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Raihan Rajiv Vadra and ‘Dark Perception’ photography exhibition: How privilege trumps talent

Raihan Rajiv Vadra may or may not be a talented photographer, but it is definitely his privilege that allows him to hold an exhibition in prime property in Delhi owned by a state government ruled by a party his mother is leader of.

20-year-old Raihan Rajiv Vadra is hosting his photography exhibition titled ‘Dark Perception’ in the national capital.

Here are some of the praises for ‘private citizen’ Vadra’s photographs.

Bollywood entertainer Swara Bhasker found his photographs ‘stunning dramatic captures’.

‘Journalist’ Supriya Bhardwaj, too lauded his talent at ‘such a young age’. It is no secret that she holds a soft corner for Congress and its leaders.

Other ‘neutral’ journalists too were also excited to check out his photography exhibition.

The level of talent is so damn high that Shekhar Gupta’s ThePrint was this close to calling him the next big thing to hit the photography space.

Who is this Raihan Rajiv Vadra who is so immensely talented that everyone from national media to Bollywood is falling over backward praising his artwork?

Well, the 20-year-old is – wait for it – son of Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and her husband Robert Vadra. That makes him: grandson of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, nephew of senior Congress leader and Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of former Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi and great great grandson of former Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru.

It is being hosted at Bikaner House, Delhi, spread over an area of 8 acres. Originally, the residence of Maharajah of Bikaner, it is currently owned by the Rajasthan government, which is currently ruled by Congress. It was one of several houses built by the British govt for Indian kings for their stay in Delhi, like Patiala house, Hyderabad House, Jaipur House and Baroda House, all located around the India Gate Hexagon. Bikaner House was purchased by the Rajasthan govt after independence.

This is privilege.

I am a photographer. I have spent lakhs on photography equipment. I have spent months on a photography assignment for a mere few thousand rupees. Before I write about the photographs I have added here to show I have the eye of a good photographer, I would like to tell a little bit about the history of me becoming the owner of a camera followed by an amateur photographer and finally a professional one.

I starting my journey with a humble S5IS camera that I bought from the money I had saved from my part-time work during college. It took me only four months to mention “photographer” in my email signature that led to the realization that calling yourself one is not that easy.

I did not get any professional training in photography, nor I got a chance to do some courses. However, I was lucky enough to learn the basics and techniques of photography from some of the best in their field. My training for the basics was with a former captain in the Indian Army who is a professional photographer now. Someday, I would love to introduce him formally, but this is not the right time. When he saw “photographer” in my email signature, he called me and scolded me for good 20 minutes and made me understand that I had not yet earned the title. From 2007 to 2009, I was in his contact on and off, learning basic skills. I stood for hours holding up lights while he worked in his studio. It was tiring but rewarding.

From there, I learned tricks from many ace photographers who were humble enough to share their secrets. I checked YouTube tutorials, went on photo walks, did self assignments and even taught people how to click photographs. In 2010 when I bought my first DSLR (second hand), I realized I did not have money for lenses. Just buying a DSLR is not enough, you see. You must have a good set of lenses to make sure you can click photographs that suit your style. As I was not “rich” enough to spend tens of thousands on lenses, I followed the saying of one of my dearest teachers that “Photography equipment does not matter, the eye behind the camera matters.” While point and shoot S5IS gave me the power to play with macro, DSLR took away that power. It broke my heart. It still pains me that I could not buy a good macro lens even now.

But anyway, I could not and cannot go beyond what I can afford! So by playing with settings for hours, getting bitten by countless bugs, making friends with squirrels and birds, getting drenched with sweat and even losing some blood because I was not looking where I was going, I learned everything that I know now. If I click one photograph and it comes out good in the first click, it is not some luck, but it is years of training and trials. There was a time when I worked as a professional photographer. I was paid pennies and soon faced huge losses. That was a dark time. A member of a privileged family would not understand the pain of losing your faith in your own skills.

