de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). Wild Obsession. The Photography of Rukshan Jayawardene. Hi Magazine. December 2008. Series 6, Volume 5. Page 136. ISSN 1800-0711.
Wildlife Photographers are like scientists. Jealous and competitive. So how does one wildlife photographer command near reverential respect from fellow wildlife photographers? This was the question I found myself examining when Rukshan Jayawardene asked me to introduce him at the launch of his exhibition ‘WildSpace’ at the Barefoot Gallery in November 2008.
The question of how one can command respect in a competitive and incestuous circle also allowed me to take stock on how one individual can exercise a wide influence. In this case in the development of wildlife photography in Sri Lanka.
I had been aware of the existence of this particular grandson of the late President J.R. Jayawarene. However, my first association with him was when I was still working in the Square Mile in London. I was working on A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka with Deepal Warakagoda and Dr T.S.U. de Zylva. Deepal approached Rukshan to source a handful of the gaps we needed to fill for the 252 species of birds we needed. I returned to Sri Lanka in December 1999 and whilst I was still in banking I had also heard from the legendary Thilo Hoffmann that besides T.S.U. de Zylva, the only person who was taking outstanding bird images was Rukshan. I should add by 2009, a few more names can be added to the list.
In 2001, I joined Jetwing and I embarked on a commercial agenda for wildlife. I soon discovered that Rukshan Jaywardene was like a heavenly deity. Yala National Park had a folklore built around this man. “Rukshan Mahattaya was here last week” or “Ruskhan Mahattaya is expected next week” the game guards would tell me. On the game drives they would stop and point to a rock where Rukshan Mahattaya’ photographed a leopard cub asleep or a Palu tree onto which an adult had dragged a kill to be photographed by him. Other wildlife photographers would exchange notes on what Rukshan had seen or photographed. For a man who did not court the media, he had amazingly attained a near cult status amongst the wildlife fraternity.
One day I did see him in the park. The first thing which struck me was that he was hanging his furniture out of the window of his Land Rover Defender. A small stool was hung over a window. It had a purpose. When Ruskhan found a subject worthy of his attention, a camera with a huge lens would come out and sit atop a bean bag which was placed over the stool. The lens, an 800mm beastie, looked like a rocket propelled grenade launcher acquired in the illegal arms market. Nobody in Sri Lanka at that time had anything like it. The monster would be laid on the stool and bean bag combination for absolute rock steady stillness. Not content with that, he would then use a cable release or remote with the camera to ensure that no vibrations were transferred from the photographer’s hand. He further dampened vibrations by using more bags atop the lenses. In addition to all this tamasha, he had to find the leopard in the view finder and compose and fire as well. Phew!
This leads me onto why Rukshan is one of the few wildlife photographers that the wildlife photographers will actually admit to being good. Well, damn good actually. He is OTTT. Note the use of a triple T. His key qualities are Obsessiveness, Technique, Time and Tools. The obsessiveness is the trademark of anyone who excels in their chosen field whether it is golf or tennis. A race against oneself, always striving for something better, never being satisfied. The technique, time and tools also go hand in hand with anyone who chooses to excel. In Rukshan’s case it was days and days in the field pursuing perfect imagery.
Many others like me would settle for the quick grab shot. Ruskhan with his technique would run the risk of missing a quick grab shot miss as he needed time to get his gear into place. But for a man who could at times spend two weeks a month in Yala, the generous investment in time would compensate coupled with his ability to set up and shoot very quickly.
What made Ruskhan quite special was that he would willingly share his knowledge with anyone who asked. He would patiently explain what he did and why he did it. When I first went around Yala looking for Leopards to attach a dollar sign to it, Rukshan was the only big hitter with furniture hanging out of his window. Over the years I observed more and more people emulating him. The lenses became bigger and the serious photographers had the stools and tools. I suspect it was his willingness to share his know how and his obsession with quality imagery which grew his reputation and encouraged others to follow his style and techniques.
He was also respected for being prepared to share information. If you bothered to ask him, he would point the way to where the leopards were currently showing and how best to gain a sighting. Some, chose to discreetly follow his vehicle. He was not alone in sharing his knowledge. Although wildlife photographers are competitive, in the early 2000s, Yala had a group of good photographers who set standards in gentlemanly conduct. The late Ravi Samarasinha always shared everything he knew with anyone who asked. I also remember how Jehan Kumara once reversed out of a leopard sighting to allow me to pull into a gap through which I could photograph a pair of cubs.
As the years rolled by from 2001, I would receive a lot of feedback from my professional naturalist guides. They never spoke ill of anyone. But I always heard good things in abundance about Rukshan’s conduct and helpfulness in the park. Ruskhan and Lal Anthonis also always made time to assist in the Wildlife Photography Workshops held by the Institute of Professional Photographers. The quality of his imagery and his success in winning a commendation in the famous BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition demonstrated that Sri Lankan photographers could ascend to the international arena. All of these contributed to building confidence and home growing Sri Lankan talent.
Between 2001 and 2004 I chaired the Nature Photographer Competition. Not surprisingly Ruskhan had winning images when the event began. Namal Kamalgoda who was the Competition Secretary suggested that Ruskhan be invited to the panel of judges. I was not too keen on this as it removed one of the best wildlife photographers from the pool of participants. But Namal felt that we needed a photographer of his stature on the panel. So we decided to put it up to Rukshan to have the choice of competing and winning or to be judge. He chose to be a judge and help the competition although it meant giving up the opportunity to have more winning images exhibited and published in the catalogue.
WildSpace his most recent exhibition had some marvelous images. The backlit zebras were atmospheric. The Brown Fish Owl flying along a forested road is poignant. The fact that his leopards still look so good demonstrate how good his images are. This is because great leopard images don’t impress as they did a few years ago. So many photographers, many inspired by Rukshan, are emulating his tools and techniques. In fact so many good photographer are now out there it would be only too easy to forget the role of change agent that he has played.
Although he is best known as a photographer he is also active in lobbying for conservation. He is a founder member of two conservation charities, The Leopard Trust and the Wilderness and Protected Areas Foundation.(WPAF). He also often works discretely behind the scenes to influence the state agencies on conservation matters.
I had decided a long time ago that my agenda was to use wildlife imagery to create livelihoods and not to quest for outstanding excellence in wildlife imagery as the end result. I had resigned myself to not taking images of the calibre in Rukshan’s portfolio. I don’t regret this mental demarcation. It makes it easier to ‘see’ and admire the talent of others and to recognize the role of change agent and farmer of local talent, that ‘Ruskhan Mahattaya’ has become. However, what I don’t want to hear is the oft heard phrase when I visit Yala “You should have come last week, ‘Ruskhan Mahattaya’ was here and photographed twelve leopards”. Sigh.