“He said that holding hands in public was something special, like being visible to everyone but hiding something,” says Marc Ohrem-Leclef. “A man I interviewed told me that. I thought it summed things up a lot.”
When the New York-based photographer first travelled to India eight years ago he was struck by the “small, shared moments of intimacy” that he saw men displaying towards one another in public – admiring the openness with which they made what he first assumed were public displays of romantic love. “As a gay man, I was quite excited by what I thought was romantic freedom,” he says. “Men would be holding hands or leaning against each other in public. There was a connectivity that I thought was really beautiful.”
He quickly learnt that things were not as he had first thought, that the men he saw were not necessarily romantically involved at all and were often just expressing friendship. But for Ohrem-Leclef, this discovery only made their closeness more interesting.
Digging still deeper, he realised that it was also incorrect to assume that there was no sexual dimension – that there is a “grey space” in male relationships in India, in which friendship is displayed physically but in which same sex love is also free to be acted upon, as long as it “remains unspoken”.
Intrigued, he returned to India early this year to explore more, creating a project which is still ongoing but which is currently titled Jugaad/Of Intimacy and Love [Jugaad is a colloquial Hindi word which means something like ‘hack’ or ‘workaround’ but which holds numerous meanings depending on context]. Celebrating connectivity and camaraderie in male relationships in India, it also serves as a testament to them at a time when the simple urge for human contact is taking on new meanings.
“When I had the opportunity to go back to this project, I wasn’t sure if it would be as relevant as I thought it was eight years ago,” he continues. “When I spoke to Indian friends though, they said the opposite was true because of the current political situation.
“For example, when I arrived in Uttar Pradesh, there had just been a very conservative, right wing Hindu priest elected as Chief Minister [Yogi Adityanath of the Bharatiya Janata Party]. Two weeks after he was elected though, they had their first ever gay pride march in Lucknow, the state’s capital. This is the moment in India right now.
“There’s a growing self-confidence of a young queer crowd in the urban centres that is set to the backdrop of a Modi government which is rather divisive and repressive in many ways.”
Travelling across India, photographing and interviewing people from as many backgrounds, castes, ages and positions as possible, Ohrem-Leclef hopes to capture the beauties and challenges of that moment – and show the positive side to it, in showing male closeness. The images are a mix of black-and-white and colour, and are shot using a medium format camera.
“It’s a bit of a pain to carry around,” he admits. “You’re constantly messing around with film and everything. But they work out really beautifully. I hope it will eventually be a book. I’m just working out how photography and the text from the interviews can be combined most successfully.”
The interviews are compelling, picking out the challenges of the “grey space” that Ohrem-Leclef has found. While the beauty and openness of friendship and the potential for physical intimacy is there, there are real limitations on what can be openly acknowledged, and that’s reflected by the men he spoke with. One interviewee says he can never tell his father, a pastor, about his sexuality, for example, because his family would disown him.
“For men who want to lead a fuller life identifying as a gay man there are concrete limits in these grey spaces,” explains Ohrem-Leclef. “Colonialism had a big impact on these traditions too, as did the importing of Western ideas of sexuality. Colonialism brought a penal code that criminalised homosexuality, which to this day has left the door open for harassment.
“This contributed to the fact that older queer men were very tentative and hesitant when it came to speaking to me and being photographed. But at the same time, there is a young queer crowd who can see on the horizon that things are changing.”
It’s a complex issue playing out in a huge country, and Ohrem-Leclef is well aware that he’s exploring them as an outsider and is determined to get it right. He picks out places he needs to spend more time, such as the south of India, and points out how different things looked in Punjab, as a way of warning against sweeping generalisation.
“When I went to Punjab I could barely find the gestures that sparked the project at all because it’s simply not done as much,” he says. “Punjabi men have a very distinct sense of hyper-masculinity in a more binary sense.”
“Though I did find one of my most compelling collaborators there,” he is quick to add. “Akhtar, a barber who is very intimate with his best male friend, while being married to a his wife Bushra with whom he has four children – It’s a beautiful example of the fluidity my work talks about as well.”
He was happy to find that the project was well-received when he showed it at the Clark House Initiative Project Room in Mumbai, and he’s already received requests to show it elsewhere in India. “At the end of the day these photographs are showing expressions of love, however you choose to qualify it,” he says.
“For me, the excitement is in bringing all the voices together, creating some kind of map and spectrum that talks about anything from love and friendship to intimacy and homosexuality.”
You can follow the progress of Marc Ohrem-Leclef’s work on his website www.marcleclef.net, and Instagram (www.instagram.com/marcleclef/)