Monday 18 February 2019
Tell us something about your childhood and early years of growing up.
My childhood was spent living in abject poverty. We were seven siblings. My father was a tailor and my parents could not afford to raise all their children under one roof. It was difficult for them to educate all their children. My father had a dream to educate one of us till the tenth grade. My grandfather had a job at the Bokaro Steel Plant. I started living with my grandparents. I had to do the household chores like feeding the cows and I would get beaten up a lot over small things. I used to think of ways to become a rich and famous man. I had seen in movies that people ran away from their homes to big cities and turned into heroes. I did the same. I stole some money from my grandfather’s pocket and took a train to Delhi.
What were the problems/ challenges that you had to navigate in the new city?
There were plenty of challenges. I felt completely lost when I arrived in Delhi. I was hungry and there was no place for me to go. I was crying when some rag packing children came and offered me food. Soon, we became friends and I started living on the railway platform with them. I also started rag picking. But surviving on the platform was difficult. Our earnings were often snatched by elder boys who were bullies. I often used to get injured or get cuts while fighting with these bullies. Police would also beat us up every time a passenger/traveller lost their luggage or other belongings. I soon started looking for other jobs. I was hired to do the dishes at a small eater in Ajmeri Gate I used to work from five in the morning till the eatery shut that was usually around midnight. I did not get sufficient sleep and would contract infections on my skin due to lack of personal hygiene and it would hurt.
Do you also have some pleasant memories or did you meet someone who has a positive influence on you?
Sanjay Srivastava an affiliate of the trust helped me reach the Salaam Balak Trust. There was a surge of hope within me once I witnessed the freedom and opportunities that were available to the children living at Apna Ghar run by the trust. I started attending school and participating in theatre. I attended the summer workshop organised by the National School of Drama. I started participating in all their annual and street plays. However, I always landed the petty roles. I soon realised theatre did not hold a very bright future for me.
How did you realise that you wanted to shift from theatre to photography?
The teacher/coordinator from Salaam Balak Trust encouraged me to take up some vocational training after my 10th
standard results came out. I scored a mere 48%. Back in 2000, the trust had organised a photography workshop. I did not participate then but I learnt that the two selected participants were sent to Indonesia and Sri Lanka to exhibit their work. When I was asked to choose a skill for my vocational training, I chose photography because I thought it will give me a chance to travel abroad.
We had an award program in Salaam Balak at that time which was called the International Awards for young people which had three sections to it. One was skill, one was social service, and one – the name of which I am forgetting- which entailed entering the number of hours that we played for.
Salaam Balak gave me a Kodak camera worth INR 499. I started using it to click pictures of children. There was a British photographer named Dixy Benjamin, who was visiting Salam Baalak Trust to take pictures of the children and their activities, etc. My teacher asked him whether he would be willing to coach me.
Dixy came to meet me at Apna Ghar. I found it difficult to comprehend what Dixy used to say because of the language barrier. He would explain all the concepts in English and I has always studied in Hindi-medium schools. Even though our skills and knowledge were at par with other children, we- the children at the NGO did not feel confident because were not fluent in English.
When Dixy was leaving I shared my apprehension about not knowing English with him. Dixy told me that there are many good photographers in the world who belong to different nationalities and who do not speak English. He said that I could become a good photographer because I have a good eye.
In 2005, I had to leave Salaam Balak because I turned 18. Salaam Balak Trust gave me a sustenance fee till two-three months.
The trust also helped me in finding a job as a photo assistant to a Delhi-based photographer named Anay Mann. The job was to engage me only for 8-10 days in a month. I was very excited. Later, I took a loan from Salaam Balak Trust and bought my first camera which costed me INR 28,000. In my spare time I took up part-time jobs like fixing lights at the weddings, catering jobs, etc.
I grew more passionate about photography. I would do odd jobs, buy more rolls and keep shooting. I was also fortunate to find a mentor in Anay Mann. He would point out my mistakes in an encouraging way and also corrected me. The guidance and mentoring was not just limited to photography, but he also groomed me on social and professional mannerisms, etiquettes, and behaviour.
He also advised me to work on my appearance. I did not have many clothes and would wear the same set of clothes to high profile shoots. He started paying me 500 bucks extra so that I could invest in new clothes and other grooming products.
As work increased, travel also increased, all the things that I aspired for or dreamt of started coming true which pushed me to working harder. I actually never really thought that I would become a professional photographer, I always thought that I would just remain an assistant. I would see exhibitions of other photographers and look at my mentor’s photographs and wonder whether I would ever be able to take pictures that could compete with the professionals.
