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PHOTOGRAPHING THE ESSENCE OF A TIGER
By Vandit Kalia
April 2006

We have been waiting by the side of the road for over 2 hours now. The pugmarks that we had followed turn into the forest here, towards a thickly forested ravine. It has been a hot day, and we are hoping that the owner of those pug marks will come out of the cover in the evening and head to a nearby pool for a drink. Other jeeps pass up and down in their quest for instant gratification, while we patiently keep sitting. By now, it is getting late – the sun has gone below the hills and I am running out of higher ISO settings on my cameras. We are looking at our watches, trying to estimate how much time it will take us to be back at the park gate before it closes, when suddenly we hear it – the loud warning snort of a deer, shattering the silence. The call is taken up by another deer, and then another, getting louder each time. Whoever is causing this commotion is coming closer. One last look at the settings, a quick check of the gimbal head to make sure it is set up properly and I join my guide and driver in scanning the thick bush cover. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we see it – a pair of bright, yellow-green eyes staring at us from over a bush. How it got there without us knowing, we’ll never know, but at this point, we don’t care. The camera is in overdrive, capturing the fleeting moment 8.5 times a second while the owner of those eyes regales us with an imperious look. After a short while, the massive male tiger decides that we are not worthy of his attention. He steps out of the thick bushes into the wild grass, saunters across the clearing, and disappears into the bushes on the other side, where the alarm calls are taken up anew. In a few moments, the encounter is over, and we slump back in the seats, reliving the thrill of moment. No matter how many times I’ve been privileged to see a tiger, this excitement never fades.

Given their stunning orange and black coat, distinctive facial markings, very extensive repertoire of expressions and sounds and lithe, powerful bodies, it is not surprising that throughout history, the tiger has figured prominently in the cultures of the region where it is found. All over Asia, the tiger is associated with power and might. In India, Durga, the manifestation of the mother goddess, rides out to cleanse the world of evil astride a tiger. In Korea, the tiger is called "the King of Animals", and is also the mount of the mountain god Hwanug. An ancient Tibetan proverb goes: "It is better to live one day as a tiger, than a thousand days as a sheep"

William Blake came close to capturing the soul of a tiger, with his words:
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Today, most of us have seen a tiger, either on TV or in a zoo, and it is no longer a creature of the fables. However, despite this inceased familiarity with the tiger, a sighting in the wild remains something special. Mere words are inadequate in describing the emotions stirred by seeing a tiger in all its majesty. No other animal that I can think of arouses the same feelings of admiration, awe, respect and excitement as this powerful, expressive feline.

Going up to 450 lb on average, tigers are the biggest of the big cats. It outweighs a male lion by a hundred pounds. Unlike lions, who generally prefer discretion to valor except when it comes to defending their territory, tigers can be a lot more belligerent, especially if bothered. On a recent trip to Bandhavgarh National Park, we spent a few days tracking and observing a sub-adult male. This fellow was the son of B2, the reigning king of the forest and the largest male in the national park, who had displaced Charger, the legendary tiger that ruled the forests in the 1990s (and was the subject of quite a few wildlife documentaries as well as Nick Nichols’s stunning work on tigers for National Geographic). So needless to say, Junior had quite a pedigree backing him up. One fine morning, I was sitting on elephant-back, taking some shots of him as he lay under a tree, keeping a drowsy eye on all the pointing, whispering and clicking going on around him. Then, one elephant misguidedly stepped too far and intruded into his personal space. In less than a blink of an eye, this not-yet-fully-grown cat was transformed from an overgrown sleeping kitty into a snarling ball of rage. Before we even realized it, he had leapt to his feet and mock- charged the elephant, forcing the mammoth to take a couple of hasty steps back. Honor satisfied, the “teenaged” tiger went back to his sprawl, letting out a few smug snarls to accentuate his point.

The point to note is that this was merely a juvenile tiger, and it was enough to cause a trained elephant to retreat. Now think of this cat grown to adulthood and in the peak of his power, and you have an idea of what a tiger is capable of doing.

The thing with tigers is that they are ambush predators and the masters of stealth. I cannot count the number of times I have seen a tiger materialize out of nowhere in a bush, where only a few seconds before, I would have sworn that there wasn’t a living thing around. As Nick Nichols says on his website, a tiger’s whole gig is to not be seen. You could be twenty feet from a big, orange-striped, 450-lb cat and not see it unless it moves or chooses to show itself.

As photographers, this presents a very obvious difficulty. Anyone who has tried to photograph leopards in Africa can attest to how hard it is to find these critters to get good portrait shots, let alone behavioral shots, of this reclusive cat. It is the same with tigers. Their very nature means that they spend their time blending into the surroundings – so a sighting is quite hard, let alone a clear view for photography.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time trying to get clean, classic portrait shots of tigers, with middling success. Most of my behavioral shots of tigers usually have a fair bit of foliage in them – quite unlike the classical Africa wildlife shots, with fully blurred backgrounds and a clear, unobstructed view of the subject.

Initially, this only motivated me to work harder to get the “classic” shots. Recently, however, I have had an epiphany of sorts. I realized that I have been trying to capture a tiger in a photographer’s terms – in other words, I have been trying to take photos where the tiger fits into my preconceptions and notions of what constitutes a good wildlife photo. However, as a nature-lover and someone who can happily watch a sleeping tiger for hours, I realized that trying to get a tiger to fit the norms of good photography is not only a little presumptuous, but also self-defeating in terms of trying to capture the essence of tiger.

A tiger simply doesn’t stand out and pose. A shot of a tiger with a clean background and no interfering bushes simply does not represent what a tiger is all about. That is not to say all such shots are poor or inaccurate – there are plenty of excellent tiger shots where the photographer has been lucky enough to get a clear, unobstructed view. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, an accurate representation of a tiger in its environment should take into account the thick foliage and concealment that go hand in hand with the subject.

This revelation came to me midway through a trip to Bandhavgarh. For the rest of the trip, I set myself the goal of trying to document the beauty of a tiger as it really is, as opposed to trying to document a tiger based on artificial rules and standards set by humans. All photographs in this article are part of that 3-day shooting theme.

What do you think? Thoughts and comments welcomed.

 
     

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