Against the shafts of sunlight filtering through the canopy of Chennai’s Adyar Poonga Park, the twig-like frame of a bark mantis formed a conspicuous silhouette. Gazing with admiring eyes, and armed with a small camera that fit in the palm of his hand, Venkat moved into position. “You’ve got to be very, very discreet,” he whispered, crouching slightly to get a better view. But before he could get the right angle, the mantis lithely sidled up the tree. “He has seen me,” murmured Venkat, and then proceeded to lightly tap the tree’s branches to direct the mantis back into the sunlight.
When he did finally capture a clear image of the mantis, a boyish grin broke out on his face: “You have to study the behaviour of these insects and understand what exactly irritates them and what they don’t really care about. Then you will get a good shot.”
Though the lean, bespectacled photographer has been taking images of insects for 25 years, Venkat still exuded enthusiasm every time he spotted even the most common insect in the park. Every few steps, he would stop to turn over a leaf here or a twig there, and peer at it closely. “I always tell people that I’m taking them not on a photo walk, but a photo crawl,” he said, while casually picking up a domino cockroach.
It was his infectious interest in photographing insects that led officials in Chennai’s Guindy National Park to bestow upon him the nickname, Poochi, which is Tamil for insect. “I thought it was the most hilarious thing I heard,” said Venkat, who willingly embraced the moniker, becoming Poochi Venkat. It is under the same name that he released his new book, Insects: Guardians of Nature, a compilation of photographs of insects across the city of Chennai. “I wanted to show people that despite the concrete trapping of the city, the most beautiful creatures still thrive and exist here.”
Venkat’s interest in the insect life of Chennai began when a scientist from the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems requested him to recopy a set of slides of spiders. At the time, Venkat had set up a small practice of duplicating slides and negatives of photographs, even though he was a physics graduate and sound engineer.
At first the pictures irked Venkat. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Which idiot spends his time photographing spiders,’” he said. “I never really thought I would end up photographing insects for the next 25 years.”
But after days of duplicating images of spiders, Venkat experimented with taking pictures of insects in his own garden, “just for the fun of it”. When he showed those images to the scientist, to his surprise, he was offered the job of photographing insects in the agricultural fields of Tamil Nadu – the centre wanted to prepare a registry to identify insects that were helpful to farmers and those that were pests.
Venkat was 27 then, a greenhorn stepping out for the first time with a bag laden with cameras and lenses to take photographs of farm insects. At one place, a farmer pointed into the distance and asked him to take a picture of the insect sitting on his crop. But all Venkat could see were leaves – much to the disappointment of the farmer. “He found fault in the way I walked through the field, the way I approached the insects and even the colour of the clothes I wore,” said Venkat. Later, lessons weaned from the criticisms of the farmers became his photographing techniques. “They [farmers] have eyes made of gold, since they’re always looking into the distance,” he said. “They are the ones who taught me how to observe.”
The photographer said that the behaviour and sensitivity of the insect must be noted closely while approaching them. “You have to be aware of the speed at which it is moving,” he said. “You must also be aware of the sensitivity of the insect. A bug may be slow and not sensitive to movement, but spiders can see someone approaching from quite a distance.” For this reason, Venkat usually prefers using a small lens camera which he feels is the least invasive.
This proximity to insects in forests and urban parks has left Venkat with his share of scars. One should not be afraid of getting stung or bitten, he said, while lightly toying with a large black-and-red ant on a thorny leaf. “This is called the idli ant, because if you get stung by it, your skin swells up like an idli,” he said, buoyantly.
Apart from a few pages of description, Venkat’s book on Chennai’s insects is chock-a-block with close-up shots of the iridescent wings of damselflies, violet-tinted mantises and dragonflies that look like they have been dipped in gold. Most of the images were taken in the parks of Chennai.
Venkat said he did not want his book to be too technical. He did not even include the scientific names of all the insects – “I just wanted it to be a visual treat for anyone who wanted to enjoy”. Spreading awareness about conservation was one objective and another was to prove that smaller creatures too can make for great pictures. “I just wanted to show how beautiful insects can be. People should want to frame these pictures and hang them up on their walls.”