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Charan Singh
Photography Charan Singh

Capturing an Indian LGBTQ community as it should be seen

Magnum Graduate Photographers Award winner Charan Singh shoots honest and self-styled portraits of an Indian LGBTQ community in an attempt to break down the victim narrative

“My mother used to say: ‘When you are an adult we'll take your picture to find a beautiful bride for you.’” Three decades ago as a child, Charan Singh thought portraits were taken only when one was deemed ready to be married. He was enthralled by the idea of having his picture taken by the little box in his mother’s hands. Singh got his wish before betrothal age when he was around 15, with a passport photo on his high-school exam ID – pictures were always synonymous with identity for him.

Last week, Singh was announced as one of 10 winners of the Graduate Photographers Award 2016, presented by Magnum (supported by RBB Economics) at Photo London. A 38-year-old photographer who lives between London and his birthplace of Delhi with his Indian husband, his project “Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others” depicts the identities of members of India’s LGBTQ society, self-styled and as they wish to be seen – many of whom he has known for 15 years through his Delhi community group.

His group was founded like numerous others across India in the 90s to help prevent HIV and AIDS, dodging abuse and police to hand out condoms in parks. Homosexual activity is illegal under Section 377, a law introduced during British rule, punishable by life imprisonment. Singh had to pretend his photographing was a theatrical performance. 

“People would come from all over the world and take pictures of us. They would make a victim narrative, exotifying Hijras and Kothis, the images only saying: ‘Here are the people who are affected by HIV and AIDS’. The pictures immediately became a kind of other.” Singh continued: “I'm critiquing the history of the medium. If I didn't do this work photographs will only ever represent these people as victimised. Nobody would know who we really were. My goal is to create images of people as they wanted to be portrayed.” 

The expression of sexuality in India is perhaps even more tortured than in the west, and Singh confronts this dilemma in his project’s title. “Kothis” are feminine working class homosexuals; “Hijras” are eunuchs or transgender; “Giriyas” are their partners; and “Others” are those born male whose sexuality does not have a clear definition.

“If I didn't do this work photographs will only ever represent these people as victimised. Nobody would know who we really were. My goal is to create images of people as they wanted to be portrayed” – Charan Singh

At first glance, Singh’s shots appear to be plain studio portraits of men and women standing against a maroon backdrop. But the images are radical in mouthing a visual identity for an Indian community that’s difficult to pin to words. He wanted to challenge the visual language of the stereotype of the straight middle and upper class’ marriage-oriented images.

Some of his subjects, aged 18 – 50, naturally strike the poses of Bollywood stars. Others simply stand. “I attempted to create a space where people could feel comfortable regardless of their class, caste, identity, gender, sexuality, performance,” Singh wrote in a statement.

When Singh was younger they used a different term. He remembers: “In 1994, the United Nations coined a term called MSM, men who have sex with men. A lot of us weren't English-speaking. So we took understanding those words as a religious activity. Like God told us ‘this is who you are’. It became attached to our names: ‘I’m Charan, I'm MSM’. But it was a catchphrase to describe men (of many sexualities) from North Africa to Indonesia. It was not an identity.”

New words have been flung from the storm of legislation that has battered gay rights in India over the past seven years. In 2009, homosexuality was legalised by the Delhi High Court. Singh recalls: “When we got the first judgement it generated a language around homosexuality. People were able to come out. There were Pride marches.” However, in 2013, the Supreme Court reversed the judgement. “It gave a clearly defined voice to homophobia. Now people are out but homosexuality is illegal.”

In the UK Singh defines himself as queer. However, he says: “I don't think I fit into one-dimensional manhood, I constantly want to change and challenge the preconceived notions of masculinities.” He didn’t need to find a beautiful bride – now he makes his own pictures.