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It’s easy to hate on Neel Soni, the 18-year-old budding conservationist who’s come out with A Walk on the Wild Side. Making it as a wildlife photographer—or any photographer—is hard in India, and here’s this young man who’s published a photo book on tigers that has an impeccably quirky look (props to designer Nitin Srivastava), is printed on Kraft and Rendezvous paper and is set in an arena as stunning as Corbett National Park. But once you sit and have a good think, the envy slowly dies out, only to be replaced by begrudging admiration.
Soni has put his exposure to the wild from a young age to good use to deliver a natural history narrative that is pointed, personal and aimed for posterity. With A Walk on the Wild Side, readers are led into ‘his’ Corbett, where Soni juxtaposes a soft spot for the Terai’s big cats—in the form of closeups, fine art-style shots and stealthy inclusions into sweeping vistas— with the area’s socio-environmental conditions. The wwwsection dedicated to ‘Kaka’, Soni’s guide and driver into, makes us feel warm and fuzzy.
It’s unusual for a photo book, but we almost preferred Soni’s writing to his photography. His unwavering empathy is commendable, and his insider’s gaze insightful. The young lensman’s ability to recognise and remember Corbett’s tigers is also surprising, since he’s photographed them from so far away, and at so many different points of time. But the images, albeit composed and lit well, could have benefited with more attention towards curation, as their ordering, themes and the sheer number don’t combine cohesively. For example, Soni speaks of the sudden demise of Shakti, a grand old tigress, with sensitivity and respectful adoration. But much too soon, there’s an irrelevant picture of a bird that disrupts the emotional impact.
Soni’s portfolio, weathered since before he even passed his 10th-grade exams, has varied moods that need their own breathing room to avoid feeling like a confused potpourri. In terms of translating his confident integrity into an awe-inspiring photo book, we feel he’s not quite there yet. But if this is just the beginning of his professional journey, we’re excited at the thought of his absolute best.
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