Aneesh Sankarankutty’s elephant photographs have won him praise. The Palakkad-based photographer captured the animal in all its varied moods
Aneesh Sankarankutty waited hours together to photograph an elephant that never showed up, likewise he spent up to 10 hours observing an elephant or herd. A no-show is never a disappointment, he says. There is the anticipation of expectation, of hearing its noises – the flapping ears and the breaking branches – “knowing that I am in the presence of the animal is enough”.
Since 2012-13, he only photographs jumbos, especially wild elephants. This year his photography of Chinnathambi earned him a special mention at the Nature In Focus (NiF) Photography Awards in the conservation issues category, he was a finalist in the Golden Turtle Wildlife Art & Photography Competition (Moscow) and in October his photograph of one walking towards a train track oblivious to an oncoming train won him second prize (joint) at the Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards.
The latter, shot in Kanjikode near Palakkad, is full of suspense, leaving anyone with the questions “did the elephant live?”
“Yes, it lives. It crossed the track in no time, I still haven’t decided if the animal was brave or stupid,” the Palakkad-based photographer says over the phone.
A year ago, when this moment presented itself, he was in the district, in Kanjikode, frequented by pachyderms. The image was purely coincidental, he said, usually animals wait for a train to pass.
An elephant decides whether to be seen or not, he believes. Aneesh admits he was lucky to see them. His photographs show an animal that is comfortable being captured by the camera, the unthreatening elephant appears more like the proverbial gentle giant, the personality of everyone who passes by.
The elephants in its frames usually come from the regions around Palakkad, Nelliyampathy, Anamalai and Parambikulam. He does not travel far in search of them. “When I go back to the same places, clicking on the same elephants, I learn something about them. The changes in them, and also predict their behavior to some extent. Although he has read books about elephants , first-hand experience counts more, as well as the contributions of close friends and mahouts.Over the years, he has made many friends, elephant lovers like himself. is Vinayan PA, from Wayanad, whose knowledge has been a resource.
The engineering graduate studied photography at Light and Life Academy, Ooty in 2010 after completing his course. “It was a few months before 3 idiots“, he jokes. In the film, Farhan Qureshi, tried by Madhavan, quits engineering to pursue his dream and becomes a wildlife photographer. The time spent studying engineering helped him decide what he wanted to do and thanks his parents Sankarankutty V and Prema for their support.
When he started, he was, briefly, photographing wild animals. But his love for the animal was such that he followed elephants with his friend and fellow elephant lover Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan and he found his calling. He says, “Sreedhar and I love elephants so much that if someone tells us there are five tigers in one place and one killer in another, we will choose the killer. That’s how much we love these animals.
When captive elephants were his subjects, “they taught me a lot about wild elephants, like how to identify elephants by looking at them. I can identify the tuskers that I followed not so much others. Over the years, there are those he sees often, such as the tusker in Nelliyampathy, whom he has seen for nine years.
He loves everything about elephants and can spend 10 days looking at just one. He’s even missed supposedly perfect moments because of it, “I can’t stop staring at them,” says the 32-year-old from Alathur, which is why he photographs them. One of his earliest elephant memories, perhaps the first he saw through the viewfinder of a camera, when he was six years old, is of Mangalamkunnu Ganapathy. Every year for about 24 years he clicked a picture of the elephant, which died in May this year. A childhood spent observing elephants in captivity shaped his understanding of the animal to some extent. Via his blog, Aneesh created a timeline tracing the years of Mangalamkunnu Ganapathy from 1994 to 2019.
For someone who photographs wild elephants, there are few stories about being accused or scared off by one. “It’s better for an elephant to know you’re watching it, that someone is there. Surprise is not a good idea. Once it knows you’re there, it won’t be bothered. But I don’t I can’t generalize, every elephant is different from the others, like human beings Keeping a safe distance is important…it’s a wild animal, get too close and you make it uncomfortable.
For someone who started clicking captive elephants, Aneesh can no longer shoot them because he is allergic to domestic elephant droppings. For this reason, he missed the Sree Poornathrayeesa temple festival, despite the tantalizing presence of 15 elephants. Aneesh thinks parading elephants at temple festivals is part of Kerala culture and should not be stopped. “What can be done is to make changes bearing in mind factors such as changed climatic conditions. After all, they are domesticated elephants, they cannot be left back in the forest.
The use of mobile phones to photograph wild elephants, especially selfies and videos, is a threat to the animal. “For the selfie, you get very close to the animal scaring it and causing an attack because it feels threatened. And at the end of the day, the animal gets all the blame.