Many people with various physical and mental challenges find photography a hugely beneficial and therapeutic pursuit, a subject we have covered widely in AP. Getting paid for your photography is another matter. So, we’re really happy to be celebrating the remarkable work of Mohit Ahuja, a former advertising copywriter who is helping to turn disabled people into pro-standard photographers in India – a society which, while changing fast, still has traditionally conservative attitudes to disability.
Mohit is a colourful and big-hearted character who is as passionate about motorcycling as he is about helping disabled people reach their full potential through photography. ‘I started photography back in college with a point-and-shoot camera borrowed from a friend,’ he explains. ‘Initially it was to click anything and everything and we’d just pose with our bikes for our social media profiles. But then, a year later, we thought of shooting a calendar before college ended. Me and my friends either shot or modelled for those pictures and while they look pretty amateurish to me now, back then it was one cool thing we’d pulled off. Soon, I was trying Photoshop and before I knew it, I was hooked.’
A biker for good
While working as an advertising copywriter for major global agency J Walter Thompson, Mohit set up Bikers for Good, a motorcycle club that also got involved in good works.
‘I’d been riding motorcycles and scooters since my school days, but around the age of 24, I started thinking motorcycling has to be more than a lifestyle and just looking cool. So, I organised a ride to help out an NGO. The organisation works for the welfare of the specially-abled – and my eldest sister, a superhuman herself [Mohit avoids the term ‘disabled’] also goes there. It was great to see the non-biker side of the society loving us and embracing bikers.’
It was through working with this NGO and other projects that Mohit decided to try to use photography as a way of boosting the skills and opportunities for the disabled people he met.
‘In 2015, after almost a decade in advertising and a few awards, I felt like I wanted to do more than just sit in a cubicle and write scripts for different brands. I was then working in one of the leading radio stations in India, but I felt I had a bigger calling. So, I quit. A few months after, I randomly walked into this NGO I used to volunteer at and asked them if I could do a ten-day summer workshop for the specially-abled kids there. That was when I discovered these people had a serious talent for photography.’ Mohit started teaching photography at the NGO three days a week, and within just a few months, some of the students started landing professional assignments.
‘Shaishav, then my youngest student, got his first assignment to shoot a Harley-Davidson showroom launch and we were overwhelmed. Imagine, 200 bikers standing there and applauding this kid with Down’s Syndrome. His parents were also called up on stage and a wad of cash handed over. It was amazing.’
Being an ex-advertising pro, Mohit came up with a snappy name for his new project – KnowDisability.org. ‘It was a lesson for me for life, and also sounds exactly like “No Disability”. Today, seven of my students are full-time professional photographers, shooting assignments and making me proud every day.’
Removing society’s labels
As you can imagine, however, the challenges involved in getting Mohit’s students to this level were not insubstantial. ‘When we started it was a mammoth task to convince the parents that their boys were capable of much more than folding envelopes or baking cakes. I’m not saying doing these things is any lesser a skill, but we needed to open our eyes to the world out there and the plethora of opportunities waiting to be seized. Convincing the parents to buy cameras was a big challenge, and even today, this can be difficult. The moment a kid is diagnosed with disability, everyone in our society starts showing the impossibilities to the parents and soon after, they end up expecting less from their kids. But the moment you remove labels from a person, you can see how limitless they can be. That’s what I’ve learnt from my students.’
As for the future, Mohit is keen to keep on developing KnowDisability.org. ‘We want to break a lot more stereotypes, train a lot more superhumans in the art of photography and see the students land more assignments. We’ve already started this with #OneSpecialShoot where you can gift a shoot by the superhumans to loved ones.’
We also asked Mohit about the insurance cover he is able to get for his gear, and that of his students. ‘Insurance here is still a very tricky affair. We do have some insurance companies talking about specialist camera insurance but from what I’ve heard and experienced a couple of times, it’s not too dependable. So, we are more or less at the mercy of warranties, or just hoping to stay lucky.’
Working with big names
The Harley-Davidson showroom assignment was the first big commission landed by the photographers at KnowDisability.org.
‘After that, the boys started getting calls to cover events, shoot products and for e-commerce jobs,’ Mohit explains. ‘About a year later, I had a conversation with Panasonic and we came up with the idea of celebrating World Photography Day with a film and an exhibition. Soon, Beyond Frames was shot and my students Vikas, Shaishav, Tarit, Tanmay, Bharat, Shiva and Siddharth got featured in the film. Next, Panasonic Lumix sponsored their first official exhibition, see the YouTube video at bit.ly/youtubemohit.’
Mohit Ahuja is a former advertising professional based in India who set up KnowDisability.org in 2015, an organisation which helps disabled people to reach their full potential through photography.
In association with Ripe Insurance