From being a child of the streets to an internationally acclaimed photographer, Vicky Roy has been on the quintessential journey that is the domain of every 80’s Bollywood hero. But his story will touch hearts in a way that masala thrillers never can. Paulo Coelho wrote, “Only two things can reveal life's great secrets: suffering and love.” Roy has had his share of suffering, be it surviving an abusive childhood, living on the streets to eke out a living or struggling with his own ego to achieve his artistic potential. But there is not a touch of martyrdom or self-pity in the jolly twenty six year old who says he ‘just wants to have fun’. Rather, it is his love he is much more excited about. At the end of the interview he sheepishly says that he is engaged to his childhood sweetheart from the orphanage where he had found refuge from the streets while growing up. And what makes her the girl of his dreams, I asked. “Since she grew up in the orphanage with me, I know I’ll never have to deal with busybody In-Laws,” he smirked.
I was born in a very poor family and was one among seven siblings. My father would give my mother only twenty rupees a day for household expenses. When I was about two or three year old, my parents left me with my grandparents. They had hoped that here I would have a decent chance at education. My father knew that he could not afford to educate all his children, but he dreamed that I would at least study up till class ten. Initially all was good. I was going to school regularly.
But as I started growing up, on the smallest of pretexts, my grandparents would start beating me up. They would not let me play with other children. I was under strict orders to come home straight after school. My life was a cycle of home-school and then home again. In school I would hear about how the other boys went to different places and the holidays they enjoyed. My heart would yearn to travel. But not only was I not allowed to leave home, barring school, others were also not allowed to visit home either. After school I had a huge list of chores to finish every day. And even the smallest misstep was an invitation for beating me black and blue. I was an imprisoned servant and could take it no longer. This is when I decided I would run away from home. I was eleven years old.
I had thought of running away from home many times but could never muster the courage. Then one day I managed to get my hands on the princely sum of nine hundred rupees (I had pinched it from my uncle’s pocket). This was the largest sum of money I had ever encountered and didn’t think twice about what I was doing. I ran straight to the station where there was a train waiting. I jumped on it and made my way to Delhi. Since I was just a child, I had needed to buy a half ticket.
When the train reached Delhi, I was stunned by the size of the crowds and the number of people passing by. I had no idea where to go or what to do. Scared, I returned to the platform and started crying. A few boys came up to me and asked, “Why are you crying? Did you run away from home?” When I said yes, they told me to come with them. They would take me to a place where I could go to school. They took me to the Salam Balak Trust Home. But upon reaching the shelter, I started getting fearful. All those stories I had heard in my childhood about people who kidnapped little boys and made them do horrible things started flashing before my eyes. Somehow I managed to run away from there the next day and landed back in the station.
Back in the station, a band of little boys my age, who lived at the station, befriended me. I would work with them, collecting plastic bottles and selling water in the general bogeys for five rupees a piece. The general bogeys would be so crowded that once passengers got on, there was no way they could disembark to fill their own bottles. Thus, our water selling business was booming. Life went on this way for five to six months.
Like in the movies, every platform too has a villain. Ours was particularly nasty. In return for “protection”, we had to hand over a huge chunk of our daily income. The more the number of children scuttling about the platform for a living, the greater his power. Periodically goons would come and ask us who we were working for. If the villain under whose “protection” we were was sufficiently powerful, they would leave us alone. There was some benefit to this as well. On days that we didn’t manage to sell a single bottle, they would give us food. But that’s where their charity ended.
When small fights would break out among the boys at night, the punishments meted by these ‘villains’ became particularly nasty. They would break off the corners of cheap blades, and scarred the faces of the children with the deadly serrated edges. I and my two best friends could not live in that terror anymore. So we would work in the stations during the day. At night, we would go near the garbage vats, clear a little area and sleep there as no one was likely to come there. Sometimes we would go to the open Ram Leela fields and sleep.
Life went on like this for about six months. There was a roadside dhaba I used to go eat. When I asked the proprietor there for work, he agreed. Little did I know that it would turn out to be the most horrific time of my life. It was winter time in Delhi. I had to wash dishes all night long in freezing cold water. There were blisters and infections all over my hands and feet. I would bleed incessantly. After washing dishes past midnight, they would wake me up at 5 am to cut vegetables. I could not take such torture, but I had no choice. I had to survive.
Months went by like this. Fortunately, a volunteer of Salam Balak Trust used to live nearby and he chanced upon me one day. He told me that at this age I should be studying and not working. He took me to the Trust Home. This time I had the sense not to run away.
I lived at the Apna Ghar branch of Salam Balak, a home where the school going children stayed. I was admitted in class seven and my education restarted. I was surprised at the glowing marks I would get at school because back home in Purulia my academic performance was dismal. Life was good again.
However it all changed once my class ten marks were in. I had scored 48 per cent as opposed to my usual 80 per cent. Truth be told, academia always bored me. It was the visual world around me that fascinated the most. Earlier I rutted and memorised my way through lessons. But in higher classes, as lessons became increasingly difficult, I could no longer bluff my way through.
My academic coordinator at Apna Ghar told me that I would be better off acquiring some formal training while continuing my education through open schooling. I was given choices of becoming a mechanic, electrician, etc. The main reason that I ran away from home was to see the world. These professions would lock me in my corner of the world. In 2001 there had been a photography workshop in Apna Ghar. The lecturer had boasted that he got to travel to Indonesia and Sri Lanka as a part of his work. So I boldly suggested that I wanted to become a photographer. At the time a British photographer was documenting the Apna Ghar children. They apprenticed me to him and I followed him around wherever he went. While he took great pains to explain everything to me, he did so in English- a language that went completely over my head. Whatever he said at me, I would say, ‘Yes’ and ‘Okay’- the only two English words I knew.
