‘The people in the images are treading a psychological minefield’: Kolkata and New York-based photographer Supranav Dash tells us about his new series, Eros and Its Discontents, and why he wants to lift up queer people through his work
In the confines of a six-by-eight-foot corner of a photographic studio, Supranav Dash has created a safe haven to tell stories that encompass performance, freedom of expression and empowerment. Based between Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, and New York, Dash is a photographer who explores the identities and experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals living in India.
The staged portrait series, titled Eros and Its Discontents, is published here for the first time. It touches on the struggles these people face, while also acknowledging the pervasive and ongoing religious and political divide in the country.
The images in this series comprise black-and-white portraits of LGBTQ+ people, who were cast by Dash and his team. “The people in the images are treading a psychological minefield; their lives are a criss-cross of complexities arising out of a religious, conservative and homophobic Indian culture that is quick to marginalise and discriminate,” says the photographer of his subjects.
The images were created after Dash spent time with his subjects, studying them and listening to their stories. It’s an approach that stems from his interest in philosophy – specifically the works of Plato, Freud and Jung, in addition to Socrates’ conversation with Agathon in Symposium. “Their work has informed me in a way that lets me work with my subjects while they showcase themselves as they deem fit,” he explains. “I do not try to make them conform to my ideas of gender, sexuality, body and other subjectivities, because my lived experiences are entirely different from theirs.”
While the photographers Irving Penn and Peter Hujar influence him on an aesthetic level, Dash also finds inspiration in Indian mythology, Ajanta Cave Frescoes and Bengali folklore.
“Every single portrait is a form of collaboration between my subject and myself,” he says of his process. “After explaining the objective and bringing my sitter on the same page, we discuss the aspects of performance that are realistically executable, that the subject feels comfortable in showcasing, and we go ahead with the layout and securing the props.”
In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India made the historic decision to strike down Section 377 of the British colonial penal code – a nasty hangover from the empire which criminalised homosexuality. However, despite this change, Dash says that Indian society has been slow to change and accept LGBTQ+ people.
“While they did not acknowledge it tacitly, the ancient Hindus had no issue with homosexuality per se. In fact, some of India’s best ancient and medieval art depicts homoeroticism,” says Dash. “During the current times, it’s important for artists to rail against the current idea of extreme religious nationalism or the Hindutva wave. This kind of nationalism is not new in India but has been newly revived, and the problem with this is that we have conflated two things – the king and the country.”
Dash’s series widely address the complexities arising out of a religious, conservative, and homophobic Indian culture that is quick to marginalise and discriminate against queer folks.
“My intention, with Eros And Its Discontents is to portray the stories of struggles of my close circle and acquaintances alike,” Dash says of his hopes for the project, “celebrating their lives and subverting societal challenges through visibility, inclusivity and empowerment.”