Shootout in Emerald Isle

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 29.03.13

A free workshop with the award-winning American photographer Ami Vitale. That was the incentive which made me shoot an email to the National Geographic Channel in response to their call for entries for Mission Covershot. And that was all that I jubilated about when I learnt that my portfolio had been shortlisted for the competition. Till I caught sight of the flight ticket in my email inbox I had not really considered the prospect of being flown all the way to Sri Lanka.

The next instruction I got was to pack 21 sets of clothes so that nothing I would wear would get repeated. That was when the reality of taking part in a reality show hit me.

No way could I carry 21 sets! I had packed barely five-six pairs. C’mon, it’s supposed to be a photography competition, not a fashion parade! As it is, my camera bag is heavier than my backpack. But I gulped down my resentment. A sore back would be a small price to pay for a trip to the Emerald Isle and meeting an idol who has clicked her way from Kashmir to Kosovo.

The journey begins

Midnight, January 13. I met the crew at Mumbai airport and got introduced to my fellow contestants. Shoa Hussain and I sat next to each other in the flight and shared a growing anxiety that it might be a full-fledged reality show with all its trappings that we were in for.

At dawn, we landed in Colombo. I could barely keep my eyes open when the production guys announced that they needed an introduction byte and they would start with me. Tough luck!

After all the passengers left, I was made to sit by the flight window and for the first time in my life I was facing a rolling camera. It was weird and frankly, not even a bit thrilling.

They kept it rolling all the while as we got out of the plane, out of the airport, walking in and out till they were happy with the retakes.

The other participants had gathered at the airport from various corners. I was happy to find a dear friend, Rahul Dhankani, among them.

I dozed through the journey in the mini bus and when I woke up, I was staring at the scenic green palette of hills in Kandy.

Kandy city is a very clean place, as is the rest of the Lankan island. The hotel where we put up was perched on a river bank. Not too far away in the impenetrable forests, one could see the heads of coconut trees pop out. We were curious to know about our schedule but all we were told were our room numbers.

Some of us had our profiles shot over the next two days. It meant speaking to the camera about oneself. How does one describe oneself in two and a half sentences? Finally we got a glimpse of Ami, but she was quite off limits. She’s been an inspiration ever since I took a professional course in photography. Neither could we wait to know which areas we would get to explore and shoot. At last, we got the brief. We would start at the Pinnawala elephant sanctuary.

After a couple of hours of shut-eye we all got loaded into mini buses that had three times more equipment than people. The TV crew was carrying so much load that we, with our cameras, zoom lenses, and tripods, felt like we were travelling light.

In elephant land

Within hours we arrived at the sanctuary. All the elephants had been brought to the orphanage at a young age after either their mother died or the separatist war in Sri Lanka made them vulnerable.

We got introduced to Ami ultimately in front of the camera while she gave us the theme for the first shoot — “Safe at last”. Each of us had two crew members tracking every move of ours and they kept on asking questions. All I wanted was to be left to shoot in peace but the bombardment would not stop. Soon I was resigned to the fact that they would not let me be.

Near the orphanage there was a bunch of shops for tourists. Everything related to elephants is on sale here (except elephants perhaps). One product that caught my eye was elephant poo paper. Who says only we humans use toilet paper? Elephants pass by these shops everyday to bathe in the river. So one can guess to what use they are put.

Suddenly, we were asked to submit our 10 best shots and given just an hour to choose. Most of us were looking forward to shooting later in the afternoon when the light would be at its finest. No such luck.

Once we got back to the hotel we were given little time to wash elephant dung and dirt off us before they were to start shooting the next episode. But hours passed as we waited, first finishing dinner and then submitting ourselves to cups of coffee to keep our eyes open, as the crew took its time to set up the lights.

Climb every mountain

Dawn had broken when we were let off. But there was no time to rest. In a few hours, we were to head to the next destination: Adams Peak. To a mountain lover like me, pictures of Adams Peak seen on the Net were inducement enough to not rue the night’s missed sleep.

We reached before sunset and were given a few hours to get ready. The hike started at midnight. We had two tasks in hand — taking night shots on the way and capturing the sunrise from the peak. This was a challenge to test our physical and mental endurance. Learning that the locals take at least four hours to reach the top, I knew that I would not take less, for sure. It was a continuous challenge to choose the right spots to shoot yet not waste time.

All the hills around were much lower than Adam’s Peak and the sunrays through those misty hills were magnificent. A perfectly triangular shadow materialised on the opposite side of the hill. It looked like god’s own 3D projection.

Most of us couldn’t feel our legs as we dragged ourselves into the bus later in the day. The stunning sunrise kept us in thrall.

Once I got eliminated from the contest, I finally got the chance to sit with Ami and discuss my work. I could also accompany her as she walked around a tribal village. She has a lovely way to learn about the history and culture of a place while shooting. Finally it was time to pack my bags and head back. I dare say, having achieved what I set out to do, I came back a winner.