Jul 28, 2016

This wildlife photographer’s digital narratives are creating new ways to experience nature

Meet Amoghavarsha JS, an award-winning wildlife photographer and filmmaker and conservationist, who identifies primarily as a storyteller.

BYJayadevan PK

Bangalore-based Amoghavarsha JS, while being an award-winning wildlife photographer/filmmaker and conservationist, identifies primarily as a storyteller. Lately, he has been using technology to tell his stories in ways that make environment conservation fun — without taking away from the urgency of the problem.
Take his video showcasing India’s natural heritage, for instance, which was launched during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is a series of stunning visuals — photographs and video — set to an instrumental version of the Indian national anthem, arranged by Grammy-winning composer Ricky Kej.

Amoghavarsha’s interpretation of the Indian national anthem through our natural heritage was showcased at the 2015 Paris climate summit

Recently, 33-year-old Amoghavarsha, a software engineer who has worked with Amazon and local search platform AskLaila, launched a digital platform called Mudskipper to tell immersive, 360-degree stories about the environment and heritage. Check out his interactive digital story about Hampi, or the multi-media story about ecology of the Kabini reservoir inside Nagarhole National Park, combining photographs and maps.
“The platform, though not completely open source, is for people who may have a story to tell, but not the resources such as professional cameras, editing tools, and other cutting-edge technology. Anyone who has a story to share about conservation, environment, climate change could come to us and we’d help them tell the story,” says Amoghavarsha.
Opening up Mudskipper to the public is one of the initiatives Amoghavarsha has experimented with in a bid to bring the environment closer to us. Whether through a picture, a documentary, a soundbyte, a song, an interactive video, or even something as unexpected as a rail bogie, his messages are embedded somewhere between the lines of a fun, uniquely told story. He believes that if used the right way, technology can go a long way to help conservation, perhaps even end terrorism! “We know the future is digital and believe in use of technology to supplement content,” says the filmmaker, who is working with digital storytelling technologies to build interactive experiences and plans to create apps for mobile and tablet devices.

A Malabar Giant Squirrel. The photograph is part of a multi-media photostory on the complex ecology of the Western Ghats. Image: Amoghavarsha JS

‘Every story writes itself’

So how can amateur wildlife enthusiasts learn to tell wildlife stories? Amoghavarsha believes that every story should be allowed to unfold on its own: “When it comes to wildlife, it is important to leave the environment or the animal undisturbed as much as you can. When you’re making a film, especially, it is important to capture natural behaviour and not just face shots. The key then is to be patient and wait for things to happen.”
According to him, every habitat has a certain atmosphere according to which one decides what would be the best way to capture rare moments of intimate animal behaviour.
The way each story has to be told is also important. Take one of his stories about the Western Ghats during the monsoon. The mix-media elements help us experience the forest at a different level. You can hear the sound of the falling rain, the Malabar whistling thrush singing some old tune, or even the croaking of a frog. “I wanted to tell people the story of the rainforest. But I also wanted them to stay with it for a while and experience it. If I didn’t play the sound of the whistling thrush, no picture, not even a thousand words can express that experience,” he describes.

Road through Dandeli forest in Karnataka, part of a documentary on the river Kali, which flows through the Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve. Image: Amoghavarsha JS

On Mudskipper, among other documentaries, you can also find an interactive, 360 panorama of the Hampi Virupaksa temple, which he created in collaboration with National Institute of Advanced Studies and Microsoft. The story of the temple is told through the narrative of a grandmother passing on the story to her granddaughter.
In his documentary, Kali, on the Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve, he focuses on the importance of the river Kali for the sustenance of life in the area. It follows the journey of Janaki, a 100-year old woman who along with her grandson sets out to discover the origin of the river. “After watching the film the authorities decided to rename the Dandeli Reserve the Kali Tiger Reserve, having realised why the Kali is so special,” says Amoghavarsha. The film also won the “Impact Docs Awards“ of merit at the Global Film Awards Competition in February 2016.

The Creative Commons’ platform has helped in discovery

Digital storytelling has allowed Amoghavarsha vast accessibility across borders. More specifically, putting his work under a Creative Commons licence, which allows content to be shared online for free, has meant his work has travelled wide. A few years ago, his pictures of a rare freshwater jellyfish found in the river Cauvery was used in a research paper on this species without him needing to know about it, reinforcing his faith in the Open Source philosophy. “A bunch of researchers had some information about the jellyfish species but no photographic evidence. Because my picture was on Creative Commons, they could use the image simply by attributing my name to it without asking for my permission.”

This photograph helped researchers put an image to a rare jellyfish that they knew about, but had no evidence of. Image: Amoghavarsha JS

But does he ever worry that he may not be getting adequately recompensed when so much of what he has shot, undeniably with the use of expensive gear, is available so freely for public consumption? “Personally I have benefitted more by putting my content online for free. It gets global recognition and that is also where I get most of my assignments from.”
Amoghavarsha says that often, content does not reach the very people from whose backyards it actually generated! A unique medium he has experimented with is the biodiversity-themed chapter of the Science Express — a unique mobile science exhibition on wheels. It is an initiative by the Department of Science and Technology in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and the Centre for Environment and Education (CEE), which makes an all-India tour annually. “This train sought to reach out to local children and other people who may not even have access to a television. It was great when it reached a viewership of 2.5 million people,” he says.
“There is too much focus on action without adequate emphasis on awareness first. What you love, you will conserve,” the young filmmaker believes.

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Jayadevan PK is a writer of FactorDaily.