The point is, till the time you have used your camera roughly, got your clothes dirty while working in the field, clicked thousands of photographs till you understand the light and worked your way up in the ladder, it is not right to call yourself a photographer. To be honest, I prefer to call use ‘camera owner’ for the majority of the ‘photographers’ out there. Even if you were born with the ‘creative eye’, it takes years to perfect the skills and become a photographer. Interestingly, once you have perfected the skills, they get outdated, and you have to start all over again to learn what’s hot in the market! The journey never ends.

Every photograph has a story. The phrases “Photo is worth a thousand words” or “The photograph tells its own story” are just philosophies. The photographer must explain the photograph in their own words. Otherwise, it will become an empty canvas for anyone to narrate their own story. I have added five photographs here, and I would like to explain how they were clicked when they were clicked and how they are close to my heart.

The year was 2014. I was on an assignment in Shimla. It rained for two straight days, and the project almost got ruined as we could not get the photographs we needed and had to extend the stay for two additional days. On the third day, when I woke up early in the morning, this was the view from the terrace. I clicked on three photographs, and for the rest of the 30 minutes, I just stood there while watching the unbelievable beauty of the mountains. That day, for a moment, I thought things could get better in life, and this photograph gives me hope that things will be alright soon. 

Shimla, 2014

The year was 2009. I was shifting my concentration towards macro photography. The closer I got to the bugs, the more exciting things I was able to find. I love shooting spiders with the camera. They are fascinating creatures but very hard to find. This little bundle of cuteness was seen while I was on a photowalk with a bunch of photographers. They all were interested in shooting portraits while I was looking for insects. I found this little one enjoying the feast on a marigold flower and just sat there clicking photographs. As it had rained that day, my clothes were all muddy. But hey! I found what I was looking for.

The bug that moved my heard, 2009

Self assignments are an essential part of honing the skills. From 2008 to 2010, I did five self assignments. Unfortunately, my hard drive crashed, and I lost almost 700 GB of high-resolution photographs. I do not have a single photograph in full resolution from that period, and it pains me. However, when I look at this photograph, it reminds me of the excellent time I had while going alone and shooting photographs. This photograph was clicked in the winter of 2009.

The symbol of struggle, 2009

Remember I said I did not have money for equipment back then? I still don’t have money to buy what I want. So how I clicked this photograph? It looks like it was clicked in a studio. Right? No. This photograph was clicked in bright sunlight on a black cloth that was draped on an old plastic chair that I had for over 10 years. This photograph is a reminder that I learned photography the hard way, and every time I see it, I feel proud of what I had achieved. You do not need high-end equipment for things you want to click. You need skills, determination and passion. And a lot of practice. Yes, money helps as after one point you would need the equipment, but till then do not stop yourself from trying just because there is no money.

The Skill Sharpener

Remember the former Captain of the Indian Army I talked about? He is a snake rescuer too! Yeah, I was that lucky! One fine day, he was called to rescue a baby rat snake. He was literally the smallest snake I had ever seen, and I thank my stars million times that I was with him that day. Before the snake was let off in the forest area, we clicked some photographs. Can you notice the light in the snake’s eyes? That is called the catch light. Look closer, it is not just the catch light but a reflection of the setting sun behind the mountains. YES, I WAS THAT LUCKY! With minimal equipment, I was able to shoot a photograph of the lifetime. But that luck does not come on its own. By the time I had a chance to click this shot, I had already spent over a year with the Captain. This was clicked in the year 2008.

The snake, 2008

Now the question is, will I ever get a chance to hold an exhibition on government property in Lutyens Delhi? Will I have national media covering my artwork?

Not to say Raihan is not talented. He may or may not be talented. But this is what privilege brings you. His association with The Family in India allows him to hold an exhibition at one of the premium places in India.

This is how nepotism is perpetuated. How having the blood of one of the most powerful families in India can beat talent and open an ocean of opportunities the lesser mortals like myself will never have.

Am I bitter? No, not at all. But am I a better photographer than Raihan Rajiv Vadra? Yes, I am.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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