If there were a checklist for a woman in her 40s (and there is), Nidhi would have checked all the boxes. The Bangalore-based artist and muralist had been married for over 25 years, and had two kids, whom she would often drive to school in her car.
She was scared when she decided to tell her family one day that she wanted to get a divorce.
“You have everything you need… why would you destroy everything?”
It was easy for her to answer the questions, but difficult to make them understand. The “Intimate Etre“ photo exhibition, which features Nidhi, along with nine other individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community, is possibly an attempt to spell out these answers for society.
“Instead of putting labels, we have to see people as ordinary human beings leading their lives,” says Magali Couffon, a Bangalore-based French photographer who considers photography a medium that gives voice to people who are marginalised or not given equal space to speak up.
“This is why I chose to photograph people from the community at their homes under natural lighting, as they were going about their day (Intimate Etre means ‘to be’ in French), instead of asking them to put on any make-up or look extravagant,” she adds. “This makes the photographs a little intrusive, while also not intrusive at the same time,” says Couffon.
The exhibition was inaugurated on 24th February, 2020, at the Beyond&More showroom at Prabhadevi (Mumbai) and is open till April 10, 2020. The exhibition features life-size vertical portraits of 10 individuals — who identify as gay, lesbian, cross-dresser, transgender and bisexual.
While many people were enthusiastic about the idea of getting photographed for the series, she says, quite a few of them had to refuse because they hadn’t yet come out to their family and friends. But many who had, and had agreed for the shoot, were excited to show their portraits to their family when they were exhibited for the first time at the DDIR Architecture Studio in Bangalore, in December 2019. “They were super happy and even clicked pictures of their children and family in front of their portraits,” smiles Couffon.
“It turned out to be really good,” says Nidhi. “Everyone at the gallery was very kind and said how it was very brave of all of us to participate in such a series,” Nidhi recalls. “But I was very nervous initially,” she laughs. “I was in a saree at the exhibition, but I am wearing camouflaged shorts in my portrait. Magali had come in the morning, right after I had dropped my kids to school. She asked me not to change my clothes and instead, just go about my day as I usually do,” she says.
“I was very conscious of the good and bad side of my face initially, and was even grinning in a few. But I gave in to Magali’s process later; the picture that finally made it to the series is one where I had not posed and was working in the house,” she says.
“The idea of the photo exhibition is to work towards achieving a society that is more accepting and tolerant towards human beings as they are; because no matter how you dress or what your social background is, at the end, we all are human beings,” says Couffon.
The photographer — who made India her home 25 years ago — believes in collaborating with people who are willing to fight labels, and has previously worked with NGOs and festivals such as Koovagam Transgender Festival and Jogappa Festival in Bijapur.
Her collaboration with Beyond&More for the exhibition is their first though. “B&M curates spaces, and art is intertwined with spaces. I loved the subject of individuality in Magali’s work and decided to bring the exhibit to Mumbai,” says Sanjay Pareek, founder and director, Beyond&More. He adds, “Emerging artists need a platform to showcase their talent. We are happy to promote different art styles, especially those for a cause?”
Even as Nidhi continues to live with her partner of over four years and her kids, hers is only one of the stories that “Intimate Etre” has chronicled. There are so many more stories of finding an authentic self and staying true to it, as Nidhi puts it, that need to be set forth, that Couffon calls the series a project in the making, which will culminate into a book over the years.