“I chronicle loneliness, isolation. I am kind of one outcast—and hence I photograph those who are outcasts.”
- Soham Gupta, speaking on Blue Flower
Soham Gupta’s Blue Flower is a collection of black-and-white images of transwomen in Kolkata. Much like an earlier photo-series we carried, Dayanita Singh’s Myself Mona Ahmed, Gupta’s work too, was born out of a chance incident that turned into a friendship and chronicles a more empathetic side of the city’s transgender community.
“I was working on sick drug addicts rotting under the Howrah Bridge and on most days, the taxi would come to a halt at a traffic signal where a group of transwomen—Julie, Meena, Shubnam, Hamida—would be asking for alms. Though we hardly exchanged words, we knew each other by face—and one day I photographed Julie with the Holga toy camera I was carrying along with me. A few days later I returned with a print and hence began a friendship,” said Gupta, speaking about the project.
Gupta studied comparative literature but dropped out of college on a whim to focus on photography full-time. “I was kind of a bright student, but being extremely impulsive, when circumstances weren’t quite nice, I just quit and never looked back,” he said. “I found my escape in photography.”
Even a cursory glance at his images proves that his subjects seems to find some kind of escape in his image-taking as well. Take this photo series, which takes us into the marginalised world of India’s transgender community, as an example. Though the Supreme Court officially recognised transgenders as the third gender in 2014, the community is still widely stigmatised and largely rendered socially, economically and politically invisible. Gupta, too, hasn’t noticed any positive change for the community aside from approval on a legal piece of paper; echoing a sentiment that India’s only openly-gay royal, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, has also captured in a statement,“the key is public perception.”
Public perception is definitely paramount, particularly when you take the issues of minority and oppressed communities into account. The fight for equality that often translates into black-and-white arguments for equal access or equal rights is often only a manifestation of the deeper question that they want us, conformed society, to answer—what will it take to see them as human? Yes, it’s naïve to consider that legal rhetoric isn’t an important first step, and perhaps it’s idealistic to imagine a world where our self-imposed walls might come crumbling down, but this is exactly why Gupta’s work is such a important one. It allows us, if only for a moment, to consider how close this idealistic picture could be to our reality: just a single frame away.
One of the most tender aspects of his work that reveal the lack of divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are the question cards Gupta provides his subjects with, and their telling answers. When asked to complete sentences such as, ‘In 5 years…’ they answer: ‘I want to be a lady.’
Or, ‘Imagine having a million rupees…’ One of Gupta’s subjects shot back: ‘I will repay loans, repair our house, save money in a bank, buy clothes I desire.’ (Translated from Bengali). And perhaps in these answers lies the truth that the things that separate us are those that make us the same: dreams, aspirations, desires, and longing.
More interesting still is the lack of emotional distance between Gupta and his subjects. Somewhere along the lines, they cease to be objects of curiosity and develop into keen friends, however, it’s impossible to identify that transition point. He recounts an incident from his journal to me:
“Do you remember my friend Bobby? We met some time ago, in our usual haunt. There was Rono, there was Niladri, there was Pinki and Sannu too. And quietly sitting in a darkened corner, lost in her world, was Bobby, with a scarf veiling her head. If Bobby was born in Paris, instead of the slum in Panditiya, she would have been a supermodel by now. But alas destiny had other plans for her. ‘Bobby, how’re you? It’s been a long time!’ I said.‘My father died last month…’ she said carelessly, still lost in another world. ‘Look, they’ve shaved my head…’ she added, stripping herself of the faded pink scarf. Everything became so clear to me.
Why I always thought she resembled a supermodel and never could I figure out which supermodel she resembled. As I stared dumbfounded at Bobby, with her shaved head and big eyes, wearing her pink top and the rainbow sarong, all I could see was Alek Wek, the celebrated Sudanese supermodel with looks to die for. Our silence was interrupted by Bishwanath, Raju’s elder brother, who had come to Julie’s cigarette shop to buy himself a Flake: ‘Ki ar hobe, bap-er shesh kaj toh kortei hobe; chele boley kotha…’(what can be done, the father’s last rites must be dutifully fulfilled by the son…)”
From the journal entry and the photographs, you can see the way Gupta interacts with them—you can see the warmth, the concern, the actual bond that seems to have formed between people who may have never met if it hadn’t been for the day he took Julie’s picture. And the pictures reflect it too. When I asked him about his favourite photo in the series, he answered: “Manali, perhaps. People say she’s my Mona Lisa.”
From the journal entry and the photographs, the warmth with which Gupta interacts with them is palpable. When I asked him about his favourite photo in the series, he answered: “Manali, perhaps. People say she’s my Mona Lisa.”
There is great tenderness in the Blue Flower images. These transwomen have allowed him to not only enter their lives, but intimately document them too. He has earned their trust and they seem to willingly pose for him: playful, shy, happy, free, sultry, and often, mysterious. And while it’s the mystery that draws you in, it’s the dull ache of longing that stays with you long after.
In some images (Mithun, Bitan and Pinki), the subjects become almost luminous, shining lights in the darkness of the city around them, a darkness so deep that it’s almost claustrophobic—even the photos of the city are dark and hazy, almost surreal— aching with loneliness.
“I learned to channelize all my emotions, my anger and my pain into my photographs, from Don McCullin,” Gupta confesses. “To me, he’s one of the greatest photographers of all time. I was quite naïve when I took up photography seriously—but when I look back now, I can see clearly that I was working on loneliness, on isolation, on madness all the while.”
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that he chose to portray the transgender community through Blue Flower. Few communities in India can lay claim to the level of loneliness and isolation that they face every day in the struggle to survive in a country that only seems to regress in the space of social rights and the freedom to let people be themselves.
Scroll down to see more images from Blue Flower
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