What kind of photographer will one become when you grow up in a little village at the edge of the fascinating Indian jungle?
To get an answer to that question, I interviewed Indian nature photographer Ripan Biswas. At the NPOTY contest 2021 he was both highly commended in the ‘Plants and Fungi’ category and runner-up in the Peoples Choice award. Ripan is a multi-award winning nature photographer and story teller with a strong opinion on the role that people and animals play in our complex ecosystem. His work is published in various national and international magazines like Sanctuary Asia & BBC Wildlife Magazine. In daily life he’s a school teacher in maths and science who shares his love for nature with the kids in school. Let’s find out what this inspiring, enthusiastic and above all involved nature photographer has to tell us.
Ripan was born and raised close to Cooch Behar in the state of West Bengal. He grew up in a small village about 6 to 7 km from the town, in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. During his childhood he spent like many children in the village most of his time outside, chasing insects and other critters, building an interest in and love for nature. He still lives in the village, surrounded by nature. He prefers the relative peace and calm in the village over the hectic live in the city, where he won’t spend more than 3 to 4 hours tops. And having nature at his doorstep offers him the opportunity to spend as much time outside as possible.
Firefly in flight. © Ripan Biswas
“My father was my first inspiration. He had a camera and loved capturing family affairs with tons of snaps. So in 2007, when I became a teacher and my father gave me my first camera, I started photographing everything I saw in the same way. I had absolutely no focus.
In these first years of my life as a photographer, I knew no nature photographers. Living in a small village, I had very little access to books, magazines, and the Internet. And besides, I had very little interest in those things at the time. It wasn’t until social media took hold that looking at other photographers’ work began to play an important role in my life. Browsing through all the photos really inspired me and helped me develop my own taste.
Weaver ants cooperating with each other. © Ripan Biswas
Today I am very much inspired by Dhritiman Mukherjeee, one of the most respected wildlife photographers from India today. His work has been featured on BBC, National Geographic, The New York Times, WWF, etc. Dhritiman focuses on everything there is to see in nature, both on land and above and below water. What I admire most about his work is that his photos always tell you something you didn’t know. Another source of inspiration is the European photographer, Javier Aznar. Javier is also a photographer who tells stories and he focuses on small critters.
In my opinion there are very few photographers who really tell a story with their photos, the majority show beautiful documentary portraits, which of course is great but not the same.”
Stream ruby damselfly duelling for territory. © Ripan Biswas
“Over the years my preparation has changed drastically. At first I grabbed my camera without any plan and pointed my camera at everything that came within range. These days I plan my photo trips meticulously. And then when I go out, I know where to go, what to look out for and which season is the best. This form of preparation also ensures that the number of photos I take on the spot is decreasing.
I am not a full time photographer. I have to plan my photography trips carefully within my schedule as a school teacher. That is why it is almost impossible for me to go on a photo trip abroad for 25 to 30 days. But I don’t mind, I like to shoot close to home. It offers me the opportunity to study my subject well beforehand. I like to focus on one species in one place. And then photograph for 3 to 4 days and go back later if necessary.
Cormorants resting. © Ripan Biswas
Spending time at home also provides me with moments to read about my subject in books and on the Internet. I also have time to look at photos from other photographers. And I also invest time in consulting other photographers and scientists whom I can call friends. When I’m finally out in the field, my preparation also helps me decide which shots I shouldn’t take, because I’ve already seen those shots from other photographers.
So if asked, I would advise not to go abroad for much time. Usually that doesn’t give you enough time to carefully study your subject on the spot. When you are in a place that you don’t know, surrounded by animals and their behavior that you don’t know, it is very difficult to take unique photos that have not been taken before by other photographers and show something new and unknown.”
Weaver ant queens attending eggs. © Ripan Biswas
“I don’t know if I have a clear signature and I’m not sure if I would like to be associated with a particular style. What I do know is that my approach to photography has changed over the years. In the early stages, I just wanted to get good photos that would make people say, “Wow, that’s a good photo!”
