead, what happened was that once I stayed in the forest 24*7, tracking wildlife, going out with tribals, learning local things etc I just couldn’t get back to what I was doing earlier. That’s when I realized it was one of those things I was meant to do and I wanted to do kind of it.
6bridges: So how long did you work with the tourism company?
Kalyan Varma: I originally set out to work there for a month but it finally became a year long activity. I stayed there for 11 months. It’s a government body in the forests and I wasn’t even taking a salary for the work. But after 11 months I realized I had to do something about my life as this is not a sustainable model. I was, however, sure I didn’t want to join a job and tie myself up. I was also getting involved in a lot of conservation projects. I didn’t want to leave that completely. So, in the first half of 2006 I was doing some IT security consulting. That was, maybe 10 days a month and then I would go spend 3 weeks in forests.
6bridges: How was it – working on two diverse things?
Kalyan Varma: It was one of the worst times of my life as I wasn’t doing justice to any of the two things. I would be in the middle of the forest and a client would call me up for an issue. On the other hand, I would be doing security audit and there would be a call from the forest saying, ‘hey the tiger’s just made a kill. Why don’t you come and take pictures of it.’ So, I couldn’t spend my 100% time on either thing.
6bridges: How did you eventually take a decision out of this dilemma?
Kalyan Varma: Thankfully, in late 2006 I got an offer from BBC. I have an active blog and I have pictures online. They would have seen my pictures and realized I had been to some places and asked me if I could do this project about frogs in Western Ghats. This is what I had always loved to do – work with the BBC and National Geographic. The position they offered me was a camera assistant, and I said what the hell, I had had a foot in the floor in BBC now and so, I took it up.
I tried to put an end to security consulting but at the same time I couldn’t do that either, because I had some long term clients. At that time, I wasn’t taking any new clients, and so took up the BBC project.
6bridges: And how long did you work with the BBC?
Kalyan Varma: I worked with them for a year, which is till about the end of 2007. The film got aired and I went to the UK. It was really well done. However I was still working on a contract basis with BBC and wasn’t a permanent employee. That’s the time I also started doing some photography workshops because people wanted to learn photography from me, worked for NGOs and eco tourism companies which wanted me to be a consultant on their board. In my two years of freelancing with BBC they really liked my work because I knew technology well.
I have always been saying that people have stopped watching television and get their entertainment online from youtube, facebook etc. Then there’s BBC’s social media thing. Things like expeditions, you know. You have to go on an expedition with people following you live on the field. So BBC said I was included in one of their media categories called Earth Explorer where I had to go around the world to do a story on anything that I like, such as wildlife. Well, that’s been the journey of transition from an IT job to a wildlife career.
6bridges: Have you ever trained as a photographer?
Kalyan Varma: It started as a hobby and I learnt it myself and mastered it over time. That’s similar for IT too. I was a mechanical engineer but I learnt IT too over a period of time.
6bridges: Was it a passion at some early stage?
Kalyan Varma: Yes, I used to play around with cameras but then my parents couldn’t buy me a big camera because of finance constraints. So, it remained a limited passion for photography that I had, while growing up. It was only when I started working that I could eventually buy a good camera and spend money on travel.
6bridges: Going back to an earlier question, what was the specific trigger that made you quit yahoo and take to photography?
Kalyan Varma: There were two things. One, I wanted to take a break and that was like overnight, I got up one day and said I want to take a break. Secondly, the transition from IT to knowing that I wanted to do wildlife photography took two years. I needed to build my credit balance. Thanks to Yahoo, I could accumulate enough savings to travel and survive. That was a slow transition, and actually it was the mail from BBC asking me to work with them which was a turning point. It was like a green signal for me to go ahead.
6bridges: What was the initial reaction from family and friends?
Kalyan Varma: Well (laughs). Friends were very happy. Some of them thought I had gone bonkers! As far as parents were concerned, it was difficult to accept initially and it took some time. Being a typical south Indian family, it took them a while to digest. Now they’re happy with what I am doing and they encourage me quite a bit.
6bridges: Why do you think that out of the people from Yahoo you were the one who actually moved out and followed his passion in an alternate career?
Kalyan Varma: Getting out of a comfort zone is something that is important if you want to pursue an alternate career. Lots of people I know are good and things like music or singing and have had plans – like starting a music band for instance, but haven’t really gone on to do so. That’s because once you are in a comfort zone of getting monthly salary and a job, it is difficult to get out of it. But if you are really passionate about something, you need to break out of the comfort zone, and it will happen.
And yes, you can’t follow a passion part time. Another thing is that India has now matured as a country. Alternate careers that we see now were not possible 10/15 yrs ago. More opportunities are also available now for people to pursue alternate careers.
6bridges: How easy was it to sustain oneself financially?
Kalyan Varma: You do need to supplement your revenues through other sources to support yourself. Even today it’s very difficult for me to rely on one thing. For instance, with BBC I work 3-5 months in a year. Along with that I do consulting, photography workshops, at year end I do wildlife calendars for corporates etc. So, one has to do multiple things and it’s difficult to rely on one thing alone.
