Nine years ago I visited India for the first time, travelling for a few weeks across the country. For this gay German living in New York for a decade, it was a crash course in all things Indian, a rather spontaneous trip after recently overcoming the fear of the ‘chaos’ I expected to find in India.
One of the many things that struck me was the intimacy I witnessed between men in public, in many facets and locations throughout my travels; as many Westerners, I made the wrong conclusions at first, and my gay self got overly excited at the sight of so many men professing their love by holding hands. My friends soon schooled me that my assumptions were mostly wrong, and that the hand-holding, embracing-each-other, leaning-into-the-other-guy, was generally an expression of friendship and familial bond. “Generally”.
And “with some exceptions” . . . “well, one never really knows, but you can’t assume anything” were some of the add-ons to that explanation. At first I didn’t tune into this lack of clarity about what stands behind these intimacies, and was just beholden to the beauty they represented to me. The gentle, fleeting moments of touch felt (and still do feel) natural, human, and simply beautiful – more so when liberated from the sexual innuendo I’d first connected to them.
Moving past this – my German mind seeking clarity and order – I began thinking about the spaces this tradition of male intimacy creates, space for love, comfort and sexual intimacies that may carry awareness to a degree where they form part of the man’s identity, or not at all.
The conversation with my local friends were about what these intimacies can represent, things from unspoken masti to more aware queer intimacies that conform more to how western societies understand sexuality as an identifier of self.
I became interested in the liberties traditional codes of friendship and intimacies afforded men here, the shifts these traditions of fluidity have experienced over time with patriarchy, colonialism, nationalism and western gender and sexual identity politics shaping Indian society’s awareness and ideals.
Speaking with queer identifying men about their challenges in navigating an environment of fluidity, combined with archaic laws criminalizing homosexual acts, helped me understand their struggle to lead lives as queer identified men; to move past the ‘fun’ and find companionship and acceptance and respect in a society where for many men there’s just no need to let their sexual encounters impact their sense of self and their identity.
I wondered if India’s queer activists and a vocal young queer generation may experience a huge loss in adopting western models of LGBTIQA organizing and favouring the clear definitions of these models over traditional fluidity – only to be told: “Without the word ‘gay’ we’re no one. How can we identify or organize, and ask for equality if we do not use these labels to build community?”
Thinking through these opportunities and dilemmas made me not only question my own ideas of love, sexuality and intimacy but also rediscover my own journey of coming to terms with my sexuality some 25 years ago – I think back then I’d wished for some of the ‘un-defined’ and the ‘grey areas’, to find my own place as a gay man more easily.
In my work as a visual artist I use photography and video to collaborate with people to understand their world, a certain community’s condition. I’m interested in experiences I myself may not fully understand but that I’m drawn to, experiences I stand to learn from and that may otherwise go untold. In early 2017, having recently wrapped up the four-year project Olympic Favela on housing rights in Rio de Janeiro in the wake of the 2016 Olympic Games, I finally began making work in India for the project that touches on the issues of male intimacy and identity and that had simmered in the back of my mind since this first trip in 2009.
Since then I’ve worked in nine states across India to make photographic portraits and informal interviews with collaborators from all walks of life.
Sometimes I meet them through a slowly growing network of friends, activists or scholars, by chance in the street and on a gay dating app. Sometimes I witness a moment of intimacy in the street and am able to capture it, sometimes it’s already over by the time I’m ready to press the shutter and a conversation ensues following me asking men to make a portrait with me, or vice versa – especially when I’m being asked to take a selfie. Which happens frequently.
The conversations we have (I always travel with an assistant who speaks local languages to translate whenever necessary) last between 10 minutes to an hour and half, and they revolve around love and and friendship in the broadest sense; although my heart is with those collaborators who’re queer.
I enjoy the contrast of speaking with collaborators in urban centres like Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata and in remote villages in the countryside, like in Punjab, Jharkhand, the Himalayan foothills or Maharashtra – although these conversations are usually more delicate and it’s more difficult to touch on homosexuality here.
