Anthony Luvera talks to the photographer Sunil Gupta about how he got started in photography, his influences and his ongoing series of portraits 'Mr Malhotra’s Party'
AL: Did you see or read any representations of homosexuality in film or literature in your childhood in India?
SG: There was no mention of homosexuality. And there were no images of it. But you know what? There were no negative images either. There was no name calling. But you did see – because India is marvellous for visuals – a lot of guys holding hands. And you see a lot of guys who are extremely effeminate in public. You see Hidras turning up for rituals and nearly naked men covered in ash walking down the road. You’ve seen pictures of India. People hold onto each other for dear life even if they are just friends. It’s very touchy-feely. The extra step to something sexual is very little and a whole lot goes on under your nose but you don’t see it. So I had this funny experience growing up. There was a lot of marvellous sexuality and possibilities around, but at the same time nobody talked about it. We didn’t have any language for it.
Our big entertainment was the cinema. I really grew up with movies, with Bollywood musical blockbusters and Hollywood. There’s a lot of high camp in Indian cinema. Without knowing it, I found a queer subculture. There are actual gay movies now, but they were always there, you had just to read them differently.
AL: Can you say how you became interested in photography?
SG: While studying at Concordia University in Montreal I joined the gay students society at McGill, and we used to march for rights. Then, unfortunately, I had to go to business school, but I kept up with the activism. And that’s when the camera happened. I made a friend and we discovered we shared several interests – going out and getting laid, and the cinema. We saw a lot of films together. I was interested in the camera part of it and he was interested in the words. One day we decided we would make a kind of poor man’s film with a still camera. I bought a basic camera and taught myself how to make elementary photos in my bathroom, and he wrote poems, and we stitched them together. I bought an enlarger and trays, and I got more ambitious and I moved on to colour. I liked the chemistry part of it.
Once I had the camera I started to document friends and family. The photographs I made for the gay group contributed to the start of a magazine. I covered events at bars, demonstrations and news items such as when the local gay bathhouse burnt down one day. There was a strange disjuncture between the business
AL: Did you receive any kind of formal photography education at this time?
SG: Not until I left the MBA and enrolled in The New School in New York for three workshops. George Tice taught printing classes. Philippe Halsman, who was very well known as a portrait photographer, held workshops in his flat. And the third - the most important one – was with Lisette Model.
AL: Can you describe the workshops with Lisette Model?
SG: Lisette took a shine to my being Indian. Plus she seemed to like my pictures. She said, ‘Darling, I think you should do photography.’ I couldn’t see how it could be a profession and she said, ‘No, you just do it. Don’t worry about the money.’ It was a kind of turning point. She persuaded me, in a way, to take it up. She just showed this great enthusiasm.
AL: The photographs you made on the streets of New York in 1976, Christopher Street, were created at a time that was post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS. Why did you want to document these people? Was there a sense of gay liberation out on the street?
SG: Totally. I used to go stand on that corner at the village cigar store sign and there would be this endless stream of gay men. I’d never seen so many, it was like Gay Pride every weekend. I think because I’d come to New York with the baggage of the demonstration pictures and the little news items I’d made in Montreal I was quite persuaded I wanted to do documentary work. I wanted to document some of the rights and wrongs, but also just my lived experience. This in itself felt like righting a wrong because I wasn’t seeing it anywhere. It seemed very remarkable that suddenly there was this openly gay public space. I suppose it’s hard to imagine it now but for the first time it seemed like you could be on display and be secure about it.
AL: How did your work develop upon studying photography in the UK?
SG: At West Surrey Institute of Art and Design in Farnham I was in the pilot year for the BA Photography. We would get these silly briefs, like, ‘Go take a picture of a stranger’. This came naturally to me. I’d bring in these really intimate pictures of naked men I had picked up in Earl’s Court. The other students were teenagers and they were gob-smacked. I got hauled up by the school authorities for the gay interests in my work. I was told it could be seen as corrupting the minds of minors. The age of consent for gay sex was 21 then and you couldn’t discuss gay sex in class because the other students were under-aged.
