From Delhi’s railway platform to Buckingham Palace

Vicky Roy came from the gutter to become a celebrated photographer.

By Sanjay Pandey

Vicky Roy still shudders when he remembers the day he ran away from his uncle’s home in Purulia, in West Bengal and ended up in New Delhi. Barely nine years old at the time, he jumped into a train and after travelling more than 20 hours, got off at the railway station in India’s capital, cold, tired and lost.

“I was also feeling hungry and extremely scared,” says Vicky, today relaxing in his modest rented flat in Delhi. The only dream he had at the time was to have a good life, see the world “and become a little famous” – like the stars in the Bollywood movies he had seen on the silver screen in the dilapidated theatres of his village. Now, 17 years later, the 26-year-old acclaimed photographer has achieved all this and more.

From eating out of bins and sleeping on pavements and railway platforms, to dining with royalty – he was invited for dinner with Prince Edward at London’s Buckingham Palace after being awarded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – and talking to heads at Google and Facebook, Vicky’s life is one that could rival the plot of one of the Bollywood movies he loved so much.

The photographer who has several honours – including being India’s sole representative at the prestigious Art of Photography Show 2011 in San Diego, US, and one of just seven photographers selected by the distinguished Maybach Foundation from across the world to document the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre in New York – believes that his early days on the streets played a crucial part in his success.

“I got to see the lives of the people who lived on the streets up close and from a perspective not many photographers have had the chance to,” he says. “That must have given my pictures an edge.”

While Vicky can afford to relax now, his early days were harrowing.Barely three years old when his father Mohammad Manzoor, a poor tailor, sent him off to his maternal uncle’s house hoping he would have a better life there, Vicky found his new home a nightmare.

“I was treated very badly by my relatives there,” he says. His only relief was Bollywood movies that he enjoyed watching in the only theatre in his village. “The plots of almost all the films I saw at the time were of a poor man making it big in the city,” he says.

Hoping his life would imitate the films, Vicky was just nine when he “pinched some money from my uncle’s wallet” and ran away. He jumped on to a train that was bound for Delhi, and arrived the next day in a bustling city that was nothing like he’d ever seen, even in movies.

“Witnessing the hustle and bustle on the platform and the huge crowds left me with a sinking feeling,” he says. “Collapsing in a corner I started crying with fear and loneliness.”

The little boy was also hungry – not having had anything to eat except for scraps of leftovers from the train’s trash can. Seeing the sobbing boy, a few street kids came up and asked if he needed any help. “One of them asked if I had run away from home and when I said yes, they told me not to worry and that they would take care of me.”

His uncle, says Vicky, didn’t bother to look for the boy and as for his parents, they were too poor to launch a search for him, so after a few cursory complaints to the police, they simply continued with their life. “Although I was scared, I did not want to return home because the condition back there was not pleasant,” he says.

After a few days on the platform, the street children took Vicky to a shelter run the by Salaam Baalak Trust – a charity that takes in runaway children. It is only for kids below eight, but Vicky was taken in because he looked small for his age. However the boy soon found he was unhappy there.

“I felt stifled with all the rules and regulations in the home. Also, I wanted to make it big in the city like many of the heroes in the movies and felt staying in such a home would not help me realise my dreams,” he says.

He admits that he was a little scared of being out in the world all alone “but I had made some nice friends with the street boys while I was living on the railway platform, and felt there was a lot more excitement on the streets than in the home.”

So one day, after a couple of months in the home, Vicky sneaked out and found his way back to the railway platform. “I liked being with the street boys and living on my own,” he says. The street urchins included him in their group and Vicky went along with them, collecting and selling recyclable garbage to earn money to buy food.

“We used to also collect discarded plastic bottles, refill them with water from taps located on the railway station and sell them to train passengers for Rs5 (Dh0.3) a bottle,” he says. Many days they scavenged through garbage bins of trains for leftover food. “Some lucky days, we would even find boxes of half eaten ice cream.”

But finding food was only one of the challenges. “Cops patrolling the platforms would chase us with their large batons. Gang fights too were common. Some days, older boys would snatch away our savings and also beat us if we protested,” he says.

A year later, one night while snuggling in his tattered blanket in the cold winter of Delhi after having lost his meagre savings to bullies, it dawned on Vicky that his life was not going according to his plan.

“I asked myself, ‘Why did I leave home? To save some money and explore the country and the world, right? But I hadn’t saved any money and had not even explored Delhi,” he says.

Wanting to get his life on track, he decided to land a steady job and offered to work as a dishwasher at a roadside eatery. “Those were the most difficult times of my life as I had to work 20 hours a day in the harshest winter of Delhi.”

