Ten years a photographer

Benjasiri Park. Thailand
Benjasiri Park. Thailand

This year, the date falls on a Thursday. But, ten years ago, it was a Friday the 13th which couldn’t spook me from making the decision that altered the course of my life. Some would probably say that it was an inauspicious move to make on such a day. But, I am glad that I didn’t step back from it for I love my life, the way it has turned out to be, the people I have in my life, the places I have been to, and the things that I do for a living. I love being a photographer and I love the ten years that has gone behind the lens.

As I write this post, I recollect the decade that has gone by. Indeed, it has been a long journey as some of the memories from the early days are blurry in my mind. Luckily, I do have some of these memories documented in photographs and journals, which adds clarity to those bygone moments.

The many firsts and beginnings in life, the many failures, the uncertainties, the initial milestones, the highs and lows, the surprises, and the course corrections in life, all of these come to my mind as I go down the timeline of my life’s episode of being a photographer. This is a post dedicated to those milestones and memories that have mattered to me the most.

So here are those moments. Cheers!


The first photographs

When I quit my Job as a software developer at IBM, I went on a long trip to my hometown, Pangala, in Udupi. I explored the places with a film camera training my eye as I photographed the landscapes and life that were earlier part of my summer vacations as a child. I was accompanied on this trip by my friend and former colleague, Santhosh Adiga whose hometown was Shankaranarayana, a remote town in Udupi district. What I remember strongly about this trip was my coming to terms with the dilemma involved in the representation of people whom I photograph. My aging

What I remember strongly about this trip was my coming to terms with the dilemma involved in the representation of people whom I photograph. My aging grandmother who is no more was one of the first people I ever photographed after the start of my journey. And photographing her took me through one of the biggest lessons of life – I came to terms with my own mortality.

The first time I got paid for making photographs

I can never forget this moment. The money was not that great and it was nowhere close to what I earned in my earlier career. But, it was the beginning of many more things to come. And the best part of it was that it was a fulfilling assignment.

Kilikili, a non-profit organization located in Bangalore was making a Universally accessible park (a playspace where children of all abilities could play). I was referred to Kilikili by my friend Pradeep. I loved the work that I did during this shoot. And I had a small sum of money to show my family that I could earn a living with what I love. I forgot to mention – my family was not in favor of my career change.  It was understandable that a salaried Indian middle-class family would never approve an experiment with artistic, entrepreneurial or freelance life. Especially, when one is already in a well paying IT job! I took many years to convince them.

The first time my work got published

I kept knocking on the doors (I mean emails and phone calls) of newspaper editors and photojournalists for a chance to break into the world of photojournalism. After repeated attempts, I was given an opportunity by Krishna Prasad a.k.a KP, who was then the editor of Vijay Times, to photograph feature stories for the publication. It opened the doors for some freelance work for a couple of months. It eventually transformed into a full-time role when the publication got revamped as Bangalore Mirror with a new editorial team. There, it was. I was finally a staff photographer at a daily newspaper!

Completing a year with what I love doing.

And I completed a year as a photojournalist, photographing news, sports and features in Bangalore city and outside too. It was a joy to be completing a year by witnessing the roar of a newborn Tiger cub. My work had taken me to places and given me experiences that I had not even imagined about. Yes, there were a lot of sacrifices made. At that time it was worth it.

Up close to the action of sports photography

One of the best things about my time at the newspapers was the action in sports that I got to witness and photograph. This is probably one of the few things that I miss now as a freelance photographer doing many a genre of photography work but not sports photography. It was a challenge to freeze a decisive moment in an action sequence and be able to get a big spread the next morning in the sports pages or front pages of newspapers. And yes, it was a privilege to watch a game of cricket from the boundary ropes!

Traveling out of the country for the first time.

The first time I made use of my passport was when I got to travel to Cambodia via Thailand. Thanks to a documentary photography workshop that I got to do this. I was selected for Angkor Photo Festival’s young Asian photographer workshop and that was one of the first experiences of meeting people of different cultures. I got to meet some stalwarts of photography (fanboy moment!) and make friends across the continent.

This trip also brought me closer to the subject of migration. During my time at the workshop, I followed Indian migrants living and working in Cambodia. This led to my first photo essay – Of Love and Longing.

The first time I got an award for photography

It took a photo finish at a marathon race for me to win my first ever award for photography. I didn’t run but I photographed winners of the Bangalore 10k marathon as they crossed the ropes for a close finish. This one the first place at a contest held in Bangalore. This was followed by some more awards at national level.

The first time I made a film

My friend Pradeep Badikkela and I made a short film about a lost lake in Bangalore city – a city that constantly faces water issues. This was a self-funded documentary film with no sponsors or donors. It was the first experiment I did with filming on a DSLR camera (my trusted Canon EOS 5d Mark II). It went on to win an award at the contest organized by India water Portal.

