Pablo Picasso famously said, "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls." For photographer Vicky Roy, that dust has been both literal and metaphorical. Now a well-known photographer for about a decade, Roy has made quite the journey since 2007, when his first exhibition caught people's eye more for the story behind it rather than the work itself. He ran away from home and worked as a rag-picker in Delhi before being rehabilitated by the Salaam Balak Trust, and eventually got his break in 2007. Ever since, Roy has been introduced as a rags-to-not-so-many-riches story — an identity that he has constantly been trying to shed, as it undermines his work. It is ironic that Roy isn’t exactly a materially successful artist followed by the media either. He is merely someone following his dream, however modest it may be when it comes to the returns. If his latest series Mountainscapes is any proof, then not only has Roy gone beyond the overdrawn back-story of his days on the street, but he has also grown to learn of things beyond it.
At its heart, Mountainscapes has a clear message — the hills are going downhill. But its exploration of the situation is far less stated. It centres on people without including them. “I started going to the mountains back in 2001. The trust took us kids for a short trip to the mountains every year. I had never witnessed the beauty of the mountains, so the experience always remained with me. Once I was on my own, I often went away for a few days to get my sanity back, to get peace. But after 2010-2011, I started feeling that the city was creeping into these places as well. Oddly, it was due to the needs of the local people, but the manner in which everything was happening was horrifying,” Roy says. In 2012, the photographer decided he had to document the decline of the hill-state of Himachal. But he did not want to restrict himself to the townships, so he travelled to the tribal belts as well.
One such corner of the state was the eastern Sangla valley, now home to a number of power projects. Himachal itself has more than 45 active small and large-scale projects, which means there is a dam on every other river and rivulet. About the level of abuse and the hazard resulting from turning it into a system, Roy narrates a wonderful little anecdote from memory. “I was in Sangla and we were sitting next to a waterway which was flowing downhill. A couple of men were sitting beside me, and we discussed how beautiful and quiet the place was. One of these men, as it turned out, was an engineer who, in contrast, talked about the speed of the water and how much electricity could be extracted from it," he says, chuckling.
Roy, who began with shooting the street and people, says his love for travelling put him through his paces in the hills. Now at the age of 30, he never guessed that he would turn the short series into a project, and eventually into an exhibition. One thing led to another, people pitched here and there and over the course of five years, Roy managed to complete his project. This begs the question of why it took so long, and when does a photographer know if they have finished a project? “It is about patience. People tend to believe that all art happens within an instant. A painter does not sit and think that he will finish his canvas in a particular period of time. Similarly, photography isn’t exactly a shortcut medium. No sequence or story is complete without its ups and downs. A story only becomes a story if it has its variations. Not all photos are supposed to, or can be, of the same tone or texture. There has to be rhythm when you move from one to the other, like in a film or any other form of art,” he says.
Mountainscapes is reminiscent of filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's early works at times, or of frames from Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films which offer critique but which do not have people present in them. Roy’s pictures have a haunting significance. They are all about human interference and disruption, but entirely without humans in any of the pictures. Roy holds, as if in one palm, the key to peace and in the other, the device to sell and make duplicates of it. The reduction of colour is crucial to the photos too. “When I started shooting in colour, I realised my eyes were immediately drawn to the sky or the background of green and blue, which wasn’t what I wanted to show. I decided to do the photos in black-and-white and it made all the more sense to me after that,” he explains. In a way, the lack of colour deprives Roy’s photos of the kind of romance that the human eye and conscience impose on images. It is unsettling to the conscience and it irks just enough to ask important questions.
With the advent of smartphones and a camera in everyone’s hands, there is now a cause for concern for anyone who thinks photography can still hold its own. But Roy is defiant. “If you want to shoot a place like Delhi you could probably do it in a month. It won’t take that much time to be honest. But if you talk about documenting, photography still has more design to it than walking around with a camera in hand. A place like Delhi changes seasons and colours; it goes through so much. The story isn’t complete if you haven’t seen it all,” he says. About his reputation as a dreamer who has risen from the streets, he admits that he is tired of being viewed through the same lens. “I want to be known by my work now, whether good or bad," he says.
Mountainscapes is on till 30 Dec at the Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi
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Updated Date: Dec 16, 2017 18:44:02 IST