Thomas Vijayan photographer businessman
Dubai-based businessman and photographer Thomas Vijayan believes that it is important to focus on what you do when young in order to establish yourself early in life. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The man in the pinstripe suit and turtleneck T-shirt wears many hats. He is an entrepreneur who seizes the opportunity when the time is ripe and a businessman who has transformed a two-member printing operation into a chain of 40 shops with 300 employees. He is also a photographer who has travelled the world in search of elusive animals and has won more awards than he can keep track of.

Meet Thomas Vijayan, a UAE resident for 30 years, whose penchant for business and passion for photography ensure that he still works for most part of the day.

“In my early days in the UAE, I used to work for 18 hours a day. This went on for about 10 years as I established my printing business. People say I can spend many days on wildlife photography today because I have plenty of time. That is not true. I worked hard to reach where I am today,” Vijayan says.

Working hard comes naturally to this self-confessed workaholic. Growing up in Bangalore in the 1980s, Vijayan says he would get up at 4.30am to work on his father’s farm and vineyard. “My father used to pay us for our work and this was my first taste of business. I would pluck the roses in my father’s farm, send them off to the market on the first bus and then rush to school.”

“With the money I saved, I bought my first bicycle at the age of 11, and a bike at 15, even before I got my licence. And then my first car too.”

Life in Bangalore was comfortable. “My father was a well-respected businessman and we were doing well, with a plush lifestyle.” But Vijayan says his father instilled a sense of discipline and hard work in the three siblings at home.

Thomas Vijayan orangutan indonesia
Thomas Vijayan's award-winning photograph 'The World Is Going Upside Down' captures an orangutan climbing a tree in Indonesia. Image Credit: Thomas Vijayan

Working hard was not the only thing that Vijayan learnt young. He was an entrepreneur early in life. “After Grade 10, I started a printing and packaging company with 32 workers. I used to supply packaging boxes to footwear companies.”

But there were struggles, too. “Companies owed me money and I went through a phase where I could neither stop the business nor carry on without being paid my dues. I was just not enjoying the business.”

After pursuing his studies for a degree in architectural engineering, an opportunity arose in Abu Dhabi which changed the course of his life.

Sheikh Sultan Bin Ahmed Al Qasimi Thomas Vijayan
Sheikh Sultan Bin Ahmed Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, and Chairman of Sharjah Media Council (SMC), honoured winners of the 6th edition of Xposure International Photography and Short Film Awards during a special ceremony held on Monday, February 14, at Expo Centre Sharjah. Thomas Vijayan won first place in the Wildlife category for ‘The World Is Going Upside Down’. Image Credit: Supplied

Setting up business in the UAE

Vijayan joined a printing company with two employees in 1992 and a few years later bought it over. The small office on Electra Street was renovated and he ensured that it stood out from the others. “We did up the print centre with wooden panelling, so it stood out from the others in the field. We did the painting alone with a few friends on a small budget. There was value in what we did and this had an impact on the people.”

As a startup, the company faced constraints that many businessmen do. “I remember that once I did not have Dh5 for a meal. That was a one-off case. But even then there was no question of going back. I took it as a challenge to move forward,” Vijayan says.

“30 years ago in my field of architecture, manual drawings were used. We had to spend hours at it. I would start my day at 8am and go on till midnight. Clients would want blueprints of the drawings, for which I would work after midnight till around 3am. After a few hours of sleep, I would wake up and start all over again.

Thomas Vijayan quote
Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata, Gulf News

“I would walk around 18 kms every day, delivering drawings to different offices.”

The hard work paid off. People soon began recognising Vijayan for the quality of his work. Sensing there was an opportunity in the print field, Vijayan expanded his business.

Today, the company is a one-stop shop for all things printing with more than 40 shops in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Canada.

“I worked hard from an early age. So what I have today is not luck. But I definitely had God’s blessings in my journey.”

Pursuing a passion

Along with his work at the printing store, Vijayan found time to pursue one of his hobbies – wildlife photography – a passion that has won him numerous awards and made him a well-known name on the circuit.

As a young boy, Vijayan says he used to travel 100kms into the forests for the ‘elusive shot’. “Film processing was expensive then, and all the cash I collected as pocket money would be spent this way.”

Over the years, Vijayan has focused on cats – big and small. “I go after the rare ones. For many years I went after the tiger, covering 170 big cats across India. Whenever a cub was born I wanted to be the first to photograph it.”

Shooting the Amur Leopard
“One of my hard-earned victories with the camera was shooting the Amur Leopard – one of the rarest cats in the world. With just a few in the wild, you have to spend years trying to spot one. I finally found one on the border between Russia and China.”
To do this, Vijayan sat in a cave with his equipment and monitored motion sensors and receivers to pick up any movement. “Food supplies were brought in once a week and I had to sit silently. After some time in the wild, you begin to adapt to the settings. Your ears can hear even the faintest movement a distance away.”
When he ran out of food and water and the weather turned hostile, Vijayan realised that the team could not deliver fresh supplies in the snow. “I then had to ration what I had in order to survive.”
“I suffered a chest infection sitting in the cave when I tried to stifle a cough. This led to chest pain.” After medicating himself with antibiotics, Vijayan came back home for treatment. “Once I recovered I went back to the same hideout and got the picture. That was a sense of achievement.”
“Even if I did not get the picture on the second effort, I would have gone for a third or a fourth. Otherwise, I would have felt the effort was wasted.”

Winning the top wildlife photography award

As the brand ambassador for Nikon in the Middle East, Vijayan uses photographs to convey a wider story – of habitat being destroyed, of climate change taking a toll on wildlife and of how humans are encroaching into territory that does not belong to them.

“I use this as a tool to bring reality to the people so they understand and feel for wildlife and nature,” Vijayan says.

One of his most famous pictures is that of an orangutan climbing a tree in Indonesia, a photograph that won him the first place in the Wildlife category at the 6th edition of Xposure International Photography Exhibition in Sharjah recently.

To capture this photograph, Vijayan perched himself on top of a tree and waited for the opportune moment with an 8-14 fisheye lens. What resulted was an orangutan staring straight into the camera and a picture entitled “The World Is Going Upside Down.”

Thomas Vijayan
Thomas Vijayan has a strong comment on global warming and feels we have a large part to play. Image Credit: Supplied

“We are destroying the forests for our selfish motives. Unused land is lying waste. Instead of using this, forests are being brought down to make way for oil palm plantations. Birds lose their habitat, animals have nowhere to go,” Vijayan says.

Vijayan has a strong comment on global warming and feels we have a large part to play. “Glaciers are melting. Global warming is a reality and we must play our part in slowing this down. I feel sad that every time I go to a particular place, it has changed so much.”

Has he ever felt scared or threatened in the wild?

“Not by wildlife, never. If you give them the right of way and do not make them feel threatened, you are safe in the wild. In the forests that I go, I am not scared about animals, but of humans. Many times poachers come in groups hoping to make a quick buck. Because I carry thousands of dirhams worth of equipment I am at risk.”

Thomas Vijayan
Businessman and photographer Thomas Vijayan with his wife and four daughters. Image Credit: Supplied

Vijayan’s wife and four daughters live in Canada. Between his businesses and photography, Vijayan makes it a point to spend a week with the family every month.