6bridges: Was there a backup plan when you were making a transition from Yahoo to wildlife?
Kalyan Varma: No, I didn’t have a back up-plan as such. India as a country has matured. I knew I could also get a job if I failed. You have to have some self confidence. I had the confidence that I wouldn’t ever be on the streets begging for money. Well, if I lost my skills or if IT moved on, at the most, jobs could be difficult. But otherwise, if push came to shove, I was an engineer and I could always find myself a job, so that was not a worry.
6bridges: We have gone through your website which reflects a lot of passion in the way you’ve designed the site. How has your background in technology helped? What are the pioneering things you have been able to bring in, into this field?
Kalyan Varma: Quite a few things actually. This has been my foot in the door with lot of organizations. There are wildlife scientists who are not so tech savvy and they want some work done. I have helped them with building websites, setting up data bases, some small applications which make your job easier etc. Earlier I used to do it free of cost. But it sort of opened the door and now these scientists want me to accompany them on expeditions. For a photographer, this is privileged access, as I would want to show something new every now and then. This has been possible because of the free IT consulting that I am able to help them out with. With BBC also I do IT related consulting. That’s not what I want to do, but then I don’t mind.
The second thing is this. I used to be an activist for open source technology/linux. My pictures are given free to whoever has asked for them. I don’t ask for money or anything like that. It’s a simple open source model, the operating system is free and you charge for the services around it. My photographs have been free of charge and it’s helped make amazing friends and build amazing access to people. Also, people who like them come back and say, ‘hey we have the money for it and we appreciate your work and so, we can pay for your photographs too.’
6bridges: That’s a brave model.
Kalyan Varma: It’s not just about being brave, but it’s also about being different. Photography being a creative field, you’ve got to be different. Traditionally most photographers are stuck up and they don’t want to share their images and they put this huge copyright sign which spoils the image. But in my way, I also end up making great friends and contacts. Yes, people can use the pictures as long as they aren’t using them for commercial purposes.
6bridges: You’ve also written that photographers aren’t treated well in India. Is there a general skepticism about creative passions that translates into such a treatment?
Kalyan Varma: There are two things. One, there are lots of those kind of people who do wedding photography who come with a camera and shoot pictures and go. None of them are good pictures; instead they serve as a record to let people know who all had come for the wedding.
Two, there are people who aren’t good photographers but have a big camera and a studio. Though they aren’t good, they still get orders. So, if you have a big camera and a studio, you’ll automatically get orders irrespective of whether you are a good photographer or not.
6bridges: How can professionals like you contribute in changing this outlook?
Kalyan Varma: I think the internet has changed all that. Now, people are able to take a look at the pictures and come back to me and genuinely say that they liked my pictures, and not because I have a big camera or contacts. I think in India the transformation from people working in the public sector to private sector has meant that people want to be paid for the skills and the amount of work that they do. The transformation has happened where people pay for the photography skills. However, historically photographers have a bad reputation.
6bridges: So, has that perception changed in respect of creative fields like photography, paintings?
Kalyan Varma: Well, there is a problem with fine arts. People can sell paintings at Rs 5 lakhs or Rs 10 lakhs each, depending on who you’re selling them to. But if it’s a photograph, if the photographer charges Rs 20,000, people wonder why the price is high and think that it was more the camera that did the job rather than any skill. Somewhere the appreciation of a photographer as an artist is absent but then again, I think the perception is changing and I feel in some years the society will be mature enough and the appreciation will come.
6bridges: While making the choice to become a photographer, you must have had the confidence that you are a good photographer. Someone with lesser talent may not have got there. So, did you get a feedback that you were a good photographer?
Kalyan Varma: I had an online presence for a while which helped. People liked the photographs since I was sharing the pictures. I had been writing a blog for sometime which also helped. That helped me get a feedback about my work from people.
6bridges: You won the sanctuary wildlife photographer of the year award in 2005 and also BBC photography awards award. Your work has also been appreciated in such a short time. What has given you the biggest joy and satisfaction?
Kalyan Varma: Well, these awards have been nice and they give you the confidence that ‘Hey, you are good for this job.’ I was also making some money and it helps since, especially, in wildlife photography, where lens are expensive It gives you a nice push but I feel happy when I see my pictures being used for a good social wildlife conservation cause.
The kick in life is when I see an organization using my pictures and then there is a positive outcome like someone has not cut a tree or someone has not killed an animal or some useful legislation has been passed. That’s been my biggest satisfaction. It’s been a tool for change and that’s the reason I do photography – not for money alone.
6bridges: You have worked in the Kalakad Mundanthurai forests and also written about the Western Ghats. Tell us some of the most fascinating experiences you’ve had there. It’s not easy for someone to keep going to the wilds and staying there for months together. Tell us what brings you back to the wilds.
