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Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das

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A photographer who enjoys walking and was inspired to pick up a camera by the beauty of the mountains. Sujoy Das combined his two passions for trekking and photography together becoming the founder of South Col expeditions ; a company offering treks and photography workshops up in the scenic landscapes of the Himalayas. His passions for mountains and photography are well blended. We at Livingit are honoured to connect with someone who has been living his passion for the last 30 years. Connecting for the #IamLivingit series, Rachana from Team Livingit got in touch with the mountain inspired photographer stories on how he got to where he is today, his love for the mountains and his passion for stunning landscape shots.

RJ: You have been photographing, climbing and trekking in the Himalaya for the last thirty years. Tell us something about yourself and your journey.
Sujoy Das: I was born in Calcutta and have spent most of my life there. However, my family had strong ties with Darjeeling – my grandfather built a house there called Ray Villa in the 1930s which is still standing on the hill – it was built on the edge of a hill which had an uninterrupted view of Kangchenjunga right across the valley, possibly one of the best locations in Darjeeling.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Ray Villa circa 1940’s

Ray Villa was later sold and when I first went to Darjeeling as a child in the sixties, we lived in the town in a house called Dahlia which also had a great view of the snows, as they are referred to in Darjeeling. My grandmother used to walk a lot and she often took me on these walks – I must have been around eight or ten then and sometimes we walked to the neighbouring village of Ghoom and back. We used to live below the house of the great Tenzing Norgay, the first man to summit Everest along with Edmund Hillary, and I still remember meeting Tenzing and his dogs on these walks. To see the great man himself was an inspiration and I still treasure the autograph I have. There is also a famous photo studio in Darjeeling called Das Studio (no relation to me!) and I used to go there every day to look at the big mountain blow ups, that Durga Das Pradhan, one of the Das brothers, had shot and beautifully enlarged.

Unlike today, Darjeeling was a beautiful hill station then with leafy lanes, moss drenched rocks, waterfalls gushing down the hillside backed by that superb view of Kangchenjunga. Darjeeling was my introduction to the Himalaya and to photography and my first trek was in the hills across Darjeeling – the Singalila ridge of Sandakphu and Phalut. After I completed school in Kolkata and went to college, I continued to visit Darjeeling and later on ventured into Sikkim.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Climbing a snow slope in West Sikkim in the Kangchenjunga region – note the primitive equipment Bata power shoes and makeshift stick circa 1980

That was, in fact, the start of my Sikkim book project, even though I did not know it then. Most of the treks which I undertook were with a friend from school Srijit Dasgupta and were low budget shoe-string affairs. We often boarded a ‘Rocket Bus’ as it was known then from Calcutta and reached Siliguri in the foothills at dawn. From there another packed bus or jeep used to take us into the mountains either to Darjeeling or Sikkim. There were no porters or guides with us – we could not afford them. We carried our own backpacks with our own supplies and stayed at the dak bungalows or mountain huts at a nominal charge – something like Rs 20 a night! If there was no hut we used to bivouac in the open sometimes under a rock or stone wall.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
An emergency night stop near Phalut after getting lost the previous evening circa 1982

My interest in photography, in fact, grew from my interest in the mountains – I wanted to make better photographs of the Himalaya and I started reading up all I could about photography – I borrowed books and magazines like Amateur Photographer from the British Council library – those were the days before the internet and mobile phones. A friend of my father’s gifted me his old black and white enlarger and processing equipment so I started to learn by trial and error how to process black and white film at home in the bathroom. That was a great learning experience and now with digital photography that experience has gone.

RJ: When did you first think of becoming a photographer?
Sujoy Das:
I don’t think it was a conscious decision – I started photographing very early when in school and as I grew more and more into it I started getting opportunities to work for some magazines and newspapers and also doing freelance assignments for friends and family and that increased over the years.

RJ: Any favourite photographers? What is your biggest source of inspiration for your work?
Sujoy Das:
In the area of mountain photography, which is my major interest it would be Vittorio Sella and Galen Rowell , both masters in their field. Sella was a pioneer in many ways – he used large format cameras at high altitude, including the Himalayas and the Karakoram, and some of his images are just magical! Rowell was also an amazing landscape photographer – he pioneered some techniques including the use of split neutral density filters and has a filter series named after him! I am also a great fan of Raghubir Singh – his street photographs were intricately layered and it looks easy but is very difficult to achieve. It was extremely sad to lose him so early.

