Living away from your hometown or your parents, especially during your formative years, often has an effect that makes you cloy for a certain time in the past. Now this might not be exactly the past that you actually lived, but it certainly is a version of the past that you have in your head. Sometimes you need a trip back to where you’re from, as if you’re tethered by an invisible thread that draws you back no matter where you end up.
Vikram Kushwah, the Oxfordshire-based photographer, lived this sort of life. Having been born in New Delhi, his parents lived in the rural exteriors of the Indian capital. When Vikram was a few months shy of the tender age of three, his parents sent him to a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills, in the hope of finding him a better education than the government school that his father was teaching at in Uttar Pradesh could provide. After spending his undergrad years studying fashion in Banaglore, and postgraduate training in photography at LCC and University for the Creative arts in Rochester, it comes to no surprise that Vikram’s practice is influenced by his years moving around.
“Most of my work comes from the mind of a child, the self that I haven’t allowed to fade away,” Vikram tells It’s Nice That. He talks about a purity that he tries to capture, a certain innocence that can only be achieved by taking that sort of position behind the lens. “There’s a sense of mystery, playfulness, and even darkness in a lot of my work, which is derived from the time I spent in boarding school at such a young age. I’m still trying to psychoanalyse this relationship,” he jokes.
Of course it was about time that he dealt with the topic of his childhood, producing a powerful series of photographs titled The Education I Never Had. In this series, Vikram photographs students, staff, and his father at the government school that his father has been teaching at for 35 years. The stunning portraits of the students, looking like any other schoolchildren from around the world, is set against the backdrop of untiled floors and dusty classrooms lit only by the sun, given that the school has no electricity. Located in one of the poorest states in India, Vikram’s return sparked an immediate contrast to the elite life he led in boarding school and university. “They lived in a one-room shack for eighteen years while I played cricket and studied physics with the sons of diplomats,” Vikram says.
Vikram’s multiple attempts to visit this school was repeatedly rejected by his father until Vikram told him that he wanted to do a photo series of the place before his father’s upcoming retirement. “I never told my classmates that my father taught in a government school,” he says. “To avoid being bullied about my impoverished background, I lied and told them that he was a teacher in Delhi Public School, which was far more respectable.” This return to his parent’s village of course became a moment to negotiate his own identity and his life, coming to terms with a lifelong looming question. Vikram tells us about a phone call he received from his cousin during Holi one year. “He asked about my life in the UK, and he lamented about our other cousin who has been missing since we were children,” he tells. “When we hung up the call, I knew I could have been him.
“Photographing this school, I knew it was both my India and not at all my India,” Vikram continues. “Yet, as in most journeys, there is a return, and after seeing so much of the world, what I wanted most was to come back to him, to know him and his life, and to understand his sacrifices.” The result is a tender reflection of the life that he could have had, in a school that he could have gone to, in a village that he could have grown up in. Taking the position of a child behind the camera, it was surely a cathartic moment photographing the children in his father’s school. The lens of the camera then turns into a mirror, reflecting a past that Vikram could have had.