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In sickness and in health

Soumitra Das | Updated on January 25, 2019

United we ask: Vicky Roy’s Janwaar Castle series spotlights students’ demands for better amenities in a Madhya Pradesh village school   -  VICKY ROY

Vicky Roy and Chandan Gomes’s photographs at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale draw from deeply personal experiences

Both are 31-year-old photographers based in Delhi, have roots in Bengal, and are currently exhibiting their works at the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Vicky Roy and Chandan Gomes have yet another thing in common — their works draw from intensely personal — often painful — experiences. It is almost as if they were excoriating a healing wound to share the pain with viewers.

Their lives, however, could not have been more different. Roy grew up in poverty in Purulia, West Bengal. After helping himself to some cash from his uncle, he boarded a train and arrived in Delhi. For some time he led a precarious existence as a ragpicker on railway platforms. Then he was a dishwasher in a dhaba. But Roy’s life was about to change completely. Salaam Baalak Trust — the NGO that filmmaker Mira Nair established following the success of her 1988 filmSalaam Bombay — took him in. He started going to a school but realised he was not academically inclined. A photography workshop conducted at his shelter inspired him to become a photographer instead. He was given a Kodak KB10 camera at the age of 14, and he began to snap portraits of his friends.

In 2005, when he was old enough to leave the shelter, he was offered the job of a photo assistant to an established photographer. He now had enough time to shoot on his own and also began working as a waiter in a five-star hotels to supplement his income. He bought a Nikon S80 with a loan from the NGO, and began shooting for his first project,Street Dreams, which basically documented his life. The 2007 exhibition at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre (IHC) was well received, and it travelled internationally. Next he was selected for a six-month course at the renowned International Center of Photography in New York and his assignment involved lensing the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. “My English was broken, but I was better off than the Japanese and Europeans,” says Roy.

Shade card: Chandan Gomes uses his cell phone camera and its filters to create eyecatching colour contrasts   -  IMAGE COURTESY: CHANDAN GOMES

 

Since then, he has been feted with several awards at home and abroad. In 2011, he met Gomes, who teaches at Delhi’s Aurobindo Centre for Art, in Delhi — they were among the three finalists for an IHC fellowship. Together they started the Rang Open Library near Qutub Minar, stocking books on photography collected from renowned photographers.

Many of Roy’s projects are driven by a desire to help those in need. Janwaar Castle, for instance, is not just a skating rink for poor kids in a Madhya Pradesh village, but also a means to draw attention through social media to local issues, such as the need for better amenities at the village school, or financial aid for the treatment of a boy suffering from cutaneous tuberculosis. Yet there is nothing cloying about Roy’s images. Technical perfection apart, he brings to his practice a sincerity that allows him to unflinchingly hold up a mirror to himself and his surroundings — whether with his images of “platform” kids (they do have their moments of fun), or his candid Home Street Home series, or his haunting shots of the detritus of development in the scarred hills of Himachal Pradesh. “There is need for development. But is this how you go about it?” muses Roy.

Gomes’s self-created handmade books and photographs with startling effects and searing colours (The World of Dew) are achieved by using high-speed film, “pumping up the ISO” and manipulating shutter speed. At times, he uses his cell phone camera and its filters as the means of producing amazing colour contrasts (Invisible Cities series). His occasionally disturbing yet breathtaking images recall American photographer Diane Arbus’s haunting lines: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Gomes’s enigmatic shots are tantalising. Wrapped in mystery, they reveal little of the identity of those he shoots, be it the extreme close-ups of a pockmarked face, an old woman with streaming grey hair, or his dream-like “protest” shots when he was part of the angry crowds that confronted the police in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang rape.

Gomes’s home may have been tiny (These are Things I call Home), but he passed out of St Stephen’s College with honours in philosophy, and both his parents were ardent photographers. After college, Gomes took up photography as a profession, working with NGOs, and working on “whatever I thought needs documentation... whatever evokes my curiosity. Personally, I don’t work on projects — so no beginning or end.” He could pursue the elusive mountains he had discovered in a dead girl’s notebook, or things that remain invisible, like mental illness. “What is in the mind is not visible, and what is not visible is not seen. Hence a photographer’s challenge is to make visible something that is not seen,” Gomes explains. So he turns his gaze on labourers suffering from cabin fever, and the critically ill, and stands our notions of beauty on their head in his photographs of a garbage dump. Vulnerability embodied.

(Vicky Roy’s Street Dreams and This Scarred Land: New Mountainscapes are on view at Kochi-Muziris Biennale; Chandan Gomes’s Works. Books (2012-18) are on view at the same event.)

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on January 25, 2019
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