Just a moment...
It was just another day in the college canteen when I was sitting with my batch-mates, discussing random things just like any other college kid. Just then, enters Mr. Ramesh Menon, our creative writing teacher and he joins us on the same table.
Sitting there, gobbling samosas, I did not know that what would come next would change my life forever. As we talked, Ramesh Menon sir talked about how being happy should be the biggest priority in life. And then, a question popped in my head. I felt stupid, very stupid asking it, as I had always been told that I was a good-for-nothing guy and hence I had happily taken to being a back-bencher.
So, here I am, an advertising and PR student who likes to fiddle with his camera and then there’s Ramesh sir, a five feet something guy with decades of experience behind him. Very timidly, I asked him, “Sir, you said that do anything that makes you happy. Now, I am studying to be a copywriter but I want to be a photographer too. What do I do?”
Engrossed in his food, Ramesh Menon sir simply blurts out, “Mohit, you can be a rocket scientist if you want to”, and carries on eating as if it’s nothing too big he said.
In just one shot, this man had opened up a new world for me and suddenly my entire perspective of looking at life changed. It was then that I started taking my photography seriously. It’s not like before this day I had not been clicking pictures, but I guess I got the right motivation.
As I moved from living a college life to that of an advertising professional, I started clicking pictures of anything and everything. Understanding compositions was still a distant call, but I was happy clicking products for my boss, clicking the client servicing ladies for their Orkut profiles and when not in office, roaming around the streets of Delhi and clicking.
My world of possibilities was endless and slowly and gradually my work started getting noticed. Charity begins at home and so my very first professional shoot was for a friend’s restaurant and till date I barter my photographic skills for butter chicken with him.
I started shooting weddings, events, fashion portfolios and almost everything under the sun. Now that I was a professional copywriter myself, I always had the knack of searching for stories in my pictures. I had a very simple rule, if it makes me go “WOW!” in the very first instance, it is a good picture, otherwise it’ll just stay in my hard disk and I will take it to my grave.
10 years passed by fast.
Now, there comes a time in our lives when we really look at new avenues, a new way of doing things, breaking the monotony etc. In 2015, I happily quit a lucrative job in a leading radio station and ventured out on my own.
Just to give a brief background here, I come from the average middle-class Punjabi family. I am the youngest of four kids with three elder sisters. My eldest sister has multiple mental and physical challenges and she perfectly fits into the lay man’s stereotype of “mentally retarded.” However, thanks to her being in our lives, we’ve developed an empathy for individuals with special needs.
Now, with my sister being a superhuman (a term I devised for the so-called disabled), I have seen her going to this NGO in Delhi for the past 25 years where she’s learnt making diyas, candles, stationery etc.
What really itched me was the fact that even after all these years, the NGOs in India (majority of them), are still just focused on making diyas and candles. The sad part is that people like my sister even after decades of experience in the same field are still stuck at a nominal stipend and there’s absolutely nothing to answer the question of What is the way forward?
I thought that we must do something about this. Now, copywriting is a much more technical thing so the obvious skill I could impart to these individuals was photography.
So here I am again, standing in an NGO trying to convince them to let me do a 10 day summer camp so I can teach photography. Thankfully, after a bit of persuasion they agreed.
The next 10 days passed in jiffy and before I realized it was over.
But, this much time was enough for me to analyze if what I was thinking of doing made sense or not. It took a couple of months to convince the parents of my to-be students and soon I started the first ever photography course for superhumans.
Professionally speaking, I was not a special educator. I did not (and still don’t) have any degree that specializes in training or teaching individuals with special needs. Logically speaking, I had almost 30 years of on-the-job experience dealing with my superhuman sister and her friends, so those degree holders can go take a walk.
What started next was a visual journey that would make these individuals better photographers and me a better human.
My teacher had told me that I could be a rocket scientist if I wanted to, and now I was passing on the message.
Day 1. This is when even though I was pretty confident but I got a reality check as my superhuman students had their first ever tryst with a camera.
This was the first time ever that these superhuman held a professional DSLR Camera. They had absolutely no idea what framing means, no clue as to how important it is to balance a camera before taking a shot. Thankfully unlike a few other brands, Panasonic had cameras that had a friendlier user interface and that helped us a bit, but there were bigger challenged to overcome.
Understanding elements was a challenge and to many, these pictures would have depicted a hopeless future ahead, but I kept telling them and myself, “You can be a rocket scientist if you want to!”
They clicked pictures without faces, pictures without focus, pictures without any meaning whatsoever, but, they clicked, and that was hope for me. That was my light at the end of the tunnel.
