Ashish Gupta, best known for his eponymous fashion label, has departed from his usual creative practice to photograph intimate, frequently unashamedly explicit portraits of men, that capture the queer male gaze with tenderness, joy, and humour, while challenging established notions of masculinity and sexiness in mainstream gay culture and porn. The result is GAZE for House of Voltaire, a stunning limited edition 365-page visual diary of gay desire that reflects the playfulness, beauty, and subversion associated with his two-decade fashion career, as well as the diversity of his model casting.
Off the runway, his designs have been shown at London’s V&A and The Met in New York, and been worn by some of the most influential and stylish folks in the entertainment world including Madonna, Kylie, Thandiwe Newton, and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Having left photography behind when he graduated from art school in his native Dehli, turning his attention to fashion in London, Gupta gifted himself a camera a few ago when he turned forty. He began taking photographs of men as a hobby, initially not intending to show the results to anyone, which lends a furtive quality to the intoxicating images seen in GAZE and an additional erotic charge.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Ashish Gupta about how his experience growing up in India shaped his attitudes towards his identity and sex, what it was like to return to a very different Dehli as an adult to photograph go-go boys at a gay club night, what defines his approach to both fashion and photography, and the queer culture that inspires him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: could you give me an insight into what it was like growing up in India and how free you were to express your sexuality?
Ashish Gupta: “Not free at all. It was illegal to be gay in India when I was growing up and there was no real culture around it, or at least it was so tiny that it wasn’t accessible to me as a teenager. This was the pre-Internet age and so I couldn’t just go on Google and type in ‘gay’. Information about being gay and access to it was really limited. It was a weird time.”
“I went to an all-boys Catholic school that was run by the Irish Brothers. I fucking hated my school years and I could not wait to get the fuck out of there. Being at a boys school, I did have some experiences that gave me an idea that I might not be the only one, but there was something extremely illicit about it. Also, there was zero access to any kind of gay porn, so the only porn that I saw as a teenager was very heterosexual.”
“I was extremely repressed growing up. There was lots of bullying going on and generally it was not a happy situation. At school, and even hanging out with friends, I was having to lie or pretend on various levels most of the time, so that wasn’t very joyful.”
I know it wouldn’t have been explicitly gay necessarily, but was there anything in movies, on TV, or in magazines that that gave you some light, and offered an escape?
“India was a closed economy until 1991 when they finally opened up to the West. Prior to 1991, all TV was state-controlled and heavily censored, and any reference to gay characters in cinema were disguised or closeted. There was an obscure, underground kind of representation, a sneaking in of characters that might read as gay. It was all done in a very stereotypical way though and those characters were always there for comedy value or on a vague subconscious level. So it was there but really buried.”
“My mum was really interested in fashion, so we would always have smuggled in copies of Vogue in the house. Some of my friends at school would go to Europe or the States for their summer holidays and come back to India with various bits and bobs. You’d get videotapes of Top of the Pops, or the American top 40 on cassette tape, which everybody wanted to get a copy of. Experiences like that were completely normal to me, but of course now when I look back the fact that so much of this culture had to be smuggled in because it wasn’t freely available seems so weird. Those things were the little escapes for me growing up.”
“AIDS was also happening and there was a lot of misinformation about it in India. If you were experimenting as a teenager you were fucking terrified because you didn’t have all the facts, so there was a real sense of panic about it. In the 80s and early 90s there was a sense of, ‘Oh my God, if I’m gay, I’m going to die of AIDS’, it was pretty much that. That whole period was swamped with complete terror. I was in my teenage years in a country where it was already illegal to be gay, then I was getting all this misinformation coming in packaged in a layer of homophobia. It shapes the way you look at sex and your sexual identity, it really affects that.”
When did you first pick up a camera and start to think photography was something that you’d like to take seriously?
“It was very early on actually. Before I went to fashion school in London I went to art school in India and I was really interested in photography there. I was really visual and at that point I thought I’d go into advertising and I’d do photography as a career. I’d been thinking about fashion since I was very young, but being in India I didn’t have much opportunity to seriously consider it as a career. However, by the time I’d finished art school I thought, I really want to try this fashion thing and see how that works out. So I put everything else aside for fashion and left photography behind for a few years, but I’d always wanted to do it and I was always really fascinated by it.”
