AsiaIndiaPride Matters | Queering the lens

Pride Matters | Queering the lens

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India — As I put together my thoughts on queer representation in contemporary India’s photographic history, the Museum of London has just announced its acquisition of acclaimed photographer and queer activist Sunil Gupta’s seminal 1988 work, ‘Pretended’ Family Relationships, which will also be on permanent display in the museum’s upcoming West Smithfield location in 2026. On May 26, 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government enacted ‘Clause 28,’ which stated that local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” This prompted Gupta to quote the phrase “Pretend Family Relationship” in the title of his series. He extended the ongoing work to include the lesbian community and images of protests against the clause, making the work as political as it was personal. Gupta’s work has been at the forefront of queer activism wherever he’s lived in the last five decades, including Delhi.

As a young photographer in the mid-2000s, I hadn’t come across any photojournalistic work that truly represented the queer community in India. On August 16, 2005, I was sent to photograph a protest in Flora Fountain, Mumbai, for a newspaper I worked at then. I reached there to see a large gathering of queer people and allies handing out pamphlets to passers-by and shouting slogans in support of queer lives and visibility. I remember filing the images and in the years to follow, attending and covering queer pride marches in both Delhi and Mumbai.

Having been a photo editor for over a decade now, I can confidently say that mainstream photojournalism has chosen to see the queer community only when the community has decided to show themselves publicly during protests or marches. There is no curiosity, visual insight into the LGBTQIA+ spectrum apart from this routine. I’ve always found this immensely reductive as a practice of simply seeing.

In 2012, when I came across Sunil Gupta’s book ‘Queer,’ it was an unforgettable viewing experience. From uncontrived images of young gay men walking in New York’s streets in the 1970s, to anonymous images of gay men in India the decade after, as well as Gupta’s documentation of the relationship with his own body before and after his AIDS diagnosis, ‘Queer’ was a proud archive of public and private intimacies.

As a photographer myself, I was and remain in awe of Gupta’s commitment to visualising the language of the queer way of life. A key text in the book is an unhinged conversation between Gupta and his close friend Saleem Kidwai, a queer activist, historian and scholar who co-edited the acclaimed ‘Same-Sex Love in India’ in 2000. Kidwai passed away in August 2021 and Gupta authored an endearing tribute in this publication. During their conversation in the book, Gupta admits that he has consistently searched for a “gay Indian image” and in the section ‘Sun City’ in the book, Gupta makes a series of constructed portraits of gay men in a bathhouse almost performing their opposing choices – that of being married or being promiscuous. Desire was universal in the depiction and experience of queerness for Gupta.

I first heard of Dayanita Singh’s book, ‘Myself Mona Ahmed’ in 2009, but managed to buy a copy only three years later. After having gone through it thoroughly, I was struck by the power of collaborative portraiture. Mona Ahmed was as much the portraitist as she was the archivist of her own life, with Singh being her chosen medium of expression – an honour rare in any artist’s relationship with their practice. This is such a remarkable photo book that it almost invisibilises the camera in its reading. In essence, the book is a collection of letters and photographs. Throughout the book, Ahmed writes letters about her life to Walter Keller, the publisher of Scalo Books, who produced the book.

Born in pre-Independent India to a Muslim family in Old Delhi, Ahmed was abandoned by them because of her gender, and then eventually by the hijra community because of her unwillingness to align to what was expected of her. What is radically queer about the book is Ahmed’s refusal to be boxed into her gender and understood linearly in any photograph. Ahmed chose all the photographs and wrote all the captions in the book, and as Singh reveals in an interview to Vikramaditya Sahai in The White Review, “This book is just one story, the one she chose to give me.”

After Ahmed adopts a little girl Ayesha, there is a remarkable series of photographs in the book that depict the celebrations around Ayesha’s birthdays between 1990-1992. What we witness is not just Ahmed’s sheer joy of becoming a mother, but also the camaraderie in the hijra community, where members travel from not just other cities, but even from across the border to celebrate with Ahmed. I had never known of the strength of this kind of queer family, before I saw it in the pages of Singh’s book.

The story is as much about Ahmed’s dreams as it is about the photographs she chooses to show them crumble with time. The community abandons her, Ayesha is taken away from Ahmed by her guru Chaman, then she slips into depression, poverty and yet, Ahmed plans to build a palace in her family’s ancestral graveyard that she inhabits. Singh’s book about Ahmed is perhaps the most powerful work I have seen about a queer life in India. It is about a life on the fringes of identity and society, but not at the end of hope or love. The last letter in the book is to her daughter Ayesha, and not her publisher, Keller. “They stole my dog and poisoned my monkey. If you were with me, I could face any problem in the world. But now I am all alone, all alone in the graveyard,” writes Ahmed, signing off for the first time in the book as “Abboo (father).”

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