Born in 1992 in India, Debmalya Roy Choudhuri very early on faced obstacles. Aged seventeen, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, an infectious disease that often affects the lungs and can be fatal if not treated. As he began treatment, he was nagged by feelings of anxiety that led him to close in on himself. It was at this turning point that, he explains, “photography established itself as a necessity, the necessity of fighting the disease. … An excess of anxiety often leads to a certain form of isolation that can take you to the brink of madness. It makes you even more vulnerable, and you can make regrettable decisions. Photography was an effective tool to make sense of what was happening to me and what was around me.”
When he recovered and returned to college and to his home in Calcutta, Debmalya Roy Choudhuri wasn’t doing much better. Relations with his family had become strained. His lower-middle-class parents have had their share of intimate wounds. As he became an adult, Debmalya Roy Choudhuri sought to escape this situation by avoiding the family home. At that stage in his life, photography was merely a “diary,” as he puts it. That is, until the day when, a few years later, his boyfriend committed suicide. The pain of his death overshadowed all other wounds and was accompanied by an awareness: “It was only then that I began to understand what it meant to be here — in this world, at this moment — and how photography would be my refuge. Photography is about losing and abandoning yourself and, through this very process, finding yourself.” Photography acted as an instrument of healing. By offering him a mirror to see and show himself, it lent meaning to his life. It represented the impulse to escape the melancholy and the promise of a greater freedom. This is how, following the loss of his lover, and his expatriation to New York, he was able to find his bearings.
Lost and alone, Debmalya was couch-surfing around New York and neighboring states, staying at the homes of strangers he met on the web and photographed. He decided to turn these experiences into an artistic project: “I quickly wanted to extend this logic and incorporate it into a game of photographing people, sometimes more than once, if I could see them again, at moments of vulnerability and honesty, mostly in their homes. Over time, I began to structure this game in a way that spoke to different identities relating to my own queer self. Some people would let me stay at their place, and I would offer to photograph them in exchange.” This experience of otherness led him to explore his homosexuality and its place in the Indian society he came from and in the American society he now lived in. Discreet, or even hidden, in Indian society, homosexuality was overrepresented in American society, pointing, Debmalya thought, to the existence of the same societal shackles, where whiteness and heterosexuality are the norm, and where everything that deviates from the norm is de facto relegated to an inferior rank. In addition, language, by its desire to designate, pigeonholes, and reduces the complexity of beings through these designations: the term “queer” is no exception to the rule. Desiring to free himself from this double yoke, Debmalya intends, through his photographic work — because a photo describes reality more authentically — to put each person at the center, with their singularity, their uniqueness, so that everyone can reappropriate their body and their own identity. Debmalya asserts “queerness” not to promote his sexuality but as open-mindedness and a sign of importance of every person in their individuality.
Between promiscuity and intimacy, Debmalya captures the fragility and sensuality of strangers who abandon themselves before his lens, in the privacy of their apartment or outdoors. One photo shows an androgynous man, his dark hair cut into a tousled bob, who seems lost in the folds of a fishnet top, then, in another photo, sprawled naked in a chair, his half-closed eyelids revealing only the whites of his eyes, as if he were suspended between life and death. Is this “the dying man,” or a trance? A trance, because in Debmalya’s pictures bodies dance as if to escape melancholy or to celebrate the beauty of their fragile existence. Then again, we see the blurred silhouette of a woman in a thong seen from behind in a vibrant atmosphere of sequins, or Debmalya himself performing ritual gestures under a tree, or quivering bodies silhouetted in chiaroscuro against transparent white veils.
The veil is a guiding thread tying in all these anonymous people admitted into Debmalya’s intimacy. A vector of appearance and disappearance, the veil crystallizes the overarching dynamics and questions which motivate the photographer and his work: an awareness of the finite nature of existence, of death, desire and sensuality, sources of life.
By contrast, his photographs of nature freeze the beauty of day and night with the passing of seasons. The falling snow turns into a shower of glitter, flower buds look like silver bells, and the bunches of blue fir needles form a coral of the deep. It’s like a sweet irony: although the man explodes with emotions, and struggles in life as he runs towards self-destruction, nature he portrays is immutable in its tranquility and magic.
Besieged by doubt, sadness, and melancholy, the individuals in Debmalya’s photos express great loneliness that resonates with the photographer’s. United with his models in a photographic project where they can freely express their states of mind, Debmalya heals his wounds. Photography becomes a promise, the promise of a return to life.
By Marie d’Harcourt
Marie d’Harcourt is a journalist at Blind Magazine in Paris.
Debmalya Roy Choudhuri, “Fragments of the Dying of Man”, photography series.