The working title for the project Jugaad – Of Intimacy and Love was inspired by one of these conversations with Nagesh who I interviewed on the banks of the Ganges River in Patna. He explained the societal mechanisms that young men use to venture from socially accepted intimacies to sexual intimacy as a form of jugaad. I’m well aware that the term inhabits a world of mechanics and generally precludes an ideal, durable solution – connotations that in the realm of friendship and love may seem simplistic. But for this moment in time where I witness a society at the crossroads of tradition and progress, it reflects the experiences I hear from many collaborators.
Focussing on making a body of work that consists to equal parts of photography and text is a new endeavour for me. Rather than try and find some sort of truth or having the goal of making some sort of statement, my initial impulse to listen and simply collect the voices of my collaborators through dialogue with them has provided me unexpected moments of honesty, philosophical beauty, and clarity on these subtle and tender issues. I’m open, honest and vulnerable with my collaborators to help them open up to me. Of course, they immediately recognize me as an outsider, and I’m painfully aware how that can limit my understanding and my reach – but it has also proven to be a catalyst of sorts. The fact that I’m a foreigner helps many men be especially open with me – they entrust me with their truths because I’m not their neighbour.
One of the many unexpected things to happen on my side of this journey is that my expectations of who may be able to articulate their thoughts best have certainly been turned upside down – some of the most beautiful, simple yet precise ideas of love, friendship and intimacy I recorded have come from formally uneducated collaborators, grounding me with their clarity and helping me stay connected to the core of a project that has proven to bear so many subtle layers to consider.
During my first trip, one morning Sohel my assistant and I rested on a river bank, watching sunrise. An older man who seemed to come for work in the nearby fields sat near us. We spoke a bit, and eventually I asked him about his most important friendship – his answer was swift: “Friends, friendship . . . how will that exist, sir? We’re . . . we weed out grass, we work in farming, we sell our goods at the vegetable markets, when will we make friends? . . . I’ve never known the love friendship brings. Friendship takes time . . .”
Until this day in Jharkhand I had never considered friendship, and love, to be something of a luxury.
The ideas expressed in our conversations – isolated as short quotes from the interviews and paired freely with photographs – add much dimension to the photographs I make, enhancing their ability to tell a story, and complicating that story. The dialogues between each image and each quote, and between these pairs force us to question and rethink our notions, whether Western or South Asian, queer or not. I hope that the multitude of voices will enlighten and move audiences, and challenge their perceptions of what intimacy and love between men can be and is, and could be.
I plan to publish the work in the form of a book in India, in both local languages and in English – as much as I hope that this work will be seen by audiences in the West. A joke a man in Punjab made at my sight has stuck with me: “What else have you come back to take from us? Didn’t you take enough yet?!” I’m very aware of the legacy colonial rule has left in India, including Section 377. Although that ugly remnant of the British was finally scrapped today September 6, 2018 (as I finish this entry), the fact that I’ve spoken with many young men whose mental health has suffered greatly as a result of the shame associated with being gay won’t dissipate miraculously overnight. It’s important to me to share this work in ways Indians can easily access it, and hopefully be moved by it – it’s them, not western audiences, who’ll bring back about acceptance of all forms of love here.
The month-long trips I make – on an artist’s shoestring budget – are hard, intense work, and yet so rewarding in so many ways; each time I come home to my husband in Brooklyn exhausted and richer in experiences, and with more friends abroad.
I look forward to returning to India this fall and travel South to collect more voices and collaborate to make more portraits in parts of India I haven’t worked in yet. I rely on my collaborators’ generosity to move this project further; if you would like to help or collaborate, please reach out via email email@example.com, ‘Jugaad Collaboration’ as the subject – I’d be thrilled to hear from you – and please follow my journey on Instagram @marcleclef!
About the main photo: Aniket, at his Delhi studio apartment. The accompanying quote says : “The only moment I don’t feel shame is when I’m having sex or am intimate with someone. That’s when it doesn’t feel wrong. It feels very natural and that is the moment of truth. I just want to fucking lead a normal life.” Aniket, Delhi