“On my 40th birthday some friends and I were going on holiday to Greece and I had been talking about getting back into photography for a while by that stage so I bought myself a camera and started taking images. It felt so lovely. It just felt really therapeutic. Photography isn’t a commercial thing for me, that’s not how I earn my living, it’s purely a thing of joy. That developed into taking pictures of guys. I was fascinated by this idea of documenting men’s bodies and sex through my lens, having grown up in a country that was not in the West, having grown up with no access to gay porn, and all the things that I would have had access to if I’d grown up in Europe or America.”
“I wasn’t even thinking about a lot of that while I was taking them though, it was just about creating these moments. I discovered as I was taking the pictures that there was something really tender about them, even when they were quite “dirty” pictures. Even if they were pretty raw, there was a loving quality about them.”
“I was doing that for a good four or five years and I wasn’t really sharing them with anyone. I was just enjoying creating them and it was purely a personal thing that I was keeping for myself and I just thought, we’ll see what we do with these one day. Then this project came along and it kind of gave it a formal platform.”
Did someone approach you about putting them together in a book?
“Yes, Studio Voltaire is a gallery here in London. They work with a lot of artists and all the money they make goes into an arts charity. They got in touch and said that they wanted to do something with me and that it’d be nice if it was outside my normal practice. I was trying to think about what to do and I said, ‘Well, I have been taking these pictures, maybe we could do something with them?’ Then we had the idea of doing a little 365-day visual diary of sorts and I spent a few months taking lots more pictures. I really got into it actually, it was a wonderful means of escapism for me.”
So GAZE the book is a combination of some of the photographs that you’d already taken before this formal project came along and some that you took specifically for it?
“Yes, there’s a mixture. A few of them are from before, but there’s a whole bunch that are after.”
The first photograph in GAZE is of an erect penis which is quite a big statement in some ways, why did you want to open the book with that image?
“There were two reasons. One was this whole thing of censorship and I thought I’m just going to put a big hard cock as page number one! The second reason was the visual joke that it looks like a number one, it’s literally a one, and in the book it’s January 1st. I want to open a book and that be the first thing I see, I thought it was amusing. It gets your attention!”
“The thing that I was really fascinated by was the fact that you can’t show any penises on Instagram, and Tumblr kind of died a death, and I don’t have a Twitter account, so what do you do if you create imagery that is considered to be pornographic or X-rated by the mainstream? What’s the platform for it? It used to be paper, it used to be magazines, and it used to be books, and then suddenly it all transferred to places online. Now, with increasing online censorship, is it going back to print? So I thought maybe the place to do it is a book and to put big hard cocks in it.”
You mentioned the joy that you get from taking these photographs, which I think comes across in them, and there’s also a lot of humour in them, as well as in the pairings and juxtapositions. Humour is often lacking in images of male nudity or images that are thought of as being “sexy” or sexually explicit. Why did you want to bring those elements to the book?
“Sex can be a lot of things. When I was thinking about sex and male bodies and porn, usually it’s pretty sanitized and codified, divided into strict categories, and that’s not really the experience most of us have when we have sex. There’s always lots of blurring and grey lines and it’s not always about tops and bottoms, or whatever. So there’s a lot of space there which I was really interested in exploring. I wanted to shoot older guys and younger guys and bigger guys and skinny guys and limp dicks and hard dicks. I wanted all of it, because I think that’s what real sex is. Sex isn’t always pretty to look at. Sex can be really funny, sometimes it’s just quite hysterical. It can also be really raw. Lust is so powerful, there are a lot of feelings around all of that stuff, so that’s what I try to capture.”
“In terms of the sense of humour, just generally in life my coping mechanism for a lot of things is to have a sense of humour. If I am going through a difficult period I try and put myself in a situation and a mindset where I can see the funny side of it, for me that’s another way to escape. I guess that ties up with a lot of the creative work that I do, whether that’s in fashion or photography, I think it’s really necessary to have a sense of humor.”
Talking about gay porn often being codified and categorized, can you talk about the racial diversity that we see in GAZE?
“There are a lot of clichés in porn that don’t reflect real life. For example, you hardly ever see Indian guys in gay porn. I have yet to see it. I’ve probably seen two amateur videos and that’s it. I’ve never seen a Sikh man in gay porn. The year that I was doing the book, I was in India over the summer and I ended up photographing a whole bunch of guys who worked as go-go dancers. It was such a fun, interesting experience for me. I met so many guys while I was there who were open to being photographed and really liked the idea of showing their bodies and being positive about it and feeling quite empowered by it. That was really wonderful.”
