As told to Abhishek Jha:
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Let’s begin by talking about this one.
It is the first photo you’ll see on my website. It shows a child with a bandage on his right cheek, surrounded by darkness, sitting on a broken chair and looking up to a shaft of sunlight with eyes closed. I clicked it for the exhibition ‘Street Dreams’, because I felt it captured the project’s essence – the dreams that float in a child’s head when they close their eyes to the street’s violence.
I don’t know what this child was dreaming about that winter day in 2005. But I do know one thing, because like him, I too was once a child of the streets. I know that these dreams also need an opportunity, the proverbial light in the darkness, to make them a reality.
Let me explain.
I came to live on the street around the time I turned eleven. My parents were too poor to look after me. They had sent me to my grandparents, who would beat me up and make me work. I couldn’t take it and stole some money to run away from my grandparents’ home in West Bengal.
When I reached New Delhi, I was taken to a shelter. I didn’t like staying there and ran away to the New Delhi railway station. First I sold water, but couldn’t save any money. Then I started working at a dhaaba. Here, I had to work all through my waking hours. I was fortunate to get a second chance too. A Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) volunteer found me and took me to another shelter.
This time, I decided to go to school after I saw a child at the shelter going to one. But I wasn’t good at studies. So when high school was about to get over, my coordinator encouraged me to get trained in a field that would not require me to go through the regular education system.
I told my coordinator that I would like to pursue photography. I had become really interested in the craft after attending a workshop at the shelter. I kept talking to people about becoming a photographer, tried to learn the art, and when it was time to leave the shelter, a photographer agreed to make me his assistant. Soon I met the photographer who would sponsor my first solo show – Street Dreams. My persistence had paid off.
Learning photography wasn’t easy for me though. My first exposure to professional photography was through a British photographer Dixie Benjamin, who had come to document SBT’s activities. He explained everything in English and I could barely make sense of what he was saying.
Benjamin encouraged me to pursue photography despite the language barrier. But in today’s world, not having that basic education can be a difficult hurdle to climb. That’s why I tell children in street situations to study as much as they can. I understand that, after a while, one feels that they are too old for school. But acquiring knowledge is important, for your own future.
Young people who have access to resources can help children in street situations in this process. This is because there are many children in shelter homes who acquire knowledge to pursue some goals, but don’t have all the skill-sets for doing so. After all, I too learnt photography when young people volunteered to talk to us about it at my shelter.
Today perhaps a young person can volunteer at a shelter. This could be as simple as teaching English to those in shelter homes who go to Hindi-medium schools. It will take a few hours in your week, but this can help children on the street in becoming employable in the future. If somebody is good at some sport, one can also help them get better at it. There are a lot of such options.
It is because of the skills that I acquired that today I am judged like any other professional photographer. When I meet fellow professionals now, they ask me what my next project is going to be, when a new exhibition is happening, where they will get to see the new project. My life on the platforms of New Delhi railway station, being beaten up by goons, the sores I got on my hands from washing plates in blistering cold water – all that is now background.
Professional success has also helped me contribute to society. I am building an organisation right now, for example, to create a library on photography.
All this has been possible, however, because opportunities existed when I needed them. When I dreamt of becoming something, I found mentors guiding me at every step. This is what the photo of the child with the bandage tells me. It is one of my most favourite photographs. If you create opportunities for children in street situations, hopefully there will be many such favourites.