Kerala photographer’s alluring monochromatic images of wildlife

Photographer Praveen P Mohandas brings out alluring details of Indian wildlife by taking colour out of the equation

Colour in a photograph becomes a barrier in seeing ‘differently’, believes Praveen P Mohandas whose photographic repertoire is almost all in black and white. To him, monochromatic pictures accentuate the tonal ranges, the shape, texture and light in the image.

A recent image he posted on Instagram (@praveenpmohandas) shows two elephants and a calf moving away from the camera, behind a curtain of dust. The black and white image tells many tales — as many as the number of eyes that look at it and imaginations that weave stories out of it. That is the response he seeks for his work.

Monochrome is seldom associated with Nature photography, but Praveen will see it no other way. He shuns colour because he is not a journalist, documenting or reporting an event.

Praveen Mohandas

Praveen instead seeks to communicate the emotional connect of the scene. “If you remove colour, it elevates a photograph to a different level. The way the light falls on a subject, say, at 11 am is different from how it is at 5.30 pm… you see light in a different perspective. The difference in this photograph can be seen due to the colour of light — evening light being warmer, and noon light neutral,” he says.

Colour becomes ‘noise’; sans colour, an image acquires a character. For instance in a photograph of a lush green forest or a deep blue sky the less obvious details are missed.

He sees his photography as opening a door to the imagination of the viewer. “Close your eyes and imagine a scene. It will not be ‘colourful’… it is muted and sans detail, it is more of shapes, subtle shades of colour and light. Memory derives from light and form, that is the input for the imagination,” Praveen says.

The Thrissur-based architect has been a photographer for 25 years, 20 of which have been spent photographing wildlife and Nature. In 2010 he started ‘reducing’ colour in his photographs and 2015 onwards he shot Nature exclusively in black and white.

All about ‘Kari’

  • ‘Kari’ is one of the Malayalam words for elephant. The photographs for Kari are drawn over 15 years of Praveen’s photography of elephants. It is collaborative project with an artist – a combination of photos, paintings and installations.
  • Conceptualised for a gallery space – it is to be spread across three rooms, for three ideas related to the elephant – Body, Memories and Destiny. ‘Body’ is of the animal’s physicality, “There is an image of an elephant with a mynah nearby, it shows it size. Another is an image of a single-tusked elephant…the trunk and tusks are their tools, so the loss of a tusk is a handicap. It is another way of looking at it, not expected images.
  • Then comes ‘Memories’, which they have and these are passed across generations – so there are images that convey that and then there is the final part, ‘Destiny’ – its future. Where is the animal headed, metaphorically?”
  • The last is an installation with a print of elephants’ foot and a chain, used on one, is placed around it, while a mirror reflects the feet of visitors. Perhaps suggesting how its fate is connected with man. A ‘thotti’ (hook used by mahouts on domesticated elephants) is a macabre reminder of the jumbos’ fraught existence. He has shown these works at Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur, the photographs can be seen on his Instagram handle.

Praveen is not averse to colour, but uses it only if it communicates an emotion. Such as in his diptych of road-kill — one is a photograph of an elephant and the other, the reflection of red tail-light on a wet road giving the impression of spilled blood.

The raw images are clicked in colour and then converted into black and white. “When I click I have an idea what a picture will look like in black and white. How variations in exposure will work,” he says.

His tryst with photography began after his Class XII, or Pre-Degree as it was known then, when he enrolled for a one year diploma course in still photography, in Thrissur, of which black and white photography was a part. “There were two ways I could go either cinematographer or architect. I chose the latter and went to Hosur, Karnataka, to study architecture,” Praveen says. As part of his education he started photography as a means of documentation. He is a practising architect who builds nature-friendly, contemporary dwelling spaces.

“While in college I didn’t have access to a lab for black and white photography. That’s how I slipped more into colour. I had access to darkroom while I was studying photography and later working in a studio,” he says. Without access, to a lab, he stopped. This was also the time photography shifted to the digital format. He too, and started clicking in colour.

Meanwhile a stint in Bengaluru, where he was a member of the Youth Photographic Society (YPS), led him to wildlife and nature photography. “There the deviation toward wildlife happened. My first trip into the forest was with senior photographers of YPS to Bandipur National Park,” he says. He remembers not having all photography equipment and the help of seniors who shared theirs.

Exploring elephants

Over the last 14 years, since 2006, he has gone to Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand almost 20 times; this year too, he was planning a trip. He calls it the “African experience in miniature,” for its landscape, open forests and abundance of wildlife. “Each time I go there, I return with a new lesson,” he says.

Most of the images of elephants for his artistic project ‘Kari’, through which he explores the ‘past, present and future’ of the animal, were shot there.The others are from Kaziranga National Park and Kabini.

He says Corbett National Park’s open landscape makes spotting and shooting photos easier when compared to Kerala’s forests with thick foliage. The grasslands there, which open up during the summer, attract elephants and other animals. “I have seen so many elephants … hundreds, but corridors being converted to highways, and resorts and hotels being built have affected animals,” he says.

Like with Kari, he wants to work differently around project-based themes — “About 99.99% of all wildlife photography has been about the so-called ‘beauty’ trapped in it — the ‘beautiful and pristine’. Other genres of photography have changed and practitioners are expressing themselves in different ways. In wildlife photography, it hasn’t.”

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