The job also left Vicky with a terrible fungal infection in both his hands because he was spending so many hours with his hands in water. “I was depressed and dejected and wondering how to save myself.”

By chance, he met Sanjay Shrivastava, a volunteer of the branch of Salaam Baalak Trust that cares for older runaways, who offered to help him. “‘You are too young to be working and need to be in a care home. I can help you as we have a home for boys like you,’ he told me.”

Vicky was overjoyed. “Although I had run away from a similar home once before, this time I was yearning for some care and help because I was tired due to lack of sleep and was in severe pain because of the infection,” he says.

Sanjay took him to a rescue home where there were several other boys his age. Having realised that life on the road was not that easy or as exciting as was shown in reel life, Vicky was now happy to be in a safe place. His wounds were tended to, he was given enough food and a place to rest and was taken care of well by the volunteers.

The one year he had spent on the road had made him wiser to the ways of the world. “I was 10 years old and felt I needed to get an education or learn a skill so I could realise my dream of saving money and improving my life and then my family’s,” he says.

The charity enrolled Vicky in a government school where the boy turned out to be an above average student. “There were moments when I used to feel homesick and wanted to go home but was not sure how my family would react,” he says. “Also, I wanted to achieve something in life before returning to face my parents.”

So after completing grade 10 – a major milestone as far as he was concerned – Vicky decided to return to his village to meet his parents.

“I remembered where my village and home were so could find my way back home without many problems.” His homecoming was a major celebration in his small house in Kolkata. His mother Zubaida Khatun, 47, could not stop shedding tears of joy at the sight of her beloved son. “She held me in a tight embrace for several minutes and begged me never to leave home again.”

He admits that he felt guilty for having put his family through so much stress. “I was very sad when my sisters told me that my mother had been sobbing for several weeks after she learnt that I had gone missing,” he says.

“But I told her that I did that because I hoped to get a job and give her and our family a better life.”

His family tried to persuade him never to leave their village again. But Vicky was keen to find a niche for himself in the world. “I reasoned with them that I was on the right track, that I am going to make it big in Delhi someday and bail our family out of the poverty they were facing,” says Vicky.

After a month, Vicky once again took a train to Delhi and returned to the care home where the volunteers suggested he enrol for a vocational skill. “Because I loved being out and about, I signed up for a course in photography,” he says. “I had a gut instinct I would do well because I liked being with people and looking at life from a new perspective.”

Slinging a Kodak KB 10 camera over his shoulder that the charity had loaned him, Vicky set off shooting whatever caught his eye. The images he came back with were so amazing that the teachers at the charity suggested he be the guide to British photographer, Benjamin Dixie, who was in Delhi to make a documentary on the Salaam Baalak Trust. “I readily agreed because I wanted to learn as much as I could from him.”

However there was a major hurdle – the language barrier. Dixie, an international photographer who had worked in conflict zones, including Syria and Gaza, would explain things in English “and I would just nod my head in agreement and say ‘yes’ because that was all I knew then”. Although Vicky couldn’t speak English, Dixie helped him by communicating in simple language.

In just a few days the Englishman spotted Vicky’s talent and his passion for photography and started teaching him. “I still remember what Dixie told me when he was leaving Delhi in 2004. ‘A lensman does not need to know the language. He needs to have an extraordinary eye to see and capture detail. You have that. So go chase your dream,’ he told me.”

Dixie knew the budding photographer would do well in his career. “Every now and then, you meet someone who is special and who has a twinkle in their eyes,” he says. “Vicky could barely speak English but he was a very sharp boy. Every time I read about Vicky’s achievements, my heart fills with happiness and pride. I feel like a proud father or big brother.”

He admits that some of Vicky’s works “were not technically perfect, but there were stories in them.”After completing his project, Dixie left Delhi, and the next mentor to fill the vacuum he had left in Vicky’s life was Anay Mann, a Delhi-based portrait-specialist, whose clientele includes Bollywood diva Deepika Padukone.

Introduced by the charity, Anay was so impressed with Vicky that he offered him a job. “I was overjoyed when Anay offered me a salary of Rs3,000, a cell phone and a bike. My dream of becoming a photographer was coming true,” says Vicky. Anay also taught him the finer points of portrait and real life photography. “He would sketch the kind of image he wanted and get me to shoot it with that point of view. He was also always ready to clarify mistakes and would not hesitate to scold me when I was wrong.”