And they got there, slowly but steadily.
Slowly, they got to know the camera and how to click. Success still seemed like a distant dream, but they started learning.
More often than not, the camera caught them unawares as they started getting the basic framing right. Time passed very slowly with my students and while they struggled, I knew that very soon the parents would come questioning what progress they had made.
But learning was fun and they smiled, and I smiled and more importantly we clicked. We clicked anything and everything and that was good, because I had started that way too.
Sometimes they did get some decent shots.
But, there was a lot more scope for learning and improvement.
Diwali was around the corner so we started shooting random Diwali products and that I was sure would be the future of these budding photographers.
We started with the concept of leading lines and soon enough, the bys had caught up.
They did a superb job finding leading lines, the situation where objects form lines and add depth to the image.
They looked at lines here and there and clicked all that they saw.
Noticing lines above their heads…
or in the plants around them.
They had a new found love for walls and they shot down each one they saw, breaking stereotypes of disability that had stopped them for years.
Once in a while, they even tried posing with the walls.
Sometimes, they even found lines in places we forget to take notice of.
While we were at it, we had quite a lot of fun together. There was no defined classroom and since their own teacher had been a back-bencher most of his life, there was no expectation to be a fast learner. They were dedicated to work and lots of play, and as they started getting used to the camera, they got better.
Soon, I introduced them to the concept of focus points and they started shooting products using the same.
Clicking each other was a flexible exercise, but here came the twist. They were now about to try hands on commercial product photography and it needed a lot of focus and attention.
Yet, they had fun. Not only was it something new, but also helped them experiment with their creativity.
Also, for the smaller products, they learnt how to create a makeshift studio. It was a very basic deal with the cameras being our blessing and a table and chart paper being our only support.
But despite that what my students clicked really surprised me. A crazy dream was coming true.
THE EUREKA MOMENT
It wasn’t easy though. Each one of them had a different disability and that only meant I needed to work with each one with a different approach.
I still remember that Bharat, one of the older individuals had a major challenge placing his finger on the click button on the camera for the first two months. I literally had to hold his finger and force it towards the button. Often, I thought that with the kind of force I am using on these cameras, I’ll have to take it to the Panasonic service center to get it repaired, sooner than I planned to.
But then, one day, as I handed over the camera to Bharat, he took it, placed his finger on the clicking button and pressed it. As I heard the shutter snap, I couldn’t believe what had just happened.
I asked Bharat to do it again and he did it, over and over and over again. I was happy about him finally being able to click on his own. What he was clicking was a war I was prepared to fight at a later stage.
Once the boys got used to shooting products, we thought of making them meet the photographers’ cheapest and best friend, natural light.
What came next was portraits shot by them of each other in natural light, and did they surprise us? Well…
Quite contrary to where they had started, the Superhumans bravely made eye contact with the camera, and posed like they were born to do it.
Not all pictures came out as planned, but it was start.
They yawned and frowned and smiled and posed and had fun while at it.
And then, they hit the studio.
This was like entering a whole new world, understanding lights, handling them, setting up and pre-production. We had fears as to where this phase would lead us, but then, we could be rocket scientists if we wanted to right?
This was their very first day in a studio.
While they were still figuring out how those big studio lights function, they explored the possibilities and pushed boundaries.
But it happened!
And I couldn’t help but think, “WOW! I can’t believe we’ve come this far!”
Time flew by pretty fast and in August 2018, the people at Panasonic India decided to sponsor their first ever photography exhibition and even sent the best of their cameras for us to shoot.
They named it Beyond Frames and with each picture they clicked, the boys went beyond the society’s understanding of what a “disabled” person can do.
Here are some pictures from the exhibition.
This was clicked by Bharat. It’s unbelievable that at one point in time, I had to literally force him to click. Rocket scientists, yes, thank you!
The same applies for this one. The picture is proof that the boys have achieved the level they set out to and I for one couldn’t be more proud.
Friends from different fields came in and we were ready with our cameras. Craziness was coming alive and we were not complaining.
But it happened, and it happened for good.
Today, my students are happily taking up professional assignments and if there’s two things I know they are super passionate about, it’ll be their Panasonic cameras and the work that has got them the respect and recognition they truly deserve.
Now, when I come to think of it, the statement made by my teacher had just so much of depth that even today, I look at it from a different aspect, and every time, it opens up new doors for me.
So don’t worry if you think you’re not so good at photography. Technology has come a long way and with the number of choices one has, you know a good camera when you see one.
But how to be a good photographer.
Well, you can be a rocket scientist if you want to!