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

Posted on October 2, 2016 in Cake, Interviews, LGBTQ, Tête-à-Tête

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.