To coincide with Portrait of Britain 2021, Vadoliya – who was shortlisted for the award last year – discusses Brotherhood: a project musing on the many ways to be a south Asian man in contemporary Britain
In Vivek Vadoliya’s portrait of Ryan Lanji, the queer British presenter and DJ stares tenderly into the lens. A quick scroll down Lanji’s Instagram feed presents a garish ride of neon hues and outlandish looks; fishnet vests and patent heeled boots. But under Vadoliya’s warm light and soft gaze, he is stripped back: his torso laid bare against a simple cream backdrop and white boxer briefs.
Both versions of Lanji defy traditional conceptions of Asian masculinity. And therein lies the quiet magic of Vadoliya’s Brotherhood: a series of simple musings on the many ways to be a south Asian man in contemporary Britain. Joining Lanji is Haseeb, a spoken word artist; Raheem, a classical Indian dancer; Suren, a musician, and others. Each portrait is varied in stance, posture, angle and mood: “It’s about showing the full spectrum of masculinity,” says Vadoliya, warmly. “Celebrating who they are… How there’s more to them than their exterior.”
Like much of Vadoliya’s work, Brotherhood is intrinsically personal (“For me to connect to a project, I need to be giving something of myself in it”). The photographer’s parents are liberal, but his patriarchal Indian roots have, at times, led him to question his place in the world. “Growing up, I never felt like I was the most macho man,” he says. “But there are pressures that come with being the eldest [child]… In India, I would be expected to look after the family. That’s just how things are there.”
The idea for the series was first sparked in 2017, when Vadoliya happened across Mahtab Hussain’s You Get Me?exhibition at London’s Autograph Gallery. You Get Me? centres the experiences of young, working-class South Asian Muslim men in modern Britain, inviting audiences to rethink pervasive stereotypes of the demographic: harmful cultural tropes that label them terrorists, extremists or sexual predators. Namely, Vadoliya recalls being struck by how little he had seen British Asians represented in Western fine art portraiture until this point: “I just didn’t realise that you could explore that sort of identity in that way.”
Masculinity is a theme that runs throughout Vadoliya’s work. His 2019 film, Kasaragod Boys, explores how young men in India use social media to define their masculinity and identity: namely via an eccentric internet subculture called ‘Freakers’, who parade hairstyles, clothes and trends drawing influence from K-pop, Bollywood, Iran and a variety of other clashing cultural spheres. In Bradford in Bloom (2020) – a series documenting the vibrant local characters of Bradford – we meet Al and Ramesh, amongst others, who delight in dress-up, and refuse to be limited by gender conventions.
“Before colonialism – within Hinduism – there’s always been a third gender,” Vadoliya says. “And you’ve got the hijra community, where trans people were always accepted. And within mythology, as well, Krishna was genderless, presenting as both male and female at the same time. It wasn’t so binary.” This isn’t to say that it’s queer stories, specifically, Vadoliya is trying to tell. Rather, at the heart of the artist’s practice is all the many nuances of the Indian diaspora – rendered in a way that is rich, delicate, and abound with love.
Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.