Somebody once said, “Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.” So true, isn’t it? A picture is worth so much more than a thousand words – emotions, habits, color, space, feeling, so many beautiful aspects captured in one click.

I am still working in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin, switching back and retracing my steps all along those mighty rivers.

Capturing beauty, environment, climate and devastation is Arati Kumar Rao, a environmental photographer who is tracking the violence in ecological degradation. Her focus is on climate change on ecosystems & livelihoods along South Asia’s rivers. How did her journey begin? What took her on this expedition? With a whopping 74k+ followers on her Instagram account, she is a force to be reckoned with even on social media.

Arati Kumar Rao- Environmental Photographer
Arati Kumar Rao- Environmental Photographer

The love for  photography.

“The urge to tell stories through images and words was kindled when I was a teenager. Each month the National Geographic Magazine would come home and I’d pore over it, taking in the breadth of stories and the depth of reportage. It fascinated me. I remember one particular issue, with a blurred photo of a charging forest elephant on its cover – Michael “Nick” Nichols documentation of Ndoki. And then, the Megatransect by Michael Fay. I knew then that I wanted to tell such stories too. ”

Arati Kumar Rao- Envrironmrental Photograher
“The love for photographer has been since I was a teen.”

 

Why an environmental photographer?

“I guess we are all products of our experiences. My father is a passionate environmentalist. He could always be found reading Gandhi, Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Fukuoka. We’d all go birdwatching on Sundays, trekking into forests around Bombay on long weekends. He used to advocate against large dams and while I might not have seen the value of it all at that time, all of this — from the books to the advocacy —  obviously seeped into my psyche and has stayed with me.

I guess we are all products of our experiences. My father is a passionate environmentalist

I was in a corporate job for ten years, all the time longing to write and shoot for a living. When I finally decided to ditch the regular pay check for a life doing what I love (but not getting regularly paid!), the path was clear. I wanted to tell stories about the environment.”

 

Arati Kumar Rao- Environmental Photographer
In the Freshwater Trail, Arati criss-crosses the Indian sub-continent over time; watching, learning, waiting, documenting the state of our freshwater — rivers, lakes, aquifers and wetlands.

 

The Freshwater Trail.

” If you could create a giant cube and pack into it all the drinking water in the world, that cube would fit nicely into the city of Bangalore. All of the waters in the world’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands are only a fraction of that, fitting inside a cube with a side of only 13km.

I was in a corporate job for ten years, all the time longing to write and shoot for a living. When I finally decided to ditch the regular pay check for a life doing what I love (but not getting regularly paid!), the path was clear.

We wear a very thin freshwater skin. Rupture it, defile it, scar it, drain it, and we will hurt badly. Over half the world’s population lives within 20 km of a river – and in this industrial age, everyone wants a piece of  these freshwater bodies. Dams, diversions, irrigation canals, reservoirs, industries, fishing, mining, fish-farming, invasive species, deforestation, declining biodiversity, degraded livelihoods — this is what rivers in the anthropocene era look like.

In the Freshwater Trail, I criss-cross the Indian sub-continent over time; watching, learning, waiting, documenting the state of our freshwater — rivers, lakes, aquifers and wetlands.

The intent is to follow nation-states as they execute plans to use the land and the water, and document how these changes affect both the ecosystem and the livelihoods inextricably linked to it. These are, I believe, stories of the lifeblood of our land.”

 

Arati Kumar Rao- Environmental Photographer
“India has so many interesting stories!”

 

The experience through India and its people.

” There are so many interesting stories! These past three years have been more educational than I’ve had in the rest of my life. My experience has been bittersweet. Each place I have met people who know the land intimately and are deeply attached to it, and yet are facing insurmountable odds in either keeping it or in making a living off it. Yet they are some of the most hospitable and generous folks I’ve met.

In the Freshwater Trail, I criss-cross the Indian sub-continent over time; watching, learning, waiting, documenting the state of our freshwater — rivers, lakes, aquifers and wetlands.

A story extremely dear to me is the very first one I explored, and one which I revisit every year. It is the story of how the deep Thar desert is full of water, if only one knows how to find it. I remember one particularly hot day in June, when I was sitting with my shepherd friend and guide atop a dune. He suddenly started digging through the sand with his hands. not six inches down, the sand was moist! And just below the dune we found a hand-dug well brimming with water. This was in the height of summer! It was an astounding sight, and one that taught me an important lesson. No one size fits all. What works in the desert — and has worked for centuries, for shepherds know how and where to find water — cannot be found in modern textbooks and maybe local knowledge is worth lending an ear to! ”

Are we taking climate change seriously? 

” We have a very serious problem on our hands in our country. It has to do with water security and food security. Driven by a frenzied hunger for growth, India is re-engineering her landscape in the name of development: diverting rivers, mining deserts, and building over marshes and grasslands. Such interventions, and changes in land-use come with land acquisition, deforestation, and destruction of catchments which leads in turn to changes in access to water, erosion, flooding, desertification, droughts, and dire ecosystem-wide effects.

These water sources and the hydrological cycle is central to our survival. Climate change is an added complication, that threatens to change our live giving monsoon cycle. Given our callous attitude towards our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and catchment areas, unpredictable weather events attendant with climate change will severely exacerbate ground level inequities.

Food security and water availability are being endangered by what we are doing to the land and rivers, and this may come back to bite us very hard. ”

 

Arati Kumar Rao- Environmental Photographer
” Make your story count”

 

 Some photography tips! 

“If I had to give one tip it would be to work on something you feel strongly about. Study that issue well, research it deeply, and slow down. Walk, look, listen. Truly care about the subject. And work on a body of work that only you can create. Photography is a tool to tell a story. Make your story count. ”

The passion vs business equation.

“I strongly subscribe to Cal Newport’s point of view here. Passion is only the beginning. One really has to work hard at acquiring a skill and then honing it, becoming so good at it that they can then no longer ignore you. You have to go deep, work deep. ”

The work philosophy.

“As Rainer Maria Rilke said of art — it is true of storytelling too,

“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.”

This is especially so when we tell stories of lands and landscapes, of lives lived and of the arcs ecosystems follow. My promise to myself is that I will slow down. Give places and people time to reveal things … about themselves, and about me. I also like to research deeply, read extensively, and not rush to conclusions. ”

 

Arati Kumar Rao- Environmental Photographer
” Have we lost connection to our lands and rivers?”

The current shoot and expedition?

“I am still working in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin, switching back and retracing my steps all along those mighty rivers. I can see myself doing this for quite a few years into the future. I am heading back to Assam and then to the Sundarbans later this month. ”

Some entrepreneurial advice?

” One thing these past few years have taught me is the importance of a land ethic. We have lost our connection to the land (and rivers). The sentiment that is uppermost in my mind when I think of entrepreneurs is what Aldo Leopold expressed so well:

Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac, 1949