Though he felt my pictures showed great promise I was disheartened. Right before he was about to leave Delhi I got hold of an interpreter to ask him could I ever become a great photographer since I knew no English. He told me that some of the greatest photographers in the world are from Japan, China and France. They speak not a world of English. You are an Indian. Speak Hindi proudly. You are gifted. Follow your passion.
By now I had turned eighteen and was required to leave Apna Ghar. They were like a family and provided me with everything I would need for my life ahead. For two months I remained unemployed after leaving Apna Ghar. But they gave me enough to sustain myself. They also arranged an apprenticeship for me with the Delhi based photographer Anaymann. He gave me a cell phone, a bike and a salary of three thousand rupees. I was ecstatic. He warned me though that I would have to work three year under him because that is the time it will take me to grasp the skill that is photography. He said that young ‘uns work under him for six months and begin to think that they are heroes. I have to be patient and humble and willing to learn. I happily agreed. I took a loan of thirty thousand rupees from Salam Balak and bought a camera. Thus started the journey of my dreams.
While studying the photographs of great masters, I too relayed to my mentor my desire of having an exhibition of my own. He studied my amateur efforts and advised me to work around a theme. I wanted to photograph street children. He told me that such a theme had been done to death. What new idea would I bring to it?
I thought about it and realized that the streets were my home, these were my people. I could shoot it from an insider’s perspective. I shot the little children who lived on the streets, just like I had done not too long ago. My work was noticed by the British High Commission and they sponsored my solo exhibition. It was showcased in 2007 at Habitat Center and titled ‘Street Dreams’. The exhibition was fabulously successful and travelled to London, South Africa and Vietnam.
Through all this I continued assisting my mentor. But arrogance and pride began seeping in my behaviour. I had managed to earn a decent sum of money and recognition. My attitude reflected it. I became quite disrespectful towards my mentor, assuming a haughty demeanour. I thought that I had become all that I had wanted to be. I don’t need to listen to anyone else.
Anaymann noticed the change in me. He sat me down at a café one day and gave me the harsh facts to my face. He told me I could never be a good photographer if I was not a good human being first. I felt ashamed and started bawling my eyes out, sitting there at the café. People stooped to notice this grown man crying out loud.
I like to think that since then I have rectified myself and my work is the better for it. I continued to work diligently and accolades kept coming my way. An international photography contest that I won in 2008 sent me to USA for a six month residency. In addition, I got to be trained in my craft at ICP (International Centre of Photography), the best school of photography in the world. I came to New York in March 2009 and had the best time of my life. During the course of my study there, I was selected to photograph the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre. These pictures were showcased at my second solo exhibition in January 2010.
It was after coming to the US that I finally gained some real confidence. In India I would be very conscious about my work and my background. I would be scared of what to talk to people, what to answer when they questioned me. Here I met amazing people, saw the works of talented artists from all walks of life and saw such people appreciating my work as well. My silly fears evaporated and I found my voice. Now I can go wherever and be confident to be myself. Case in point is when I was invited to lunch with Prince Andrew in Buckingham Palace. As I sat there lunching with the prince, I marveled at how many millions of tourists come to London to see the palace from outside. And here I was, with my trusty camera! I felt proud. He later invited me to his own palace at Buckshot for a dinner party.
In 2011 my friend Chandan Gomes and I started a charity called Rang. We launched an open photo library. Photography books are very expensive and beyond the means of the younger generation. We sent a proposal to photographers asking them to donate their books. All great photographers responded to our letter and sent us specimens of their works. Today we have about 800 photobooks of amazing pedigree and our library is open to all. We also mentor young boys from Salam Balak in the art of photography. When I was young and on the streets, with nowhere to go, someone took a chance on me. I will do the same for others if I can.
In 2012, Chandan and I had a joint exhibition titled ‘Apna Ghar’. The point of the exhibition was to showcase our homes. Chandan had been shooting the empty corners of his house since 2008. I had pictures from my stint at Apna Ghar since I have known no other place that felt more like home to me. I wanted to show people how my home is different from the homes of other people. The renowned photojournalist Prashant Panjiar liked the exhibition and proposed we make a book. Though coffee table books are very expensive and sell out quickly enough, there are no such books showcasing documentary photographs. My aim was to make a book that is affordable enough for anyone to buy. My book was released at the 2013 Delhi Photo Festival. It was titled, “Home Street Home” and sells for one thousand rupees.
In 2013 National Geographic had organized a photography reality show titled ‘Mission Cover Shot’. I was a part of the show and travelled to Sri Lanka for it. Typically, we had tasks to compete and every week there was an elimination. It was a ten episode thing. I lasted for nine of those. It was great fun.
Since then I have been doing what I love most- taking pictures. My pictures continue to travel the world and are showcased at exclusive destinations all over. Presently I am MIT on a two week scholarship to learn the latest techniques in the world of photography. From here I will travel to Washington, then New York and finally San Francisco where I am scheduled to give yet another TED Talk. This is where I have lived my life till now and I am grateful for every moment.
Photography is a very powerful tool. I hated studying, but the moment I saw a picture I could discern so much knowledge from it. It has changed my life and given me everything I am today. Above all, it fulfils my passion for travel. When I look at a scene, I think of the most unusual ways to shoot it so that my pictures reflect the unique truth of the situation. I want to do good work, work that people will remember. Someday, my name will be among the greatest photographers of the world.
My mentor always told me to keep taking more pictures. “The more pictures you will take, the better you will get,” were his words. I was lucky enough to discover my passion early in life, but this advice holds true for anyone of any age. One thing I have noticed is that the more there is greed, the more there is sorrow. The only thing that will take you forward at the end of the day is your work. Keep doing what you love doing, with honesty and dedication. Your life then will surprise you.