My second year project was to go to London with a portfolio and try and get shown without saying I was a student. Sue Davies at The Photographers’ Gallery put together an exhibition called Contemporary Colour Photography for the Salford International Festival in 1980. She showed the images with the poems I’d made with my friend in Montreal which had been lying under my bed ever since. That year I also made London Gay Switchboard a slide-tape work.
AL: What was your intention behind creating this work?
SG: I used it as a way of getting back into gay politics the way I understood it. The London Gay Switchboard was a voluntary telephone helpline. A lot of the calls received by the Gay Switchboard were about giving information to people about where to go. So I went to these places and explored London’s gay nightlife by shooting it. Then I broke up the pictures with extracts from critical theory Anne Williams was teaching us at the time. But my project ran into a problem with the Gay Switchboard people. I showed it to them first to get their approval, at least informally. Half of them disapproved vehemently about being treated in a nonstandard way with the voices and the pictures not matching. One of my critical structuralist moves was to disrupt the sound and picture by having a woman’s voice and a man’s face. The women were not happy with this at all and they pulled the plugs on the projectors. People took direct action! It was never seen again, until now.
AL: Having made work about gay people in New York and in London, in 1986 you travelled to India to document the gay scene in Delhi. Can you describe why you created Exiles?
SG: I felt very strongly that I was gay and in someway I was Indian, and there was nothing in art history or cultural studies that had been taught to me that encompassed either of those things individually, and certainly not together. In those days the two exhibition curators at The Photographers’ Gallery were Alexandra Noble and David Brittain. Alex did a show called The Body Politic and Exiles ended up as a kind of commission for this. I proposed to go to India to make a series about gay men.
I began to meet people who described themselves as being gay and I didn’t think they were gay because they were married or about to be. My opinion was that being gay was political and there was nothing political about being married. I could see there was a problem with a straightforward documentary approach. It had to be a reconstruction. I wanted to depict where people met and had sex outside, because everybody was married and there was nowhere to meet privately. Delhi is interesting because it has a lot of historical monuments that have been much photographed. If you look at nineteenth century histories of photography, there they are, all of these places where the gay sex was happening.
AL: How did you craft the captions?
SG: I would go cruising and pick up people for my tape recorder. I’m surprised I didn’t get beaten up. I’d just say, ‘Lets talk into a microphone’ and some people would be like, ‘Fuck off! I just want to have sex.’ I didn’t try and match any of the text with the people in pictures. I used text I felt touched on some of the major points I wanted to raise.
AL: Was the work shown in India at the time of making it?
SG: No, because one of the conditions the models had laid out was that it would not be shown in India. Indeed it couldn’t have been. Nobody would have shown something with a gay subject matter. It was shown in The Photographers’ Gallery in an exhibition called The Body Politic and in an issue of Ten.8 published as a catalogue. The work kind of sank without much attention. In fact, I think it got swamped by its Indian-ness.
AL: Around this time in the mid-1980s, were there many exhibitions featuring representations of gay or lesbian culture in the UK?
SG: In London they were very few. This was a time when even to show Mapplethorpe the work had to be smuggled in. It couldn’t officially come through customs. It was much more intolerant than you can imagine now. Like in the The Body Politic show everything else was pretty straight. The fashionable politics at the time was coming out of difference theory that Victor Burgin was talking about, and psychoanalysis, and the whole thing was bloody heterosexual.
The first exhibition we did, at Camerawork, was Same Difference. I had met this woman called Jean Fraser who had been one of Victor’s students and Simon Watney’s at PCL. Alongside organising the exhibition we ran a workshop involving school kids making photo stories about coming out in their school. I think by the time this show happened it was 1986.
AL: How did Ecstatic Antibodies, the exhibition and publication curated with Tessa Boffin in 1990, come about?
