Vicky Roy’s picture-perfect homecoming

Soumitra Das | Updated on October 16, 2020

Easy does it: Vicky Roy (below) captures people in the environment they feel most comfortable in, and the focal point is always their face   -  IMAGES COURTESY: VICKY ROY

Ragpicker-turned-photographer Vicky Roy returns home to capture images of strife and calm

A mobile phone repairer works amidst a cloud of cigarette smoke; a stout man sits on the floor of his humble abode; two women enjoy a chat on a carved wooden seat; an old man ensconced on a sofa grins happily.

Clearly, Vicky Roy — the man behind the lens — empathises deeply with the subjects of his photographs. And that, perhaps, owes to his first-hand knowledge of a hardscrabble life.

Vicky Roy

Roy was 11 when he fled to Delhi from his Purulia home in 1999. He started working as a photographer from 2005, but not before going through trying times as a ragpicker and street child.

So how does he get ideas about what to photograph? “From my life experience, of course,” Roy, 32, shoots back. “Thoughts crowd my mind on sleepless nights.”

Roy was in Purulia, spending time with his family after finishing an assignment for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that involved shooting families leading desperate lives on the streets and in jhuggis of Kolkata in late September.

“Whenever one views a photograph, one’s vision is first drawn to the subject’s eyes. I frame my compositions keeping this cardinal point in mind,” Roy says on the phone from Purulia.

When this Delhi-based photographer returned to his Purulia home after a gap of several years, he began to take photographs of some 15 people he had not met for a very long time. Meanwhile, sleepy Purulia had turned into a boomtown with its malls and hotels, and crowded roads.

Roy also requested his subjects to write letters to him. Only three of them obliged. They wrote back in Hindi, Bengali, English and even Arabic. It was like excavating memories. He abandoned the project, but continued to take a series of other photographs.

He captured his subjects in the environment they felt most comfortable in, be it a grotty godown, a shop, a charpoy with a wall covered with cow dung cakes behind it, a plush sofa or a hole-in-the-wall. The focal point is always their face. The frames perfectly capture the mundane reality of their lives.

Roy followed the same principle when he shot photographs of the despoliation of nature’s beauty by man, exhibited at Kochi Biennale 2018. Shot in Himachal Pradesh, the focus never deviated from ugly man-made constructions. The pristine glory of the surrounding mountains was only the backdrop.

Even when he works on publicity campaigns for NGOs, it is the human quality of his frames that is the most striking. A mother makes straps for rubber slippers while her daughter studies inside a hovel, which is standing on stilts above a sewerage canal. In another frame, a solitary girl sits amidst the burning garbage mountains of Dhapa in Kolkata as smoke rises like mist, as if it were one of the circles of the Inferno. The images show abject poverty, but they neither glorify penury nor is the gaze voyeuristic.

Why doesn’t he shoot these in colour? They were originally captured varicoloured on his digital camera, he says. “Even in garbage dumps and in various street corners there is a lot of colour in election banners, graffiti, the plastic sheets used as roofs for jhuggis. My focus is on the children. I don’t want viewers to be distracted by colour. So I turn them into black and white,” he explains.

Roy first visited Kolkata for a day in 2004 in a group of 10 on the way to Matha hill in Purulia, where he was to join a camp for social service as part of an award he had won from Salaam Baalak Trust, the NGO that had helped him find his feet when he left an abusive home for Delhi.

The group did all the tourist spots but Roy was most excited to get himself photographed in front of the Howrah Bridge.

“I had heard about Howrah Bridge from childhood. I took all the shots with my plastic Kodak KB10 camera. I had no idea then that I would become a photographer someday,” says Roy. Since then, he has visited Kolkata several times on assignments, but because of time constraints he had never seen much of the city. It was only during the lockdown that he was able to photograph Kolkata and the Howrah Bridge extensively.

Roy waxes eloquent about the “different beauty” of the iconic bridge that takes on a different appearance at different hours of the day and in varying lights. “You never tire of it,” he exclaims.

Seasoned traveller that he is now, Roy says he views Kolkata as a city of memories. “New cities have no memory. It’s only old cities such as Kolkata that are a repository of memories. When you go to College Street and see the trams trundling down it, anyone can connect with that memory.”

But to fulfil one’s dreams, Mumbai is the place, he says. “However, it all depends on your capability.”

And where is home? “Delhi gave me everything. Purulia is where my family lives,” he replies. “So both Delhi and Purulia are my homes.”


Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on October 16, 2020
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