The instant thought that comes to our minds as soon as we hear about cancer is the pain and trauma attached to it. Medicines, radiation, chemotherapy, and everything that the disease brings with it could probably be the worst nightmare for both the patient as well as his/her family. And when it comes to children, it is indeed distressing to see them fight against the deadly disease.
Everyone shows sympathy. Some people, however, extend their services by providing donations to hospitals and NGOs that take care of cancer patients. But the scene at TATA Memorial Hospital in Mumbai is different. Apart from the pungent smell of medicines and injections, the paediatric ward here has an air of enthusiasm and hope. The kids eagerly wait for the day when their favorite person Rajen Nair will arrive for photography classes.
“Not all what I teach becomes useful and not all children grow up to become great photographers, as some of them give up fighting cancer. But I think that the yearning to study something interesting is giving the strength to many to continue this fight. That is exactly what I aim to achieve, to encourage children to continue the fight,” says Rajen, a freelance photojournalist from Mumbai, who is partially deaf and is gaining acclaim for his free photography workshops for children suffering from cancer or living with disabilities.
It was in 2000 that Rajen discovered he could hear better from his right ear when compared to the left and underwent a surgery that was not successful. Later, he was also diagnosed with Tinnitus, a condition that leads to constant buzzing or ringing in ear. He had to wind up his trade business due to distorted hearing.
According to him, this was the worst time in his life, when he also suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies. However, he had to earn a living and find a way out in order to support his family. This is what persuaded Rajen to do a journalism and photography course from Times of India, Mumbai.
Today, Rajen specialises in street photography and prefers to capture the real emotions of people with his camera.
Explaining how he thought of taking photography classes for people with diseases and disabilities, he says, “I began writing for a Korean website and later contributed stories for The Guardian in the UK. I began getting more recognition for the pictures I clicked. I felt it had something to do with my hearing loss. Therefore, I decided that I need to share my photography skill with the deaf. I began teaching photography by taking free classes on the weekend in a deaf school. However, it was difficult as I had to bear the expenses from my pocket and it was a time when I was struggling to make a living. But I continued this for three years because my bond with the students was so good that we decided to form a deaf photography group, wherein we would go for outdoor shoots.”
He has also constituted a group on Facebook for the same, which now consists of 2,400 members mostly deaf, disabled and cancer students along with photographers and artists.
“For a deaf person, he/she is more dependent on his/her eyes for communication, to make up for the loss of hearing. Photography is all about eye, mind, and hand co-ordination. I feel deaf people can become good photographers. My well wishers’ appreciation towards my work and my desire to contribute to society and to the disabled community made me teach photography. One of my well-wishers donated 9 cameras collected from her friends in Australia, which I use for my workshops and classes,” he added.
Later, Rajen got associated with Tata Memorial Hospital through an NGO to conduct photography classes as a part of HOPE, a programme for the cancer-afflicted children with a message that ‘cancer is curable’. He believes that the photo workshop for these children will act as photo therapy to combat the disease and can give them joy, become a creative and visual tool of expression, and also a career option.
Sharing his experience of teaching the deaf and children who have cancer, he says, “Be it deaf, disabled, or those affected with cancer, children show tremendous interest and enthusiasm for photography. I am invited by various NGOs to conduct photo workshops at different places like Goa, Faridabad, and Hubballi, besides Mumbai. I have imparted photography training to more than 500 students. A few of my students have also purchased DSLR cameras to become professional photographers.”
Exhibitions of the pictures clicked by the children are organised by the NGOs and apart from providing a proud feeling to the children, these act as fundraisers as well. An NGO called St. Jude Childcare had organised an exhibition of photos clicked by cancer-afflicted children in London as part of fundraising project. The photos are even sold out during the workshops.
Rajen’s only means of living is through freelance writing and photography and all the classes and workshops conducted by him are for free. It is the NGO which invites him that bears the transportation cost.
Rajen is very attached to each and every student he teaches and says that the most difficult part is to see his students giving up on cancer.
“Two of my students Gulshan (13) and Harsh (16), lost their lives due to relapse. They were close to me and were good photographers. It was a painful moment for me. Also, in one of my classes with deaf students, I was not happy with the slow progress made by them. I told them I travel from my home by changing two trains and then walking a few miles carrying the camera on my back and I do not charge a single penny. On hearing this, there was a spontaneous reaction from my students raising their hands in sign language saying thank you. Then I realised that they really valued me and my teaching. What more can a teacher ask for?” he says.
Rajen, who loves clicking photos in the streets of Mumbai, also travels a lot in search of a good click. Kerala is a place that tops his priority list as he considers the State a ‘photographer’s paradise’. He says that the major aim in his life is to bring joy, happiness, and peace to the world through photography.
He is also planning to start an art academy for the disabled, cancer-afflicted, and the poor in order to impart skill development to them, so that they can become professional photographers.