SG: Jean Fraser and I went to a meeting about AIDS and activism at what used to be the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in Farringdon. I first met Tessa Boffin there. The three of us decided we wanted to do an art exhibition and a book about the issue. The others at the meeting were sceptical. They wanted more direct action and saw an art exhibition as bourgeois and elitist. But we persevered and got the money.
AL: Why did you feel the need to produce this project?
SG: I think partly because we both felt personally threatened by the disease and partly because of Simon Watney’s influence. Tessa had been taught by Simon and I had worked with him on The Rhetoric of AIDS for a magazine called Screen. We looked at a lot of visual material about AIDS. It genuinely felt there was a clear struggle happening in the visual arena. AIDS was being represented in a certain way with those people as the cause and these people as innocent victims. The government messaging was very anti-promiscuity. It was basically anti-sex. We wanted our project to be very sexy and to promote promiscuity.
The exhibition started at Impressions Gallery in York and toured to quite a few places. The book sold out. I think it was very topical for its time. It was a good example of what I thought I wanted to do in the way the material for it comes from living your life.
AL: When did a more direct autobiographical self-portraiture begin to step into your photography?
SG: Not until after I was diagnosed HIV positive in 1995. My initial response was to not deal with AIDS as subject matter, partly because of having already done this in Ecstatic Antibodies. I had been quite well-versed on the subject and it was a grim subject. I felt this was a particularly singular issue that could really suck you in. You know, I have learnt over the years that you can be gay and just call it sexuality, just drop the homo and it can work for everyone. You can be South Asian or you can generically be ‘the other’, but with AIDS you can only be AIDS. It’s very singular. I was afraid of it as subject matter. It was only when I became unwell that I decide to use photography as a means of getting back some of my health. I got the Hasselblad out and shot on 120 negative, and went to Photofusion and printed by hand. It was therapeutic. This was From Here to Eternity. I constructed the pictures around aspects of my illness and the facades of the heavy-duty sex clubs that had sprouted up around me in South London. It was triggered by Mark Sealy at Autograph offering one thousand pounds to do something that would be shown alongside work by Derek Jarman and Ajamu.
AL: In Mr Malhotra’s Party you return to documenting gay people in Delhi. How does this work relate to Exiles? Why did you want to return to represent queer individuals in India at this particular time?
SG: I was impressed by a collective in New Delhi called Nigah and the level of engagement they have with being queer. I thought I have to counter the Exiles narrative in that people are now out and they also want to claim a position in their society. The logic was to photograph out lesbian and gay people in Delhi near where they lived and worked. The number of pictures has grown over time, there are now fifty in the series. I felt it was important that it became part of an Indian production and consumption and then, from there, it could go elsewhere. I made it while living in India for Indians.
AL: Can you explain the title of the work?
SG: It’s a very local reference. There are no gay bars in Delhi but parties do happen and the way they get away with it is to post a notice saying that it’s a private party. The place we always went to had a different name every week. One day it was called Mr Malhotra’s Party. Malhotra is a typical name that comes from Punjabi refugees of the Partition of India in 1948 and like hard working migrant Punjabis everywhere in the world, they built New Delhi.
AL: Is there still a need for work to be made that seeks to shake up a queer political agenda?
SG: This is a research question that I am promoting at UCA Farnham as a Visiting Professor. Is there any need for queer work to be made now that we seem to have everything here? If we do, then what could it be? One of the things I am interested in is how when I come here I fall into this regional identity. Asian is too broad and the next best thing is South Asian, which still seems a bit too broad. And so people’s gay needs all vary too, their understanding and how they fit in.
AL: In this sense how do you perceive the contemporary use of the word queer?
SG: The way the collective Nigah champion the idea of queer took me a while to appreciate. That is, anybody who is even questioning their sexuality is queer. Nowadays I think LGBT sounds more generic, and queer sounds like more of an intellectual critical position. That’s how I kind of understand it. But I can’t resist being gay in queer circles because that really gets them going. They see me as some unreconstructed gay man from the seventies, which I am. I’ve still got a moustache and a checked shirt.