I have always been shy and hesitant to converse with people as a child. I don't know why I used to have low self-esteem. Still, something changed inside me when the teacher in 9th grade asked me what I would like to become in the future when I grew up, and I said I wanted to become a good person. This has always been my primary goal, even when I didn't know what I wanted to become.
In college, I started traveling to different places and participating in various seminars to meet new people, which helped me gain confidence. Self-doubt was still there about my personality and work, but I became more outgoing and social.
It took me too much time, approximately a decade, to trust myself and believe in myself.
Whenever did someone ask me what my story was, what were my struggles? I always answer that I lived through some tough times, but I perceive them as experiences rather than struggles.
After college, I thought I should no longer ask for money from my father, so I started working in a company. Around 2009, I got a chance to do an NREGA survey. I went to a village, and it felt like I was in a different world. I saw casteism, poverty, and the need for basic amenities, which we only read in the books, but seeing it with your own eyes is shocking! I was doing a survey one afternoon in the summer. I was thirsty, so I asked for water at a house where I was doing the survey. The person accompanying me was from the same village, so I asked if he needed water too. He said, “Nahin hum yaha se nahin pi sakte”. I had to ask him why and his reply shocked me. He was thirsty but didn't drink water because of their caste difference.
In the same village, I saw a sick boy screaming from pain. When I asked his mother about getting him medical assistance, she replied, "humare paas itne paise hi nahin hain." When I followed up by asking about his father, she replied, "wo Delhi main rikshaw chalate hain." I was stunned looking at their situation as I had never seen anything like this!
After completing the survey, I saw many Rickshaw Pullers standing outside the station when I returned to Delhi station. The only thing that came to my mind was that one of these Rickshaw pullers could be the father of that Little boy who has no idea how much his son is suffering. This experience ignited something in me that I felt the need to share such kinds of stories, and the only artform that helped me to achieve this was photography.
Within two months in 2009, I got a chance to do another survey, and this time I borrowed a camera from my cousin. And this is how I started clicking pictures! After watching those pictures later, I was more assured about photography. Since I have just passed from graduation and making only some pocket money, I asked my father to buy me a camera. As I imagined, he said, "kya karoge camera ka?" I was adamant about becoming a photographer, and somehow I convinced him. After two months, my father purchased a camera for me, but I didn't even know how to use a camera. I started learning about photography through the internet.
After starting photography, I worked a whole year traveling, meeting people of different villages and tribes, and listening to their stories of how diverse and challenging their lives were. I wasn't making much money, and sometimes I had to sleep with limited food, but it never hurt me, nor did I regret any of it.
In 2011, I was traveling in the metro and saw a person editing photos on Laptop. I thought to myself that this person could be a photographer. And as he got off the train, I decided to chase and stop him. He stopped, and I asked him if he was a photographer, to which he said yes. When I expressed my interest in the same field and asked for some tips, he said there are no tips; you have to be persistent and constantly make an effort to improve your art and handed me his card. He was Gurinder Osan (current Editor of PTI).
After knowing who he was, I called him, but he didn't answer the first few times, and when he did, he asked me to come and meet him in his office. He saw my photographs and said I make a good connection with my subjects which is very important for a documentary photographer.
After a month, he told me about a job where they needed a photo desk editor. So I applied for the job and fortunately got it. After a month, I went to him and said I wanted to quit, but he assured me to wait and see it for a few months, and if I still didn't like it, then I could quit.
In 2015 when I left my job, I got a call from an organisation who work for the empowerment of adolescent girls and asked if I can take a workshop for these girls and it was a great experience.
After that, I have started working independently and I wrote a story even when I didn’t have much experience and when I went to research for the project, the conditions made me write a story called 'Mehrauli ki dhoop". I Shared that story with many people including Indira ma'am, who helped me with the workshop I took and she was working against human trafficking, child marriage, and other crimes around gender issues. When she read my story, she found it so refreshing that she asked me to write a book on child marriage with photographs. At first, I declined because I didn't have any other experience in writing. So she asked me to visit the campaign they were running to spread awareness about child marriage and said if I could write something, it would be good. So I went there and wrote seven stories with photographs. They liked it and published it in the form of a booklet.
In 2018, I wanted to cover a story on the Bhopal gas tragedy. Hence, I applied for a Pulitzer grant but got rejected. It affected me so much that I wrote an angry email to them. They replied to the email and asked me to cover the story, and they will review it for eligibility. After completing 70% of my work, I sent my account to them, and after checking, they approved the grant.
In 2019, my story on the Bhopal gas tragedy was published in The Hindu and Brown History (a page on Instagram) posted the photos on Bhopal Gas Tragedy made a big impact on many people through social media. It opened many gates for me. After that, one organization got in touch with me, and I worked with them on two assignments. Sometime later, I got the mail from the world bank to do an assignment with them. But unfortunately, after I got published and was in the best position, my mental health was not good.
During the lockdown, there wasn't much to do, so I did covid relief work with TYCIA Foundation. and learned new things. Then, in July, I got a few assignments that kept me going. After the lockdown, several things have changed for the country. I wanted to do a story on how people get their food in India- about hunger. So I again applied for a Pulitzer grant, and this time they approved it. I spent two months working on it and the story I covered changed from what I planned to do. The title was "How people arrange food in India." It got published in the national herald, the Hindu.
I don't think my photos would be appreciated from the art perspective, which was never my intention with my photographs. My photographs are a medium to express emotions. After working for many years, my experiences changed my academic perspective. Now I want to teach and share the knowledge I have collected over the past years.
- Rohit Jain