“For a time I was worried about whether someone was going to be seen as being hot enough to be in the book and then I thought, no, actually it’s about who I find hot enough, it’s not about what I think people want to see it, it’s about what I want to see. It’s my eye and I’m the one taking the picture.”
A lot of what is “hot” about them comes from the mood and feeling they evoke, or the look in someone’s eyes and the idea that the subject is being perceived as hot.
“With a lot of male photography the subject is very integral to taking the picture. A lot of the guys that I was photographing were really enjoying being looked at through a camera, as you can probably see in the pictures. So it becomes a really collaborative experience and you’re not photographing a passive subject, you’re photographing someone who’s really collaborating with you in the making of that image.”
“One of the nicest things was when guys would say to me, ‘I’m so glad I did this, it’s made me feel so much more confident about my body and so much more empowered.’ That for me was really important. I wanted to take pictures of people who felt confident and wanted to do it. It wasn’t just about having the six-pack or whatever, it was about really owning your body. In a way, the book was a beginning for me. I’d never done anything on that scale before. I learned so much from that experience and it inspired me to explore more of the pictures that I wanted to take as opposed to the pictures that I thought people wanted to see.”
“Even with fashion, you can only do what you like yourself, you have to give yourself joy and then if you’re happy with it you just hope some other people will like it. It’s never going to appeal to everybody and I don’t want everyone to like it because that would make something so generic and boring. So all I ask is, ‘Do I like this picture? Do I like what I’ve captured?'”
Was the bar with go-go boys in Delhi?
“Yes, a friend of mine has a hotel there and they started doing this gay club night once a week with go-go boys. I didn’t even know that something like that existed in India. I went to one of these nights and I couldn’t believe that this was happening in Delhi, because the Delhi I grew up in was super conservative. Even once things had opened up a little bit I remember if you wanted to go to a gay party somebody had to email you a password to get in. It was all very high security and secretive because the police would raid these places, so you had to be super careful. That’s what I had grown up with. So the fact that there’s now a hotel that has this gay bar with go-go boys is amazing to me.”
Your name is on the book and I wondered whether you’d had any concerns that it might affect your fashion career and considered using a pseudonym?
“I’m entitled to have that side of my life as much as everybody else is. I want to own it and I think part of the reason I did that was because I wanted to be unapologetic about gay cruising and sex and hookups and trade and all that stuff. Sometimes there are feelings of shame attached to it, but there shouldn’t be. I feel like that’s part of our identity and it always has been. Part of the reason behind doing the book was to embrace that, so it would be really weird if I then used a fake name, that would go against the whole idea of it.”
Are there any photographers whose work you particularly admire and have been inspired by?
“There are so many. I collect a lot of vintage gay porn mags, there’s a unique aesthetic about them. I love the work of Brazilian photographer Alair Gomes. He took these absolutely beautiful black and white pictures of men on a beach in Brazil. I think he used to rent a little place and then he would wait for his subjects to appear.”
“I love Larry Clark’s photographs. He’s done the most incredible homoerotic pictures which I’ve been really inspired by. Those are the two names that come to mind immediately.”
Last question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+, someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“When I first saw Paris is Burning I’d never seen anything like that before. It’s one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen. I watch a lot of movies, but there’s something about that film which has really stayed with me. I’ve seen it so many times and I can still sit down watch it now. It’s so inspiring and absolutely wonderful.”
“Also, the book The Sexual Outlaw by John Rechy. That’s amazing.”
“Boyd McDonald’s biography, True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell by William E. Jones was fascinating. I was so inspired when I read that book. He’s such an interesting character. He had some really boring, straitlaced job and then suddenly he said, ‘Fuck this, I want to do a gay porno mag. I fucking love being gay and I love cruising toilets and I love having sex and that’s what I want to spend my life doing’. So he quit everything and lived in this tiny studio flat and started publishing a really hardcore gay porn mag called Straight To Hell. He would send out the magazine that he created in his flat via mail order. People submitted their filthiest stories and pictures to him to include in it. He also wrote about films, he would critique them based on how hot the guys were. The reviews are collected in the book Cruising the Movies.”
“It was an incredible life to learn about. I was actually reading True Homosexual Experiences about the same time as I was doing the pictures for GAZE and so it was at the back of my mind when I was taking the photographs because it inspired me so much.”
By James Kleinmann
GAZE by Ashish Gupta is available at the House of Voltaire website. All sales directly support the not-for-profit arts organization Studio Voltaire in its exhibition, learning, and studio programmes.