Peter is a gay man from Mumbai whose homosexuality isn’t news to those close to him. In one photograph, he is portrayed standing behind a curtain. ‘Fears showing his face because of possible repercussions at his job,' the caption says. This photograph belongs to a time when Section 377 was still part of the Indian Penal Code.
The fear is rooted in present-day India. Laws, after all, are philosophical until faith in them is universalised.
The courts may have decriminalised homosexuality, but they have not wiped out the stigma surrounding it. Flicking a switch in the night gives you light, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is still dark. Getting rid of the stigma surrounding the issue will take time, and can perhaps only be done by engaging with it. The project and exhibition 'Both sides of the Veil: Living and Loving in Queer India' at the India Habitat Centre offers that opportunity.
(Above left: Karthika, a member of the hijra community, poses for a portrait near her home in the Dharavi area of Mumbai, India. She lives in a neighbourhood that many hijras call home. Above right: Bhoomika Pandhare, a young bisexual woman, poses for a portrait.)
The project, composed and put together by Washington-based art director Aarti Singh and photographer Jake Naughton includes images, audio and video installations. “Jake and I started planning the project and our first shoot in March 2017, then made our first trip in June/July 2017. On that trip, we visited Patna in Bihar and then Delhi. Then we spent a few months processing that content and researching and planning for our next trip. We then travelled to Mumbai in March 2018,” Aarti says.
Naughton, an openly gay man himself, has already worked on projects concerning queer communities around the world. “It has always been my ambition to make work that challenges the viewer to explore greater nuance and dive deeper into the complexities of the world around us. I want to create work which leaves the viewer with questions and a sense of provocation, rather than simply confirm the narratives they suspected all along,” he says, “It was important to imagine a way to tell this story in a form that showcased its complexity rather than shied away from it.”
(Above left: Satya (pseudonym), a gay man in Patna, Bihar, poses for a portrait. Above right: Karan Solanki, a young transgender man, poses for a portrait in Mumbai.)
The fact that Aarti is not a member of the community is a point she says she is aware of. “For me, there are critical components to consider in the way that we gather content for storytelling of this nature — components which are often ignored by the media. Jake and I tag-teamed in terms of what kind of expertise we each bring to the project. He's less familiar with India and working here, but I bring a lot of experience in that area,” she says.
Naturally, Aarti chose Bihar, her home, to begin the shoot. But given the geography, were there considerations that were imperative?
“It was crucial for us to come to each portrait with respect for our subjects.
We made sure to ask everyone we photographed how they wanted to be represented, what they felt comfortable showing and what they wanted to keep private, etc. We also didn't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or unsafe,” Aarti says.
(Above left: Roshni, a member of the LGBT community in Patna, poses for portraits. Above right: Inder Vhatwar poses for a portrait with his fiancé Ashish Srivastava in the home the two share in Mumbai.)
The project, funded by the Pulitzer Foundation, has been put up as a 55-panel display. It is immersive, tender in texture, but haunting in its implications. Naturally, the two have had to build trust with their subjects.
“Though the lived experiences of queer people here in India are often very different than my own, I think it helps put people at ease to know that we have that in common and it helps to build trust. One particularly memorable conversation was with Karan, a transgender man from Mumbai. He was really nervous during the interview and so I gave him the microphone and had him interview me about me, my relationship with my partner,” Naughton recalls.
(Above: Reshma, a transgender activist and director of a grassroots organisation in Patna, Bihar, poses for a portrait.)
Not too long ago, international photographers were criticised for their desensitised view of India’s margins. “I think, as a subject, having that agency is key, because it makes the process more equitable. We also showed everyone the images as we were making them, and made sure to check in regularly after the fact to make sure that people were still comfortable having their images be published. As responsible storytellers, promoting the well-being and dignity of one's subjects is at the center of what we do,” Aarti says.
India’s reality, Naughton says, is a bit of a contradiction. It might have decriminalised gay sex, but social stigma remains.
To the point that members of the gay community still risk overexposing themselves.
“Things in the US are very different than India. The United States has marriage equality, in many cases we have a lot of legal protections around housing, healthcare, employment, etc that are missing in India. But there are still a lot of challenges for the LGBTQ community in the United States, too. Homophobia is still common, legal protections aren't everywhere, and things for transgender people in particular have a very long way to go. In that respect, India and its protection for transgender people are a long way ahead of the US,” Naughton says.
(Above: Members of the LGBTQ community in Mumbai play Holi at Juhu Beach, at an outing organised by Gay Bombay.)
As for change, it can only be gradual, like a good education. “Legality is one thing, social acceptance is another and a much more difficult thing to achieve. It's part of why we wanted to have the show now, even though the law has been decriminalised — it's just the first step on a long road towards full equality,” Aarti adds.
— All photos © Jake Naughton
Both Sides of The Veil: Living and Loving in Queer India is on display at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi