I Was Once A Child Labourer In An Eatery. Today, I’m A Renowned Photographer.

STC logoEditor’s Note: With #TheInvisibles, Youth Ki Awaaz and Save the Children India have joined hands to advocate for the rights of children in street situations in India. Share your stories of what you learned while interacting with street children, what authorities can do to ensure their rights are met, and how we can together fight child labour. Add a post today!

Interviewed by Sreepoorna Majumdar

I was sent to live with my maternal grandparents when I was just 3 years old. My parents couldn’t afford an education for me and my siblings, but my father had a dream to educate me until 10th grade. So, I was put into my grandfather’s care. There, I would be forced to do all the household work and would get beaten up a lot over small things. I spent my time dreaming of ways to become a rich and famous man. Struck by stories of lead actors running away from home in Hindi films, I stole money from my grandfather one day, and just left. I got onto a train for Delhi.

Life On The Railway Tracks

I felt completely lost when I arrived in the capital city. I did not know where to go. I was sitting on the platform, crying, when some rag picker children asked if I were hungry. They gave me some food and soon, we became friends. I started living on the railway platform with them. I also started rag picking.

Surviving on the platform was difficult. Whatever we would earn would be snatched away by older boys and any fight was dangerous, always involving knife blade injuries and cuts. What’s more, if travellers lost their luggage or belongings, we would be blamed and beaten up by the police, too. It soon became difficult living there.

Working As A Child Labourer

I often used to eat at a small eatery at Ajmeri Gate which is close to the New Delhi Railway station. I went to the owner there to request a job. He hired me to do the dishes – but it wasn’t easy. He would wake me up at five in the morning and the place would shut at only around midnight. I never got enough sleep.

“It was only after I started living at Apna Ghar, run by the Salaam Balak Trust, that life became easier. The freedom and opportunities available to children there filled me with hope.”

Life At Apna Ghar

It was only after I started living at Apna Ghar, run by the Salaam Balak Trust, that life became easier. The freedom and opportunities available to children there filled me with hope. I started going to school, and I participated in theatre. I even attended the summer workshop organised by the National School of Drama.

Finding My Way To Photography

When I didn’t perform in my 10th grade exams, my teacher suggested I focus on my vocational training. That’s when my life really changed. I decided to focus on photography. Salaam Balak Trust gave me a INR 499 worth Kodak camera which I started to use to click pictures of children.

I was fortunate to find a mentor in a British photographer visiting the Trust – Dixie Benjamin. While he was very helpful, it was difficult for me to understand everything he said, because my English was very poor. He would explain all the concepts like Aperture and shutter speed in fluent English and I would barely understand. But we somehow got by, and I learned bit by bit. Ironically, it was Dixie who convinced me that I didn’t need English to be successful – he was confident my knowledge of Hindi and my eye for photography would see me through.

Life After Apna Ghar

In 2005, I turned 18 and had to leave Salaam Balak Trust. The organisation helped me find a job as a photo assistant to a Delhi-based photographer, Anay Mann. He agreed to take me on for 8 to 10 days a month at a salary of ₹3000. After a few months working with him, I took a loan from Salaam Balak and bought my first professional camera – a Nikon F80. To help repay the loan, I would take up part-time work, fixing lights at weddings, helping the catering teams, and more.

As I grew more and more passionate about photography, Anay Mann mentored me and ensured I learned enough to satisfy my hunger for the skill. He even went a step further to teach me about professionalism, etiquette, behaviour and self-presentation. He paid me extra so I could afford better clothes and grooming gear.

The work increased, and so did the travel – making every aspiration of mine come true. It only pushed me to redouble my efforts.

“Anay Mann mentored me and ensured I learned enough to satisfy my hunger for the skill. He paid me extra so I could afford better clothes and grooming gear.”

My First Photography Exhibition

I put out my first exhibition in 2007, called Street Dreams. Through my photos, I wanted to portray some of the experiences I’d had living on the streets, through other children in similar street situations.

I found a willing sponsor while manning my mentor’s exhibition at India Habitat Centre, who gave me a short deadline. I didn’t let that deter me, though. I borrowed money from a friend and bought enough film rolls to shoot in the stipulated time.

The exhibition was successful – opening up new opportunities to travel to London, Vietnam and South Africa. My pictures sold, and I suddenly had a very healthy bank balance. It changed my life.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to participate in a worldwide photography programme organised by the US-based Maybach Foundation. As part of it, I photo-documented the reconstruction of the World Trade Center in New York and undertook a course in documentary photography at the International Center for Photography, New York.

My first monograph ‘Home Street Home’ was published by the Nazar Foundation (New Delhi, India), and released at the second edition of the Delhi Photo Festival (Sept-Oct, 2013). And in 2017, my solo show “This Scarred Land: New Mountainscape” was exhibited at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, India. I was awarded the MIT Media Fellowship in 2014 and listed among the Forbes Asia 30 under 30 in 2016.

My Message To You

I owe every bit of my success to Salaam Balak Trust, and eagerly support every NGO that works for children like me. I see children in street situations when I go on shoots, and completely relate to their difficult lives. I’m often reminded of my parents’ one-room home, where I would be squeezed in with them and my seven siblings. No one was there to help us then.

Having come so far along from this harsh reality, I urge you to lend your support to children like me. If even one child is helped – with a step as simple as getting an identity card – the fate of their entire family could turn. We need to focus on putting our best efforts towards this. We may not know the outcome, but we do know of our ability to help. I believe change will happen, if we just put our thoughts into action.

Vicky Roy is one among lakhs of children living on India’s streets, who happened to find help. Several others do not get so lucky. Do you have solutions on how we can help them? Write in and share them with us, and together, we can help them realise every one of their dreams and aspirations. 

Featured image for representative purpose only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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