For the last seven years, emerging photographer Dhiraj Venkat has been carefully honing his craft; capturing wildlife scenes across India and Kenya and reaching the finals of Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and semi-finals of Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards. What started as a hobby when he was 10-years-old has evolved into an unwavering documentation of various forms of wildlife in their natural habitat. At just 17-years-of-age, the young photographer says he is just getting started.
In the beginning, I used to accompany my father on his photography trips and just watch him take pictures of birds. The sheer beauty of nature and the unpredictability of it was what inspired me to take up photography," Dhiraj tells Lonely Planet. "Though my [early] pictures impressed no one, I never stopped taking them because of my love and curiosity towards this hobby. But the more I tried, the more I learnt."
The Chennai-born and Bangalore-based photographer started off by taking simple images of birds, particularly sparrows drinking water from fountains in the parks near his home. But before long Dhiraj had made the leap to documenting lions hunting in the middle of the grasslands of India. "Living in India is a dream for a wildlife photographer," he says. "It gives you access to dense forests with an abundance of wildlife. From a very young age, these forests have been a second home to me."
His passion has taken him across continents to Africa, where he managed to capture one of his favourite shots so far: a leopard perched on a tree at the Maasai Mara in Kenya, bathed in golden sunlight. It's a chance image that almost never was, he tells Lonely Planet. "With zero sightings in over seven safaris and just 10 minutes left of our last safari, we lost all hope of seeing any big cats. But then, out of nowhere, this female leopard ran across the road." It's an image of many he says, which reminds him of the unpredictability of nature.
Being in the right place at the right time isn't easy. Wildlife photography often requires a great deal of patience and endurance. Sometimes it requires scaling new heights to get eagle-eye perspectives. Such as a taking a hot air balloon safari, as Dhiraj did in Kenya, where he snapped an aerial image of an ostrich running from his nest. A moment of awe for the young photographer. "It gives the viewer a different perspective of the life of this creature," he says. "The shadows of the grass in the golden light make it look magical."
Wildlife photography and conservation go hand-in-hand. Such images can have a major influence in creating areas of wildlife protection, documenting a species or habitat, and educating people on wildlife and the environment. It's something that Dhiraj is conscious of in his practice, especially in the era of a climate emergency. Through his images, he hopes to convey the message that nature is as vulnerable as it is striking and it's something that we need to cherish and protect.
"Everyone has heard about climate change but only a few act. This is not because we don’t care. We, humans, are emotional beings; we do care, most people care but the hard part is to get the people out of their comfortable day-to-day lives and look into things that really matter," he says. "Humans, again, are very simple creature – we take care of the things we like. But how are you expected to take care of something that you’ve never seen? Nature photographers witness many beautiful moments in nature and it’s our duty to share these moments with as many people as possible so that they can truly see the beauty of nature and act."
While most 17-year-olds are just figuring out what they want to do with their life, Dhiraj knows that his future lies behind the lens. His ultimate goal is to work as a filmmaker for the BBC but for now, he's concentrating on smaller, short-term goals as he develops his skills. Later this year, he plans to go to Alaska to film grizzlies in the wild and maybe bag more award nominations along the way.
"Becoming a semi-finalist in such a prestigious competition [Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards] was a huge step in my photography career. It increased my confidence in my ability and led me to meet many interesting people. Being so close to winning, I guess the next step is to go for the win right?"
You can see more of Dhiraj's work here.