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Ragpicker to Forbes List: How a Homeless Child Became an International Photographer

Ragpicker to Forbes List: How a Homeless Child Became an International Photographer

“What will I do, where will I go, was all that came to my mind. I was so scared,” says Vicky, whose incredible journey proves that dreams do come true. #Inspiration

The 11-year-old boy stood aghast at the chaos of the New Delhi railway station. The melee of passengers-walking, running and pushing to get to their destination was overwhelming. As the tears began to fall from his eyes, the stark reality of his situation sank his heart; he had left home far, far behind, there was no going back.

He hid in a corner, scared and alone.

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None of the people rushing around him had an inkling that the little boy hunched up in the corner would someday be featured in both Forbes India’s 30 under 30 and Vogue India’s 40 under 40, get an invitation for dinner with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace and join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a photography fellow!

“I remember how I started crying at the thought of being completely alone in this big city. What will I do, where will I go was all I could think of. I was so scared,” recalls Vicky who ran away from home with dreams of becoming a movie actor.

Source: Sham Deshmukh/Facebook

Hero banoonga, bade sheher jaunga, (will become a hero, go to a big city) was the fantasy that drove me,” he adds. From that crying child on the railway platform, to a world-famous photographer, Vicky Roy’s journey is nothing short of a script for a cinematic blockbuster!

Finding a New Home

Vicky was born in a poor family living in the interiors of Purulia, West Bengal. His father, a tailor by profession, earned Rs 25 per day which was not enough to sustain Vicky, his six siblings and their mother. Although his father dreamt of educating his kids and helping at least one child clear class 10, the lack of resources made it hard. Eventually, Vicky was sent to live with his grandparents.

“At my grandparents’, things were a little strict. I would be punished for the smallest of mistakes. I simply hated it. After sometime, I couldn’t take it anymore and so ran away,” says Vicky.

Young Vicky soon joined a group of ragpickers.

Street Dreams

“Initially it was fine but things began to worsen. People would randomly pick fights and at times it was dangerous. So, after working as a ragpicker for almost six months, I decided to leave. This time, I got a job as a dishwasher in a small hotel in Paharganj. It was around that time, when I met Sanjay Srivastava, who changed my life forever,” he narrates.

A Good Samaritan, Sanjay helped Vicky get in touch with an NGO, Salaam Baalak Trust. Like Vicky, Sanjay too used to work at the railway station, until the NGO rehabilitated him and gave him a different and better life.

“Things changed after I started living at the Trust’s shelter home. They made an affidavit for me, as I didn’t have any documents to get an admission in school. I was admitted to class 6 in a government school in Paharganj. Although, I wasn’t too inclined towards education and was not really a good student, I completed my 10th. My teachers began to push me to take up vocational courses so that I could be independent,” informs Vicky.

Though the vocational courses included cooking, stitching or other technical skills, Vicky was yet to find his calling.

In 2000, when Vicky saw two boys being given an opportunity to visit Indonesia for a workshop as part of their photography course, he decided to pursue that.

To encourage me, the trust gave me a camera worth Rs 499 with three rolls a month, a huge deal at the time. Suddenly carrying a camera made me kind of important and gave me more respect. Friends began to bribe me with food to get their photos clicked! And, in all this, I didn’t realise when I began to truly enjoy and love this! says the 32-year-old, who was sent to Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi, by the Trust to study photography.

Spreading wings of independence

After a few years, the 17-year-old Vicky left the Trust, as one could not live in their shelter home after the age of 18. However, the Trust helped his career with an apprenticeship with a Delhi-based photographer Anay Mann.

“I was blessed with such an amazing mentor. He taught me so much!” shares Vicky, recalling how Mann would not just polish his photography skills but also groom him to be a professional.

“He gave me a salary of Rs 3,000, a bike and a cell phone as part of the job. He works with high-profile people, so I got the chance to travel across India with him. But, he was very strict when it came to professionalism and etiquette. He taught me all that. I remember how he used to scold me if I wore the same shirt twice. So, as part of my grooming he would give me an additional Rs 500,” adds Vicky, who managed a few more odd jobs like catering to manage his life in the city, while paying off the loan taken from the Trust to buy a more expensive camera.

While he continued to gain knowledge and experience as Mann’s assistant, there was a lot more he wanted to do.

He was waiting for his big break.

And, that break came in 2007, when he had his first solo exhibition titled ‘Street Dream’, at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi.

Photos of his first solo work, Street Dreams

A mirror to Vicky’s inspiring journey, the exhibition became a turning point in his life. “Street Dream is more like a self portrait. I captured images of children of the age when I was alone. To my surprise, the exhibition did very well and was largely appreciated by big photographers. That really helped open many doors for me,” says the lensman.

A year later, the US-based Maybach Foundation approached Vicky to photo-document the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. The project also allowed him to take a course in Documentary Photography at the International Centre for Photography in the city.

This led to many exhibitions in India and across various countries including the UK, US, Singapore, Germany, Sri Lanka, Russia and Bahrain. In 2013, he shared the story of his life with the world in a monograph, ‘Home Street Home’.

“Life and learning go hand in hand and neither should stop. I’m lucky to have had so many people helping me out in this journey, but what keeps me going is honestly the lack of fear. Despite it all, I don’t have anything to lose. Everything that I got is a blessing, something extra!” he smiles.

An image worth immeasurable impact

Vicky says that his personal struggles and the life around him inspires his art. No wonder then his poignant photos have the power to speak to the audience.

“I do my work because it gives me joy and I will continue to do so for that!” he says, but, there is something else that motivates him further – social impact.

Recalling one such incident, Vicky narrates how a single photograph clicked by him helped transform the life of a family.

“I was working on a project for the NGO, Save The Children, when I clicked pictures of the daily life of a family living in a rickshaw outside Jama Masjid. I posted it on my Facebook wall and it touched the heart of a friend back in Silicon Valley, Rajeshwari Kannan who was moved by the fact that the family was content despite not having a house, amid the poverty.”

With Rajeshwari’s contribution of Rs 40,000 and Vicky’s Rs 10,000, he offered to buy them an E-rickshaw but the family refused.

“Instead they requested us to buy them a small shop in Rajasthan, near their home. We were able to fulfill that and the shop was handed over this January,” he beams.

After all these years of pure passion-driven hard work and international fame, Vicky Roy still does not consider himself a successful photographer. He says he is and will always be in pursuit of improving his skills.

However, there is a triumph he holds close to his heart, “The joy I felt seeing my family after years. Back in 2016, I was able to buy a three-bedroom house for my mother on Mother’s Day. That was something special!”

Twenty-one years later, following a rocky trail of several ups and downs, he is finally a ‘Hero’, not a reel one but a real one, who picked himself up, dusted off the challenges and made it big in life!

Also Read: These 7 Photos by Indians Just Got Shortlisted in the World’s Biggest Photography Contest

Photo Courtesy: Vicky Roy

(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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