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.
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.
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. I started going to school, and I participated in theatre. I even attended the summer workshop organised by the National School of Drama.
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.
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.
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.
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.