A definitive platform for those who share a love for the wild and all things natural, the Nature inFocus initiative is also creating a deep connectedness to the outside world.
What if a hobby could turn into a real passion? Sadly, somehow, that ‘if’ always gets in the way. In most cases what holds one back is the absence of acknowledgement or a stage to come forward and express this talent.
Recognising the need to fill this vacuum, especially for the nature and wildlife community, Rohit Varma and Kalyan Varma, both wildlife photographers themselves, founded Nature inFocus (NiF) in 2014.
For the love of flora and fauna
Rohit (44), raised in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, a place where natural beauty is found in abundance, says he has fond memories of the time he spent in the wilderness. To build a career, he moved to Bengaluru in 1997. Here he worked for various corporate organisations, but destiny had other plans. A fun trip to Bandipur National Park in 2010 brought his focus back to nature. Photography then became a passion, and he finally embarked upon his quest to study ecology.
Similarly, Kalyan (37), an engineer from Visakhapatnam, decided to quit his job when the wildlife bug bit him 12 years ago. He dove headlong into photography and today is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker known around the world.
This shared zeal and fervour led them to start NiF in 2014. But the primary reason to get the initiative going was realising that no art form can work in isolation. Says Kalyan, “We realised that there was no physical platform for India’s nature lovers to gather.”
NiF began as a festival in Bengaluru. “It was in 2013 that Kalyan and I first talked about doing something together for nature and the wildlife community because we realised there was no offline activity for this community in the whole of Asia,” Rohit shares.
“There are lots of online communities where people share photographs and experiences but there isn’t much that happens offline,” he adds. This was the birth of the idea — to create a festival where photographers could showcase their work, stay informed on global happenings, meet fellow photographers, and discuss important topics. Bringing people from different disciplines together, the first edition of the Nature inFocus festival was launched in March 2014.
Celebrating nature in three different ways
With NiF Photography Festival offering a platform to showcase work done by fellow photographers, the added advantage for each of the participants is being able to learn interesting and engaging conservation stories, to be inspired by initiatives, and make a difference. Not willing to stop at that, the team started working towards another first for India — nature photography awards. Begun in 2015, theirs is a six-category award ceremony that has a bracket dedicated solely to conservation-related issues. With participants from across the globe, today, to receive a NiF photography award is considered prestigious.
With amazing content pouring in, NiF’s next step was to create a space that would help archive this material for the larger public experience. “While talking to friends in the community, what came out strongly was that there was not one platform where they could publish their work as photo stories or read interesting work done by somebody else, get to know the community effort for conservation, or even places to travel,” says Rohit.
“We too realised that our engagement with just awards and the festival was not enough, and we thought of creating a platform for the community. With this the Nature inFocus portal took shape,” adds Kalyan.
The NiF portal launched in April this year is a photo-led exploration into India’s wilderness, a definitive and democratic platform for sharing stories and photography, enabling relevant knowledge sharing and curation of everything to do with nature. A truly community-driven platform powered by its contributors, it facilitates travel into India’s nature and wilderness.
Growing into a distinctive platform
What initially helped spread the word about this unique initiative was the fact that the founders knew people in the same community. All they needed to do was to identify and nudge these talented individuals into presenting their work at the festival. However, as they have progressed, convincing has become harder, says Kalyan. “Most photographers in India are weekend shooters. We, on the other hand, try to push photographers to do a body of work — whether on a species, location, or even around an issue and then showcase that work at the festival. Now as NiF goes into its fourth year, we find it harder to find new photographers who are doing original work.”
Using the example of the ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign, Kalyan expresses how half knowledge on any issue is useless. “We live in changing times. We hear campaigns like ‘Save the Tiger’ that people put on their social media statuses. But does anyone really understand how one can save our tigers? What are the complexities?” he asks.
Elaborating on the neglected side of the story, Kalyan continues, saying, “These days we are dealing with conflict issues because of too many tigers in some parks and fewer tigers in others and then there are issues of the genetic pool. Just like this, we really want to break down the complex wildlife issues of our times and put them out there for people to get a complete understanding of the situation through our unique platform.”
NiF also aims at delivering as-yet-unheard stories. Along with environment-related issues, their focus is also on natural history and getting people to be fascinated by lesser-known species and stories. One of NiFs’ greatest strengths thus far has been their tight integration with social media. With this, it's not just a site that people visit to read stories; instead, these stories are fed into people’s daily social feeds, where this kind of nature-related information gets ingrained into people’s minds.
With worldwide participation and interaction, NiF has witnessed a steady and tremendous amount of growth. Entries for the award ceremony have grown each year. Starting with 1,800 images in the first year, NiF received nearly 4,000 entries this year. This development has also gathered support in terms of funding for their activities. Chiefly self-funded, today, NiF is funded by its community members and supported by funding from brands.
Rohit shares that although they are a small team of five, it is the community that powers this initiative. NiF has over 100 collaborators ranging from scientists, ecologists, and conservationists to photographers and filmmakers. “We get about one lakh page views in a month, which is heartening for a niche portal like ours,” he says.
What's in store
Looking ahead, NiF hopes to make its offline presence stronger. “Virtually, we have been able to take stories of nature to a wider audience; we now want to do this offline as well,” says Rohit. NiF wants people to take their hobbies and passions to the next level, collaborate with each other, and bring nature into everyday conversations. They plan to do more offline small-format events and workshops.
The ‘Young Tusks’ initiative on NiF’s website has brought young guest editors to the fore. This is something they want to scale, especially offline. “It is a high-impact initiative which helps more children become interested and involved in wildlife and conservation,” says Kalyan. They also want to continue to bring more stories from their field on their portal and be a voice for the communities their collaborators work with. The team wants to take the NiF festival, the only social event for people into wildlife and nature conducted each year, to new heights and new cities as well.
Urging people to pay heed to nature, the NiF team concludes saying, “Go out into nature. It is only when you love and appreciate something that you can conserve it.”
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