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How Sunil Gupta Uses Photography as a Tool of Liberation

How Sunil Gupta Uses Photography as a Tool of Liberation

In his first major career retrospective and accompanying book. Sunll Gupta explores the question, “What does it mean to be a gay Indian man?”
Untitled 22  from the series Christopher Street, 1976 © Sunil Gupta

At the age of 67, Sunil Gupta is finally receiving his due with the opening first major career retrospectiveFrom Here to Eternity, at The Photographer’s Gallery in London, and accompanying book of the same name. Curated by Dr. Mark Sealy MBE, From Here to Eternity brings together works made throughout Gupta’s singular career exploring the question, “What does it mean to be a gay Indian man?”

Growing up in an English-speaking middle-class family in New Delhi, India, Gupta lived a privileged life, protected from the ravages facing the nation after winning its independence from the UK. But everything changed when his parents moved to Montreal, Canada, and Gupta found himself without a community to call his own. It wasn’t until he got to university and joined a student activist group that Gupta discovered his destiny. With camera in hand, the young business student found a means to express and explore his identity at the dawn of the Gay Liberation Movement.

Untitled #22 © Sunil Gupta
Studio Portrait, Dehli, 1962 © Suni Gupta

In the mid-1970s, Gupta moved to New York City where he made Christopher Street (1976), a series of black and white photographs of men cruising for sex in the neighborhood where the Stonewall Riots had taken place just a few years earlier. In 1978, Gupta moved to London, where encountered abject racism for the first time and recognized the impact of white supremacy extended far and wide.

Portrait of the Artist as a Radical

Untitled #13 © Sunil Gupta

While pursing his MA in Photography from the Royal College of Art, Gupta secured a travel grand and returned to India for the first time since he left. He spent six months in a village looking at the ways in which poverty was embedded into the social structure of the place. After returning to London, Gupta sought a means to express what he had witnessed only to discover it was a story no one wanted to hear. Picture editors were looking for posh travel pictures to whet bourgeois palettes for exotic tastes, or stories of abject poverty invoking British poet Rudyard Kipling’s delusions of “The White Man’s Burden.”

Repelled, Gupta turned his back on photojournalism and commercial photography, and became entrenched in the local grassroots photography community of London. He helped to found Autograph ABP in 1988. “We were determined not only to have Black and Asian people in the pictures but that they also took the pictures,” Gupta said from his home in South London.

Jama Masjid © Sunil Gupta

For Gupta, the personal is political. HIV positive since 1995, Gupta is a survivor who has witnessed the decriminalization of homosexuality in the US, the UK, and India over the past 50 years and remains dedicated the decolonizing photography one frame at a time. 

The exhibition includes work from Exiles (1986-87) documenting the secret lives of gay Indian men; Memorials (1995), commemorating the victims of homophobic hate crimes; and The New Pre-Raphaelites (2008), created to support the legal battle to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law against homosexuality. The book offers an intimate look at Gupta’s life through a selection of snapshots, postcards, letters, posters, and news clippings accompanied by handwritten notes. Fifty years in the making, Gupta’s moment has finally arrived.

Selfie as person living with HIV, Delhi, 2008 © Suni Gupta
Untitled © Sunil Gupta

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

Sunil Gupta: From Here to Eternity
Published by Autograph ABP

Exhibition on view through February 21, 2021
The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW, UK 

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