The most fulfilling body of work

Some years back, I was awarded a full scholarship Diploma in Photojournalism from Ateneo de Manila university, Philippines. It was a year-long program where I grew as a photographer and as a visual storyteller. During this diploma, I got to meet and learn from some of the finest photography mentors one could meet. I will always remember the photojournalism faculty led by Filipino legendary photographer Jimmy Domingo. Today, the perspective I have developed as a photographer is largely due to their mentoring.

It was during this period I worked on a topic that was close to my heart -the subject of gender and race. I created a body of work titled – ‘Fistful of Dreams‘. This project followed the adoption a girl child by a single mother. I spent a year documenting this story by embedding myself with the family. I visited and lived at their home to tell their story. I will always be thankful to this family for letting me tell their story. Fistful of Dreams will always be close to my heart. Few years after I published this work, it won the MFI award. The irony is that just before the awards were announced I quit working for mainstream media.

A new beginning in life awaited me.

Transition into a wedding photographer.

I was capturing life around me. I was telling stories about the people and places around me. And it was getting published in the newspapers. But, I found that the quality of life and work at the newspapers was declining. Media organizations were facing a crisis world over and many were shutting out their photography departments.

I wanted to continue telling stories through my images but didn’t want to get stuck in a place where respect and recognition to the profession were on a decline. I took a call and stepped out of news photography. Two years after I left DNA as the chief photographer of the Bangalore Bureau, the Bangalore edition of the newspaper closed down its operations.

What did I do after leaving mainstream media?

The editorial assignments were less frequent. During this transitional phase, I shot few weddings. The first few weddings were of some of my close friends. One wedding that I will always remember is that of my Arvind and Divya which was held at a beautiful heritage site called as the Bhoganandeeshwara temple.

I was making unscripted, candid images for publications. I found weddings as a seamless move from my work as a photojournalist. My clients had changed, but I was still telling stories even with the weddings. I had become a wedding photojournalist.

Traveling across the country

One thing that the candid wedding photography did to me was that it took me to far more places within India on assignments than my earlier role at the newspapers. I knew my country was culturally diverse, but wedding assignments actually brought me face-to-face with the cultural diversity in India. This alone has been an enriching experience apart from meeting many people and forging new friendships.

Life had suddenly gotten into a cycle of waking up in the pitch dark and boarding early morning flights to faraway cities and towns to photograph weddings of all scales. I couldn’t complain about the work. But, I didn’t want it to end in a routine. I dislike the idea of routine 🙂

Love, happened.

Well, yes unexpected things happen in life. Somethings like you meet someone interesting, get engaged, and get married. It happened to me too.

Five years into photography I was planning to go on a backpacking trip across India. But then I found myself visiting Mumbai and meeting Swapna.

Evolving as a photographer and stalking light.

My origins in photography was a self-learning curve. Never went to a photography school to learn the craft and techniques. The only formal education in the field happened years later at the Philippines when I learned the art of visual storytelling as a photojournalist.

Photography education never stops. It continues as one grows as a photographer.

I began to explore artificial lighting seriously as a tool to add on to my photography skills. And so began a new direction in my work. I was doing a new style of work where I completely controlled the lighting with off-camera lights to enhance a scene for the purpose of communication of my story or making a portrait. I became a Strobist.

This style of work created a parallel channel of work that augmented my wedding photography business. This new direction in work has stayed on with me now and has helped me reach a different clientele.

I love the diversity of photographic assignments that I am commissioned to do. From weddings to portraits, every assignment is a new challenge. And being able to execute a project and realize a vision, with a variety of skillsets and tools, is a fascinating workflow. I learn something new with every assignment I do.

The birth of Dadagrapher

In the summer of 2015, our daughter Ruhani was born. Along with her, I have to say that the father in me was born. A personal aspiration was realized. A new journey had begun. The journey of a family man. I took the decision to work more out of our home. I wanted to spend more time with Ruh.

I took a step back to introspect my life. At this point, I guess I turned the lens inwards. I was enjoying watching Ruh grow up in front of me. I was trying to understand my relationship with her, childhood, and what being a father is. This led to the creation of the @dadagrapher. A collection of photographs, letters, and conversations I wish to have with Ruh, all published on Instagram.

Dadagrapher is loving this exploration of his relationship with Ruh and making images for the love of it.

The tenth year

It has been ten years. But, it doesn’t feel like that honestly. I wonder the reason for it is partly a subconscious desire to stay young?

Maybe, I should give up counting these numbers. I had never asked myself ‘Where do I see myself ten years from now?’

I don’t want to ask that now either.

I just want to evolve and grow. It doesn’t mean that there is a lack of direction in life. There is a direction towards which my work is heading to. There is also a direction where others aspects of my life are heading to. And I have to say that having a family is a catalyst, and an important aspect to consider before making any decisions.

Ten years from now, I want to be alive and kicking. I would want to make another trip to Goa to drink some more pints of Kings beer. Cheers!

P.S: Many thanks to everyone who has been part of this journey. 



Nishant Ratnakar
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By Nishant Ratnakar

Nishant is a Bangalore, India based Wedding, Portrait & Editorial Photographer. He is available for assignments across India. He also conducts photography workshops and offers personal photography mentorship.

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