Rajen Nair is a freelance photojournalist living in Mumbai. He has a partial hearing disability. Rajen has conducted photography workshops for about 700 children, including cancer patients and children with disabilities.
There is excitement in the air in the paediatric ward of Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital. A group of children, all suffering from cancer, are huddled up and waiting for their teacher, friend, confidante, and guide – Rajen Nair. It is that day of the week when Rajen comes in to teach them photography; something that they look forward to, something that lights up their day and that gives them immense hope. “I see a different kind of light in their eyes and joy on their faces during my workshops. It is encouraging just to look at them learning,” says Rajen, a freelance photojournalist from Mumbai who is partially deaf and is known for his free photography workshops for children suffering from cancer or living with disabilities.
It was during the late 90s that Rajen first realised he could hear better with his right ear as compared to the left, when using the telephone.
On visiting a doctor he received the shocking news that he had atherosclerosis – a condition that leads to hardening of the arteries in the ear and causes hearing loss. The doctor suggested immediate surgery and informed him that any delay could lead to permanent damage. But, unfortunately, even the surgery didn’t help him in the long run. Rajen lost the ability to hear in his left ear. A year after that, he was diagnosed with tinnitus, a condition that leads to buzzing or ringing in the ear. “Tinnitus patients suffer from depression and have suicidal tendencies too. I went through all that for a long time. But then, one morning, I decided that instead of spending years worrying about my condition, which I had to deal with anyway, I would use my time more productively,” says Rajen.
During this time, he also had to quit his job after he made a mistake in quoting an amount for an important business deal for his company, due to his hearing problem.
Later, he decided to try his hand at writing, a hobby he had developed over the years. Rajen took a course in journalism and photography and started working as a freelancer for a leading Indian newspaper. “I was the senior-most student in my photography class and could not initially understand a word of what I was being taught. I was doing photography only to add to my writing career. I never thought of it as something that I wanted to make an independent career in. But slowly, I started getting more recognition for my photography skills than for my writing,” he says.
This was just the beginning of a long and beautiful journey. On looking back at the reasons why he turned out to be a better photographer even though the subject was so new for him, Rajen thinks it was because of his hearing disability.
“I am more dependent on my eyes whenever I am outside and that could be a reason why photography was easy for me. This was when I thought of teaching this skill to children living with hearing disabilities,” he says.
In the early 2000s, Rajen started to visit a school for deaf children in Goregaon. He conducted photography classes for kids there every weekend.
The classes were free of charge and went on for three years. They included theory classes on photography equipment, going outdoors for shoots, organising exhibitions, etc. Word about his work spread across India and abroad, and a well-wisher from Australia even flew down to gift him nine cameras for his classes (he still uses them in all his workshops). After three years, it started becoming difficult for Rajen to continue teaching the classes using his own money. “But the kids wanted to continue,” he says. “I told them that there were no funds and it was not possible. But I had developed a special bond with them by then and my relationship with my students always went beyond my classes. They were an important part of my life. So we decided to meet once every month for outdoor shoots and those classes continue to this day,” says Rajen. Five students from his group are on the verge of starting their own careers in photography today. Despite coming from underprivileged backgrounds, they saved money to buy DSLR cameras and are practising to become wedding photographers.
In 2013, Rajen tied up with the Tata Memorial Hospital through an NGO and started taking classes for children suffering from cancer.
These classes were a part of HOPE — an annual cultural programme organised by the hospital – with the underlying message that cancer is curable. Following this, some other NGOs approached him. Now, Rajen conducts regular photography workshops on invitations from NGOs.
“I feel that creativity is important during the bad phases of life. It helps people cope. Moreover, this skill gives my students a medium and tool to express themselves, and also something that they can take forward and build a career in,” he says.
All his workshops are free for students; the NGOs pay for his transportation and stay.
His aim is to bring kids with disabilities into the mainstream and he has worked with over 500 children till now, including those with visual impairments, Down syndrome, autism, etc., in places like Faridabad, Goa, Bengaluru, and more. During his three-day workshops, the first day is dedicated to learning all about the equipment and the theory of photography; this is followed by two days of outdoor shoots.
All the pictures taken by children during the shoots are used by the NGOs to organise exhibitions for fund-raising.
“Once, in collaboration with an NGO, I conducted a three-day workshop in Dharavi. The kids wanted to continue after those three days. When I told them that we wouldn’t have the required place, they offered their own homes to learn. And we continued the classes for about six months in a shanty in the slum,” recounts Rajen.
Although Rajan is not working currently, he continues to take regular classes at the hospital. Losing his students to cancer is a hard reality that Rajen has learned to face.
From among the group of five regular students in his group, he has already lost two to the disease. “We have a WhatsApp group named ‘warrior photography’ because all these students are warriors. They are much stronger than adults like us. I lost Gulshan and Harsh, two teenagers full of life, hopes and dreams. While this shook me initially, my other students helped me cope,” he says.
Rajen has a Facebook page called Spreading Light through Photography, for his students and other photography enthusiasts.
“My message to kids with disabilities is: ‘Today you are pampered by NGOs, schools, colleges, and parents. But tomorrow, these people might not be with you. So don’t become a liability. You have to learn something that will help you’. The same goes for children suffering from cancer. I feel that creativity can help them fight the agony, pain and mental trauma they have to go through. I tell them that that if they don’t fight bravely, the medicines will not work,” he concludes.
You can contact Rajen by writing to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.