RJ: What photographic equipment did you start off with?
Sujoy Das:
Well, I had an Agfa Click III first and then a small Kodak Instamatic! They were popular beginners’ cameras in the late sixties and early seventies. Then I moved over to a Pentax Spotmatic which is an SLR and finally soon after college got a Nikon FM. I have stayed with Nikon ever since – I have both film and digital Nikon at the moment.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
With the camera in hand and the perfect backdrop

RJ: Among the gadgets that you’ve collected over the past 30 years of your career is there anything you feel you could’ve saved on?
Sujoy Das: Not really – I never had much money to invest in photography – it was always a struggle to buy something new and I made do with the minimum. For example, I never used the top of the line and most expensive Nikons like F2AS, F4, F5 –I was quite satisfied with their mid-range like FM/ FE/ F100 etc. and even today in digital era I use the mid-range full frames like D610 or D750 etc.

RJ: Do you always have a camera with you?
Sujoy Das : Well, nowadays I always have an iPhone with me and it’s not the latest – it’s a 5S! I am pretty happy with the iPhone – I like the panorama and video features as well and use it quite a bit – perfect for posting on Facebook and Instagram – earlier before mobile phones, in the mountains, I always had a camera usually one of the smaller Nikon SLR’s with a fixed lens and maybe a lens or two in my backpack.

RJ: You are the founder of South Col Expeditions which runs treks and photo workshops in the Himalaya. How has the experience been? Enriching so many lives with your passion?
Sujoy Das: It’s been a great experience. Many of the South Col trekkers came to me as clients but have become close friends over the years. There are some who have done multiple treks with me year after year and there are some who don’t trek with any other company other than South Col! It has also been great taking them up to locations which are off the beaten track for mountain views which they might have missed had they been on their own and enjoying our evenings in the camp discussing different subjects.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das

RJ: What are your essentials when packing for a trek?
Sujoy Das: Other than the regular stuff like t-shirts, thermals, boots, cap, gloves, goggles etc, I would never go without a good down jacket and sleeping bag. At high altitude both these are essential and can save your life especially when it is very cold. Water tablets and a good headlamp are also on the essential list along with an emergency medicine and first aid kit.

RJ: What are the mistakes that most of the new photographers tend to make?
Sujoy Das: Well, I think they tend to get equipment oriented. I was also like that –I used to buy photo magazines and analyze new cameras, new lenses and wonder whether they would make better pictures than my existing equipment. Now I realize that it doesn’t matter – to quote a cliché ‘the best camera with you is the one in your hand’ and if it is an iPhone then that’s it. Also when you are new to photography there is a possibility that you would try to copy other photographers work and that’s a strict no-no – you need to develop your own style and vision from the very beginning.

RJ: Locations and weather conditions are definitely a deciding factor in the success of a photograph, how do you handle the unpredictability of the two?
Sujoy Das: Well regarding locations, when you are walking through the mountains you see viewpoints which look attractive and you do your shooting on the way – if the light is not suitable and you can’t go back as you are trekking to another night stop then that photograph is lost. However, sometimes when camping or spending the night at a lodge there are locations around which will work in the right light like before dawn, the golden hour before sunset etc. For this, you need to be ready and waiting at the right time and hope you get your shot.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Photographing Primulas in the upper Yumthang Valley in North Sikkim

For weather conditions, you can’t really do much. Himalayan weather is unpredictable and when you expect bright sunshine you may be enveloped in fog! Having said that, it is also possible to make a photograph in inclement weather – many of my best shots have been taken when the weather has packed up or is just clearing after a storm.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Clearing spring storm on Thamserku in the Gokyo valley

So bad weather is not necessarily an impediment to getting a photograph – it’s just that you will get a different sort of photograph which may infact, be more dramatic than the one you intended in the first place.

RJ: You are the co- author and photographer of the book SIKKIM – A Travelers Guide with Arundhati Ray which was a finalist in the Banff Book Competition in the Adventure Travel category. Tell us something about it?
Sujoy Das : I spent more than fifteen years on and off shooting in Sikkim. It had become an obsession for me to get this book published and it was my first book. The proof and photographs were sent to around fifteen publishers all over the world including Indian publishers and all of them rejected it. In between the rejections, I used to keep going back to Sikkim and shooting different locations and events. Then finally two friends of mine Rukun Advani and Anuradha Roy, who is now an acclaimed author, started their own publishing house, Permanent Black. I asked them if they would do this book and they agreed. So that’s how Sikkim was published and interestingly the book sold very well – it went to three editions – it is now out of print and I am thinking of updating it for a fourth edition if possible.