My journey was gradual. I kept taking pictures and had my first exhibition- ‘Street Dreams’ in 2007. The idea was to portray my life on the streets before I turned 18 through images of other children living on the streets and facing similar situations as I did.
Fortunately, I found a sponsor by chance while I was manning my mentor’s exhibition at India Habitat Centre towards the end of 2006. There was a man visiting the exhibition who asked me if I also took photographs and asked to see them. He liked my photographs and urged me to put up an exhibition.
I did not want the opportunity to go by, so I borrowed 10,000 bucks from someone and bought film rolls.
I had three months and I shot extensively in this period. My first exhibition was organised at the India Habitat Centre and was sponsored by the British High Commission and DFID. It was organised by the High Commission ambassador and was quite successful. I travelled with it to different places. I went to London thrice, where the exhibition was put up at the DFID office, Nehru Hall. It was also showcased at South Hampton, Vietnam, South Africa and a number of my photographs were sold then.
From earning a mere INR 3000 to having a bank balance of over a lakh lead to me to develop an attitude. I assumed that I was a famous photographer and started being rude to my mentor. He called me one day and made me realise that I was going the wrong way. I introspected and realised my mistakes and started distancing myself from certain friends who were not a good influence. That kind of sums up my journey into photography.
Is there any particular genre/ subject that draws you more?
I categorise myself as a documentary photographer. That implies that you work and delve into a project for over three to four years and then come out with a selection of photographs or compile a book. Spending so much time on a particular project means that you know the subject in depth.
If you pick up any photograph from the projects a documentary photographer does, she/ he can narrate the entire story of the subject, give context, and perspective. I would further call myself a social documentary photographer as all the projects that I have done revolve around social themes. The book that I came up with Home Street Home (released 2013) covered my work from 2005 to 2012 starting with the Street Dreams project and going into my life in the shelter home wherein I shot the life of children in shelter homes. The third project that I worked on stretched from 2012 to 2017 which is now being exhibited at the Kochi Biennale. Therefore, I do not have a large number of projects in my kitty as I devote extended amount of time on each of my project.
Is there one project or time that you would call as the most memorable?
I think it would be my first- Street Dreams. It was the first phase of my life when I used to live on the streets, the railway platform and that was home for me then. Later, when I started living in the shelter home, that became home for me and then when I went back to document the life I had left behind I could feel the shift in my perspective. When I picked up the camera I felt empowered, it changed my world. Those days before the digital revolution and mobile phone cameras, fewer people would use cameras and especially the SLRs.
It completely changed the status quo, my friends started looking up to me because they would want to get pictures clicked. I would watch a lot of plays at Mandi House. I did not need to purchase tickets. If I had the camera hanging from my neck, people would think of me as someone from the press. It gave me easy access. Hence, the charm of the medium kept growing on me.
With the advent of digital and mobile cameras, do you think there has been any effect on the exclusiveness of the medium?
A lot of people ask me the same question. People think there are fewer photography assignments now. I differ on that. Today thanks to the online space, product marketing is largely dependent on photographs. Earlier photographers were restricted to newsrooms or studios, now the scope of the medium has grown exponentially. So, I think the job opportunities that the medium has to offer have increased manifold. The medium of course has become more accessible and there is a rise in photography as a hobby. But that does not take away the need for specialists or experts.
Now that you have an association with Save the Children for the #Invisible project primarily promoting the right to identity for children living in street situations, how has been the experience and what are your thoughts on it?
The fact that Save the Children is working towards providing an identity fascinated me and I feel proud that I can contribute to the process in whatever capacity I have. When I go on shoots and photograph the children, I can totally relate to their situation. I am reminded of my parents’ home where seven of us with our parents would live in a one room house and there was no one to help us. If even one child is supported, he/she can turn around the fate of the entire family. I try to give my cent percent whenever I go on shoots so that the stories I capture in my images communicate the cause well and help these children to move ahead in life.
There are four states in which the project is being implemented. The contexts are circumstances are not the same everywhere. What differences or distinct challenges did you face, if any?
The process of facilitating the obtaining of an identity document is of course not the same in all states. There are unique challenges in all the states. The teams are trying their best to get the job done and I always try to adapt to the situations according to the changing context. In fact, newer ideas keep emerging and therefore the work continues to improve.
What is the one message that you have for those who are working for and with children in street situations and also for the children?
We should just focus on putting in our best efforts. We cannot determine the end result but we can determine what we do. I strongly believe that change happens if thoughts are put into action.