Tell us something about your childhood and early years of growing up.
My childhood was spent living in extreme. My father was a tailor and the only bread earner in the family. We were seven siblings and my father could not afford raising all of us. I was told to live with my grandparents. There, I was asked to do all the household chores and would get beaten up a lot over small things. I always dreamt of becoming a rich and famous man one day. To fulfil my dreams, I stole 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?
I felt completely lost when I arrived in Delhi. I was hungry and there was no place for me to go. I befriended the rag pickers and started living on the railway platform with them. I faced many challenges from being bullied to being beaten up by the police. I started to look for jobs and soon ended up doing the dishes at a small eatery in Ajmeri Gate. There, I used to work from five in the morning till midnight. I did not get sufficient sleep and would contract infections on my skin due to lack of hygiene.
How did you realise that you wanted to shift from theatre to photography?
At Salaam Balak Trust. I was encouraged to take up some vocational training after my 10th standard results came out. It was back in 2000, when I inculcated an interest in photography. Salaam Balak Trust had an award programme named the ‘International Awards for Young People’. The trust also gave me a Kodak camera. I used the camera to click pictures of children.
I was introduced to a British photographer named Dixy Benjamin when he was visiting Salaam Balak Trust to take pictures of the children. He was kind enough to coach me. While Dixy was leaving, I shared my apprehension about not knowing the English language. It was then that Dixy told me that there are many good photographers in the world belonging to different nationalities and they do not speak English. He told me to be good at my work and that the language did not matter much as I have a good eye.
With the help of the Trust, I started working with Anay Mann, a Delhi-based photographer in 2005. This was a part-time job and kept me engaged only for 8-10 days a months. I took up other small assignments and part-time jobs in the remaining days of the month. My passion for photography grew and I kept shooting. Anay Mann was a great mentor because he corrected my mistakes as and when it was required and also groomed me on social and professional etiquettes.
With increasing work my travel increased and my dreams started coming true. 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. The exhibition was sponsored by the British High Commission and DFID and the exhibition gave me a chance to travel around the world and exhibit my work at different places.
Is there any particular genre/ subject that draws you more?
I categorise myself as a documentary photographer. I 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. Therefore, I do not have a large number of projects in my kitty as I devote an enormous amount of time on each of my project. If you pick up any photograph from my projects, I 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.
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. 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 Bal Raksha Bharat 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 Bal Raksha Bharat 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. 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. 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.