RJ: Your book Nepal Himalaya – A Journey Through Time is specifically dedicated to black and white photographs. Any particular reason?
Sujoy Das: One day, some years ago, I was in Pilgrims Bookshop in Kathmandu, which is one of the biggest bookshops in Nepal and has a superb collection of mountain books. I was looking at the big coffee table books on Nepal and I noticed that almost all of them were in colour. I asked the owner whether any recent black and white photography books had been done on Nepal – he could not come up with any. So that was the seed of the idea to do a black and white book on Nepal which would look different and stay away from the stereotype images.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das

RJ: You also did another powerful book called Nepal for the Indian Traveller. Tell us something about that.
Sujoy Das: This was a Lonely Planet India publication – it followed the Lonely Planet layout and design which is similar for all their guide books. Even though I knew Nepal well I had to research a lot for this book as Lonely Planet is very particular about correct information and normally requires the author to visit the location before commenting. So most of what is covered in the book is based on personal experience – I recommended hotels where I had stayed, restaurants where I had eaten, travel companies I had found reliable and so on. In fact even now sometimes I refer to the book myself if I need something!

RJ: If you had to choose one, which of your photographs is your all-time favourite, and why?
Sujoy Das: This is the most difficult question of the whole lot! There are so many… it’s very hard to make a choice and the one I have selected today is, of course, one of my favorites’.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
The kitchen of Lingshed monastery Zanskar

Tenzin Tsewang one of my trusted guides and I were on a trek across Zanskar from Lamayuru to Padum. A couple of days into the trek we reached the village of Lingshed. It was lunch time and we were both hungry. The weather was also not very good which is unusual in September. Tenzin knew a monk in the monastery at Lingshed and said we would go there hoping to get something to eat. So, we sat down in the monastery kitchen and Tibetan tea was served. It was dark in the kitchen but there were some interesting elements and I was wondering how to make a photograph. Suddenly, the sun came up through the clouds and illuminated the kitchen beautifully in splendid back lighting. I think even if I had a set of lights I could not have done it better – I shot three or four photographs and then the sun went behind the clouds again. The best one of the lot is the picture above and the man sitting next to the pillar on the right is Tenzin. I feel it conveys beautifully the ambience of a kitchen in the high Himalaya.

RJ: Similarly with treks, any particular favourite trek that will always hold a very special place?
Sujoy Das: I think it would be the Green Lakes trek – the base camp of Kangchenjunga in North Sikkim along the Zemu valley. Green Lakes had become some sort of Holy Grail for me. I have done this trek twice once way back in the spring of 1987 when I was photographing for my Sikkim book and again in November 2014 when I took a small South Col team to the base camp.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
View of Kangchenjunga from my tent at Green Lakes in November 2014

The trek is in a restricted area and it if very difficult to get permissions. What struck me on both occasions was the pristine condition of the valley especially the forests of the Zemu which are quite incredible. There are no villages in there and you meet no one – it is pristine wilderness. Infact, I did a photo essay just on the forests of the Zemu without any mountains – it is here .

RJ: What is a piece of advice you would offer to aspiring photographers looking to make their passion into their profession?
Sujoy Das: I think they need to understand that it’s not an easy job to make a profession out of photography. If you are able to get a photography job with a magazine or newspaper then you would earn a monthly salary and that would keep you going through your own personal projects and creativity may get blunted. However, freelance photojournalism, travel, magazine stories are difficult to find and payments are also mostly inadequate. Sometimes it is easier to follow your passion as a part time photographer and do the assignments and stories that you are really interested in.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Late winter at the base camp of Annapurna I with Gandarva Chui and the ridge to Macchapuchare behind circa 2014

RJ: What’s next on your bucket list?
Sujoy Das: I don’t really have a bucket list though I would like to go beyond the Himalaya and visit Tibet, Patagonia and the New Zealand Alps once in my life.

It is not always straight forward and easy to live off of a passion. Living your passion simply means allowing ourselves to give it a priority in our life, whether as our profession, full time or part time, or as a hobby.

You can follow Sujoy Das here

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A Blend of Adventure Photography and Trekking: Nitish Waila

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