Nowadays all I want to do is take pictures that tell something new, that reveal new facts about the subject. Or introduce new techniques. Like the picture of the fungus. Here I used a backlight that made the mold look like snow. And then a little flash on the front to bring back some detail on the hapless zombie spider. So I hope that what defines my photography is the effort I put in to bring something new to the public, to surprise the public.”
Weaver ants taking a broken piece of leaf to their nest. © Ripan Biswas
“Nature is having a hard time. But most people don’t realize this, they don’t realize that they are the main reason for this. But it is they who hold the key. People can contribute to conservation if they become more aware of what they buy. If we show them pictures of struggling or even disappearing animals, the majority will say we should all be more careful and help prevent this natural decline. And of course they support the call to stop clear cutting the natural jungle in favor of monocultural palm oil plantations. But before the day is up, they stop at the supermarket to buy goods with palm oil in them because they don’t bother to read the label.
So we have to work harder to get their attention. We can show them the beauty of nature, but that is not enough. We need to show something they haven’t seen before, the ugliness in nature and the problems nature faces. We need to take pictures that move the audience emotionally. They need to realize that animals have equal rights to live. And that they all play an important role in our complex ecosystem. And that applies to the large animals such as elephants, lions and whales, but also to the smallest, the critters that we overlook and that we do not know. In the end disrupting the ecosystem due to species extinction will turn the world into an uninhabitable place.
Crimson sunber collecting nectar. © Ripan Biswas
Our work should emphasize that nature just outside your door or even in your home is also beautiful. Striking photography can help emphasize the beauty and detail of the small and often unwanted critters. Like the cockroach, which will eventually outlive us.
I certainly realize that most people like the photos, but only few will go out and really observe these animals. That’s why I’m happy to be a teacher. This gives me the opportunity to show the photos to the children, to make them aware at a young age of the importance of everything that is in nature. These children get very excited and many of them want to become photographers themselves.
This is so important because they are our future and they need to clean up our mess. Because there is no planet B.”
A male dancing frog flagging his foot. © Ripan Biswas
“The importance of participating in photo contests such as Nature Photographer of the Year is that you have a serious audience. This is completely different from most of the viewers you reach on social media. The competition audience is really interested and curious. Their genuine interest makes them open to the message you put into your work.
Another advantage of these photo contests is that it brings together a collection of all the great and inspiring photos that show the beauty of nature and the way it is threatened. Therefore it’s important that these contests have a great media strategy. When the winning photos gets enough attention in the media, it is picked up by the influencers, who in turn have to influence our policy makers worldwide.
Beetle mating. © Ripan Biswas
And last but not least, when you’re among the winners of a contest, people start paying attention and taking a better look at your work, wondering what you’re showing and what you’re trying to say.
If you want to be competitive in these competitions, you have to remember that any photo entering the competition will look good. Aided by all the new technology in modern cameras with advanced autofocus and the ability to handle high ISOs, it’s nearly impossible to get bad photos. That is why good has become the average and ‘different’ is the new good. A technically good photo is no longer good enough, your work has to stand out. Only the eye-catching photos will be the final winners.”
Crab and a snail in mangrove habitat. © Ripan Biswas
“I know that most photographers only use social media platforms like IG and FB to showcase their work. But for me, using these platforms is mainly to inspire me, to take a good look at the work of other photographers.
As I became a more serious photographer, FB as one of the first platforms has definitely played an important role in my development, as it was very important for me to look at the work of other photographers and learn from them.”
Caterpillar of a butterfly. © Ripan Biswas
“During the pandemic it was difficult for me and so many others to go outside. All the more so because as a teacher I had to work from home most of the time. At the same time, the situation gave me a good opportunity to look around my immediate surroundings. Spending so much time in and around my house gave me the chance to see things in a different way. To look at things we normally don’t see anymore. Plus, it gave me time to study more. So after all, I consider it time well spent.”
Parasitic wasp. © Ripan Biswas
At the end of the interview I asked Ripas the question: “if you could ask another nature photographer one question, who would that be and which question would you ask?
Ripas replied: “There are many photographers and I would like to ask them many questions. It is far too difficult for me to choose just one photographer and one question.”
Stream glory damselfly. © Ripan Biswas