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A Chat With The Photographer Behind These Striking Portraits Of Queer Mumbaikars

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As far as the discourse on trans people in our country is concerned, 2016 has been an interesting year. There have been more legislations on trans rights in the very recent past than there have been in the entire history of pre or post-Independence India. There have also been other projects shining the light on the community: a musical group, a transgender modelling agency, a sari collection featuring trans women, and numerous campaigns (online or otherwise). And joining all of these significant projects is photographer Anusha Yadav’s ongoing series, “Transfixed.”

Presently, there are 16 portraits in all, celebrating a group of people who refuse to box themselves into the categories of “man” and “woman”. Each portrait highlights an individual ideal of beauty. It is quiet and composed, but also vibrant and arresting. And we simply had to know more about it. So Cake got chatting with Yadav about exploring the fluidity of gender through her camera, being an LGBTQ ally, and more!

I’m interested in makeup,” Yadav says. “I love the way it can change people’s faces, and there’s this idea of people claiming their beauty, looking beautiful, healthy and young, and celebrating themselves. But why is my embellishment as a woman taken for granted? When I wear makeup, I’m accentuating my identity. So for people who are not [assigned] female [at] birth, or have not been brought up with these ideas of beauty, what does it mean to them?

And that’s really how it all began.

I think an exploration of anything, photographically, makes it powerful,” she says, talking about her chosen medium. Yadav’s Indian Memory Project (started in 2010) is a testament to this as well. It involved collecting visual and oral histories from a time and a place that has been lost to most of us.

I find that the romance in the pictures is a lot more only because we don’t know much about it,” she said, before explaining why “Transfixed” is very different. For one thing, she says, “Photographs need time to collect memory, they can’t just have a memory immediately. Yes I could tell you little anecdotes about each image, but it’s not as substantial a memory of a certain time, or a certain person, or a certain people’s background, until there is some gestation period.” Further, the Indian Memory Project was a retrieval, and the information each image carries cannot be easily confirmed or denied by the persons either behind or in front of the camera. In contrast, she says “‘Transfixed’ is something where a photographer is telling you what the intention of photographing was.

So why did Yadav undertake this project? “I was looking for something that was unfamiliar to me, but that I would learn about along the way. This entire process is actually a form of answering some questions that I had and being able to share something great that I’ve discovered with the world. It’s through a form of curiosity that I satiate any work that I do.”

But it isn’t about photographing ‘novelties.’ “I’m not from the LGBTQ community, I didn’t want to be in a position where I say something or articulate something in a manner that is offensive or is taken the wrong way,” says Yadav, who identifies as an ally to the community and movement.

Ethics in our profession or for that matter in any profession are imperative. This was a process for me to learn and understand what words work, what don’t. That is why I sought the help of people who are from the community. I don’t want my project to be just another trite thing, but to be taken seriously as well as with great admiration. I also wanted to show these pictures to people who are not from this community.”

Yadav recognizes the responsibility that comes with picking up a camera and training its gaze on ‘alternate’ expressions of gender and sexuality – especially in a country where the sword of Section 377 dangles over all our heads, and where mainstream media has often done great harm in its portrayals of queerness. So getting into this project, her priority was to make her intentions crystal clear at every step of the way: “I wanted to show their pride and their beauty.”

It’s a simple enough idea, but it’s a process that takes time and energy, and Yadav has put in both. First, she had to teach herself about studio photography. Then getting those 16 appointments had to be done carefully, so that everyone understood her vision and felt comfortable doing it.

A few of them have done shoots like this, with their bodies in focus and to some extent have felt exploited. I didn’t want people or myself to focus on the body (which is what a lot of our obsessions are about). I chose to stay away from the body because the face is what matches their ideal first.

The actual photoshoot itself was a “collaborative process.”

This is something any decent portrait photographer will say – you will not get a good picture unless you have a relationship with somebody, built over time (and of course, good lighting helps!). Which is why they’re not just walking in and doing their make up. I actually sit down with each one of them, I want to know what’s happening in their life, why they choose to do what they do, just hanging around, sitting, chatting, I record conversations, and we eat and have coffee.

Finding subjects for “Transfixed” took some time. “In Mumbai everyone works, and this is not a monetary transaction-based project. It’s a gentle request-based process. So when people do agree, we have to fit their schedules and convenience. Which also means shooting late at night.”

She says word-of-mouth helped move it along quite a bit. And if there were challenges, they were elsewhere. “Some of the subjects don’t realize that I can’t release the work and they get impatient,” she laughs. “But there’s that impatience with anything, I mean I’d be impatient myself if I looked my greatest and I can’t see the picture.” There was another instance when someone refused to be photographed because they didn’t get along with somebody else in the project. “But you can’t help that, you just quietly move away without making it into a problem.”

And then of course, there’s managing time, and growing the project. “Now, there are three to four leads which I have to follow up, but I haven’t because of 500 other things, and one of them is trying to make lunch!

There were lighter moments to the shoot as well, that Yadav shares: “As a joke, one of the subjects said, ‘Anusha, you don’t know what you’ve done. Everyone will start comparing whose makeup is better!’

And achieving that level of ease and comfort has certainly required its own work. Yadav has previously commented on how, as an ally, she is still on the outside. But allies play an undeniable role in the LGBTQ movement. “My role is to live and let live,” she says. “I will not tolerate any community being treated as outsiders. But this is a value system you develop over time.

Nobody is born an ally, and many of us do not grow up engaging with queer politics! She says: “I come from a small and conservative town where even the word ‘lesbian’ was only learnt when I was 15, in hushed whispers, while I was at a girl’s school. There were hijras who would come home to collect money during festivals or at somebody’s birth, and I would see my aunts treating them not so well. But one of my aunts was also heavily casteist.”

There are, after all, a lot of things about society that we have to choose to unpack. And unpacking all of this has helped her become a better ally to the LGBTQ movement. “I have not lived those lives, I have not covered the ground that they walk on. But I did want to celebrate them in a manner that we all respected, enjoyed and loved.

Of course, Yadav knows there are also several allies who hog queer spaces and make it all about themselves. “You know the thing is a lot of people think they’re allies, but they’re not really allies. The people sitting on the edge who have, like, one token Muslim friend, or one token gay friend.” And she definitely doesn’t want her involvement to be limited to a few empty gestures. “I was aware that my works might be construed as a ‘straight savior complex’ because we do know people who have perhaps even acted on that behalf or have been told so by the community. But realistically I don’t know how I might be saving anything. If at all, I feel saved, because I was looking to do something I would feel useful about investing my heart in, and create something I had never tried before.

It’s great to have artists like Anusha Yadav creating the media that we sorely need – through sensitive representations of the people who challenge heteronormative conventions. And it’s equally great to know the LGBTQ community has a friend and ally in her. Yadav is still looking for more people to sit for portraits for the “Transfixed” series, and when completed, it promises to be an extremely valuable cultural reference point for us all.

Featured Image courtesy of Anusha Yadav.

To see more of Anusha Yadav’s work, click here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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