“Men holding hands or lying in each other’s laps is not an issue — it looks very romantic from (the outside), but they’re usually just hanging out,” he said in a video interview from the UK, before recalling: “I was creating more interest than them, because I was standing there with a tripod and a camera, so everybody was focused on me.”
Having lived in New Delhi until his mid-teens, London-based Gupta knew this from personal experience. “I passed that place on my way to school every day for 11 years,” he said. “You just had to hop off the bus and get laid on your way home. It was very easy.”
Concerned about “outing” his subjects, Gupta treated them as collaborators in what he called a “constructed documentary” approach. After shooting his images and developing the film in London, he returned to Delhi with printed contact sheets to ensure the men were comfortable with the pictures he selected for his show.
“There was quite a bit of horsing around in the pictures,” he said of the India Gate shoot. “And there were other photos that were (more suggestive)… So I picked a somewhat tamer one to put in the series.”
The other ethical challenge, he recalled, was communicating to the duo how the images would be used — and the art of photography itself.
“It wasn’t for publication, and the only way they saw pictures was in a magazine, so it took some explaining,” he said, adding: “Then I tried to explain the process.”
Photography for many at the time, Gupta observed, was still “a very mysterious thing that only a few people did in a darkroom.”
For ‘the canon’
Now among India’s most celebrated photographic artists, Gupta often addressed LGBTQ experiences in his explorations of race, immigration and identity. While studying in the US in the mid-1970s he produced a now-celebrated series of photos from New York’s Christopher Street that captured the city’s gay scene in the years between the Stonewall Riots and onset of the AIDS epidemic.
Although “Exiles” presented a rare portrait of gay life outside the West, Gupta’s intended audience was always back in London. Homophobia was rife in 1980s Britain, and the photographer said he faced “a lot of hostility” at art school for making work relating to his sexuality.
“I couldn’t make gay work, and I couldn’t make gay work about India, especially,” he said. “There was none in the library for reference. So, I thought, ‘I’m making it my mission to make some. Not for India, but for this canon — we need to have gay Indian guys in our library, in our art schools, over here.'”
“It didn’t have any impact when it was first shown,” Gupta said of its debut. “I think it was too early.”
By the 1990s, however, interest in Gupta’s work was growing, as art made by, and about, gay people of color became increasingly visible in the West. The fact that “Exiles” is now showing in India, where he said it is positively received, is testament to changes on the subcontinent, too.
A shot from the “Exiles” series. Credit: Courtesy Sunil Gupta/Vadehra Art Gallery
“I think it has become historical enough that people are curious about what gay life was like before Grindr and the internet,” Gupta said. “People think it was all doom and gloom, and people jumping off buildings. They don’t seem to appreciate that we also managed to have some kind of a life back then.”
This is a message reflected in the photographer’s carefree India Gate shoot, which he recounts as a relaxed day of fun and abundant sunlight.
“It just seemed very pleasurable. It was a nice day out, and I got to hang out with these guys who were having a good time and having a laugh.”