Now that he was earning, Vicky could send some money home to help his family. The same year – 2005 – his father died following a prolonged illness brought on by malnutrition. “My responsibility became greater because I had to look after my mother, two younger brothers and three older sisters,” he says. Living frugally, he saved all that he could to send money home. Vicky also took a loan of Rs28,500 from Salaam Baalak and bought a Nikon camera.

“Since street life was all that I’d known, in my spare time I decided to document the life of children on the streets, at railway stations and in the shelter home. Basically, I started documenting my own life,” he says.

That paid off. In 2007, an official from the British High Commission in Delhi chanced upon his works at an exhibition organised by his boss Anay in a gallery in New Delhi, and impressed by the images, offered to sponsor his solo exhibition. “I couldn’t believe it when such a prestigious organisation like the British Council agreed,” he says.

The photos – showing street children playing by the roadside, having a bath under an open tap, picking garbage, and searching for food in bins – were much appreciated by photography enthusiasts who thronged to the show.

Professional photographers were full of praise for Vicky’s sharp eye, novel angles and perspectives and for his ability at portraying street life like they had never seen before. Even Dixie, his first mentor, was impressed by the works: “So far the world had only seen the plight of urchins, he decided to show the not-so-gloomy side of their life, and the world liked it,” he said.

So popular was the exhibition that the next year – 2008 – the British Council offered to showcase his work at an exhibition in London.

“I was overjoyed because I could travel to new places,” says Vicky. The exhibition was also taken to Vietnam where it received rave reviews. The same year he was awarded a gold medal by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and invited to London to lunch with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace. “It was a once-in-life-time experience,” he says. “Sitting down for a formal lunch with the Prince was something I never thought I would experience.”

Immediately after that, he participated in an international photography competition organised by the Maybach Foundation. Set up by Maybach heir Ulrich Schmid-Maybach, the Foundation offers a few chosen protégés from across the world the chance to realise their true potential by providing them with leaders in their discipline, stipends and leadership training.

Among those who have benefited from the foundation’s initiative include actors Kirk Douglas and Dennis Hopper, author Paolo Coelho, musician Quincy Jones, and artist LeRoy Neiman.

Vicky, who was on a roll, says his most memorable moment was being selected in 2009 by the Maybach Foundation to live in New York for six months and photo-document the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre. “I was thrilled to get this amazing opportunity,” he says. He also had the chance to pursue a course in photography from International Centre for Photography (ICP), one of the most illustrious institutes in the world.

The photographs from the venue resulted in an exhibition titled WTC Now which was staged in Washington. It was a huge critical success and Vicky decided to stage it in India as well.

“Although I’ve visited several international cities, my favourite city is New York. The exposure to other cultures that I received there helps a lot in your work. It was just fabulous to document the work at WTC. It was a once-in-a-lifetime op,” he says. “But for photography, in terms of subjects, there is no place like India.”

More honours were awaiting him: the American Centre sponsored an exhibition of his WTC works in Delhi while his images were also put on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the renowned Fotomuseum in Switzerland.

Vicky, who last year received a fellowship from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media lab to study convergence of technology and photography, was also invited to the headquarters of Facebook and Google to give talks on photography. “I was overwhelmed to see some of the best tech brains listening to me with rapt attention. During the talk, I saw a sense of pride and respect for a street-dweller in their moist eyes,” he says.

Vicky says that although awards and honours have come to him, big projects were few. “People want good work but are often not willing to pay much,” he says. Nevertheless, he’s been able to save enough to buy a plot of land in his village in Kolkata and build a modest house where his family now lives. He has also been able to put his siblings through college and help them become independent. “I do get a few nice commercial projects to work on and that sees me through,” he says.

Wanting to repay the community, he and fellow photographer Chandan Gomes established an exclusive library of photography books in Delhi called Rang (which means colour).

“We emailed renowned photographers requesting them to donate their books to our library that would cater to amateur photographers who won’t be able to afford to buy and peruse them. And we got an overwhelming response from the fraternity,” says Vicky. In December 2011, Rang was launched with around 500 books. Located in a farmhouse near Qutb Minar in Delhi, Rang also invites established photographers to give talks regularly.

“I have also written a book called Home.Street.Home that takes you through my life journey of eight years. I have tried to show the life of children on the street and in the shelter homes,” says Vicky, who last year took part in a National Geography Channel (NGC) organised reality show. “It was a great initiative and I enjoyed being on the show,” he says. Going back on the road for some of the shots for the show, he says he was reminded of his early days.

“I want to tell those who may think life on the road is exciting that it is not,” he says. “It’s not an easy life. I’ve been there and done that and can tell you it’s very harsh. The only way to make a mark in life is to follow your dream and never give up, whatever happens.”