Kalyan Varma: When I started work in wildlife, I always felt like Indiana Jones – going out there conquering new places and exploring previously unexplored areas! It was when I was working for the BBC that I realized it was actually the reverse! You go to a place and expose yourself to the place, you be vulnerable and let that place grow on you. You leaving a mark versus the place leaving a mark on you is the valuable asset someone can take back.
That’s something that I like – going to a place with no contact with the outside world and living with the environment. In my world this is a spiritual experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything else in the world – not for a million dollars or anything.
6bridges: How would you compare working in a regular job with the kind of work you do? And you are still involved with IT work.
Kalyan Varma: I don’t think it’s easy to compare. I still keep track of things related to security and technology. IT and wildlife photography are two different things which are difficult to compare, I think.
6bridges: How’re they different?
Kalyan Varma: At a fundamental level, wildlife photography is different from working in a regular job. It is about answering questions about what are you, exploring places on this planet earth, while working at yahoo means solving some very particular problem for a company. So they are different. In the bigger scheme of things you touch upon many more things while pursuing wildlife photography than an IT job.
6bridges: So Kalyan what’s your big plan? Tell us about the big dream that you have.
Kalyan Varma: People have asked me this question often and they are shocked by my answer. If 20 years from now, I can still do what I am doing now, I will be a very happy man. Right now I have enough network and reputation and I can say that tomorrow I will go and shoot inside a forest for the next two months for which companies will pay me.
Twenty years from now, if I am able to keep the same privilege where I can keep exploring the world and doing photography, I’ll be very happy. I enjoy what I am doing and years from now I want to enjoy doing that, its not that I want to achieve something.
6bridges: There are regular professionals who want to strike out on their own or follow their passions. However they are hesitant for a variety of factors. What are the factors that a person should consciously internalize before taking such a decision?
Kalyan Varma: Self confidence is the key. There’s a saying that if you want something badly, the whole world will conspire to make it happen. If you like something, you would be good at it.
I studied for a year in the US. One day the teacher there asked what all of us would want to be when we grew up. One of the boys said he wanted to be a weather reporter on TV. Everyone laughed at him. I got back in touch with the boy two years back. I found that he has actually become a weather reporter for one of the local TV channels. You might think it’s a lousy job – being a weatherman on TV but this man wanted to be one and he went on to become one.
6bridges: Do you think you are a photographer first who’s captured wildlife through the lens or you are a wildlife enthusiast first who realized he could be a photographer too?
Kalyan Varma: I think of myself as a wildlife guy first, any day! There have been times when I have had to put down the camera and go and save an animal or attend to something. There have also been times when getting closer to an animal would have given me a better picture but I didn’t use my camera if I felt using it would disturb the animal. I am wildlife guy first and photography is just a tool for me to share that wildlife with everyone.
6bridges: Do you also look at making films in the future in this domain?
Kalyan Varma: For me it’s a thin line. Working for BBC and National Geographic is not fun. It looks very glamorous from the outside, but its not fun. It there is a documentary project, there would be 20 people working on it. There would be a director from the US, a producer, a scriptwriter and myself with the camera and finally there would be an editor who might not use my favourite footage at all when he edits the film.
The one thing I’ve had real satisfaction doing is a 10 minute conservation film with an NGO. There, I ask myself what is it that I want – I go out, shoot the story, write it, edit it, communicate it the way I want. There’s a different kind of satisfaction working with an NGO though. When a film gets aired on National Geographic, there will be lots of advertisements etc but a film for an NGO will have 100 people as an audience. Less people may see it but the outcome you have is much more satisfying than working for a BBC or a National Geographic. The crux of the matter though is that National Geographic or the BBC pays you well and with NGO you have to put your own money. I balance both the things. For 3-4 months I work with BBC to cover my expenses. Other times I go work with NGOs free of cost.
6bridges: We had been reading your profile and during those days, we happened to watch the Hindi movie ‘3 Idiots’. We immediately found unmistakable similarities between your story and that of Madhavan’s character in the film. Tell us what you think?
Kalyan Varma: Very similar to the character in the film but not in every way. I had an IT background which is different. But then I wasn’t very good in academics, so my life in college was similar to that of Madhavan’s character. However I took up an IT job as my parents wanted me to. It was only after working for a few years that I could take the next step instead of an early step, unlike the character in the film.
6bridges: Do you think the work stint helped instead of taking a decision to pursue your passion immediately out of engineering college?
Kalyan Varma: Yes, I earned money and therefore didn’t have to depend on others. So working helped me save money, become independent and also enabled me to take this decision.
6bridges: How do you squeeze out work life balance, now that you have found your area of passion?
Kalyan Varma: Wildlife photography is like a fulltime addiction and takes my entire time. I don’t regret it. Instead I love every moment of it. When I am in Bangalore for a long enough period, I go out to the gym, movies etc. But over there, in the forest, none of these things (diversions) matter.