...The expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet supple quality he has strikes through the cotton and flannel;
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back and the back of his neck and shoulderside.
– Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”
What kind of holding hands indicates a platonic friendship? Where and how do friendship and love merge? Where does friendship include a sexual relationship?
These were among the questions that took German artist Marc Ohrem-Leclef on a six-year-long journey through India after he set out to understand the many layers behind why Indian men can often be seen holding hands.
His project, titled “Zameen Aasman ka Farq” (As far apart as the Earth is from the Sky), contemplates the affection between Indian men, manifested in the holding of hands, the interlocking of pinkies and the intimate leaning into one another.
Ohrem-Leclef, who first visited India in 2009, noticed how men were affectionate in public. “…the holding of hands, for example, appearing fleetingly and casual, yet very intent,” he told R Raj Rao in an interview. “In my conversations with Indian friends I learned that these affections have many layers as expressions of different kinds of love.”
To Ohrem-Leclef, this physical touch offers a window into the complexities of friendship, love, sexuality and queerness. “Through my Western and queer lens they felt incredibly beautiful and rife with the potential for conflict for queer men, all at once,” he said.
Six years since Ohrem-Leclef set out, he has travelled through 16 states working with “collaborators” to combine analog, medium format portraits and audio-record conversations. He hopes to put everything together in a book. But more importantly, he wants these voices, histories and stories to be heard.
“...I have travelled many thousand kilometres in India and tried to include many people with different histories, lives and loves,” he said. “If we choose to listen (to them), the more voices we can hear, the richer we all may be.”
Tell us how you came by the title Zameen Aasman ka Farq.
The working title of the project was ‘Jugaad – Of Intimacy and Love’ for the first two years. I had recorded it with a collaborator during my first trip to make work for this project in India in early 2017. But, one of my collaborators who became a mentor, Saleem Kidwai, had always nudged me to reconsider the title. Then, I recorded the expression Zameen Aasman ka Farq with an anonymous collaborator in late 2017, in Punjab. I was not fully aware of it until I received the transcript of the conversation months later.
Once I inquired about the meanings of Zameen Aasman Ka Farq with Saleem and other friends in India, it quickly become clear that it beautifully invokes the breadth of identities and voices speaking to the politics of touch between men in India, and the many forms that love takes on for my collaborators. I decided to combine making analog, medium format portraits and audio-record conversations with collaborators.
What drew you to India rather than to other Eastern countries? Would you describe yourself as an Indophile?
My work has brought me to a variety of places, mostly across the Americas and Europe but in Asia/the East, India is the only country I have visited. It was during my first visit in 2009 when I noticed how men are very affectionate in public, the holding of hands for example appearing fleetingly and casual, yet very intent. In my conversations with Indian friends I learned that these affections have many layers as expressions of different kinds of love.
Through my Western and queer lens they felt incredibly beautiful and rife with the potential for conflict for queer men, all at once. In these conversations the question whether these gestures may also fade away, impacted by Western culture and LQBTQIA+ and gender identity politics, also arose. I felt compelled to learn how a range of people across India felt about them – this is how the focus on India ‘happened’. And yes, throughout the time spent here in the past six years, I have grown very fond of the cultures and the people I have encountered here, many of whom have become close friends and allies.
Which are some of the villages you travelled to in India and what were your experiences there?
Since beginning my research for this work in 2016 – ranging from literature, historical texts to news-coverage and maps (I love working with satellite maps) – I have travelled through 16 Indian states, purposefully attempting to strike a balance between working in metro cities, small towns, villages and some tribal hamlets. Some of the most memorable moments when interacting with people in villages occurred in central Punjab, Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, Tamil Nadu’s coastal area and Kerala’s forests.
When I roam in areas away from metro-cities with my assistant, it is sometimes easier to isolate moments that have the potential to invite a collaborator to a conversation, to make a portrait together. For me personally, there are fewer distractions to manoeuvre. However, just like in metro cities, people here are busy with work and family duties.
The language barriers are often heightened because of local dialects that my assistant may not speak or understand as well. In general, my collaborations in villages often hold more surprises for me because my work there relies more on happenstance and less on my network of queer collaborators, journalists and NGOs, who are typically located in cities.
There have been instances where I had incredible encounters that I felt under-prepared/equipped to fully utilise/capture: for example with a tribal community in Bastar where answers to my questions, relayed via two translators were answered in the form of song and dance, rather than words. It was truly incredible, but did I manage to capture the event sufficiently so I am able to share it?
One overarching takeaway when I think about working in rural versus urban environments is this: often, in rural areas people will make time to be kind, to extend an invitation for a tea, however busy they may be. That obviously is lovely, although not essential to making good work.
You mentioned language barriers. How did you overcome them? I mean, India does have a multiplicity of languages and dialects, and most people in villages and small towns don’t speak English.
Let me just touch on the relationship of image and text/language: photography may offer an immediacy in relaying a reality, but how that reality is read and understood by the viewer greatly depends on their background, culture, awareness and visual literacy, to name just a few elements. In short, photography can be a very limited/ing medium.
Although I am primarily a lens-based artist, in conceiving Zameen Aasman Ka Farq, I knew I wanted there to be a text element in this work in order to move beyond the visible. Too much of what these gestures I saw in public are, was left unspoken and became richer when I spoke with people about it. To that end, excerpts from the recorded conversations have become an integral part of the work – for the viewer, the interplay of words and images complicates the readings of the images, with the intent to invite them to reconsider their notions of binaries, intimacy and sexual identity.
During my first visit in India, I regularly experienced running into language barriers with English. In preparing my work for this project, I knew I wanted to travel with local assistants, who speak the language/s of the areas I am going to. This modus operandi has proven essential to my work – recording people speaking their native language about sensitive issues of friendship and love, as well as intimacy and identity, offers a more subtle and truer representation of their experiences and lives.
How do you choose your Indian assistants who accompany you on your travels?
Finding an assistant who is up for the adventure of traveling multiple weeks with me to a range of destinations is hugely important. The primary requirements are that they speak the language of the region where I will travel to, and that they are comfortable interacting with people from different walks of life, including the queer community and non-binary individuals. When I interview applicants, I look for sensitive individuals with experience in documentary work, and a shared interest in queer lives, activism, and the discourse on gender identity politics.
It is both a very close collaboration and intense personal experience that we share – from planning our itinerary and related travel bookings, train travels and roaming around in the heat, to realising impromptu meetings and going through emotional roller-coasters with collaborators who share their personal stories with us. I have travelled with an incredible group of assistants whose identities range from straight to queer, and trans.
Many collaborators I have previously travelled with do ask to come along for another trip. But often that is only possible if they speak the languages required for a new trip. Usually, I tap into my network of collaborators, friends and fellow artists when I search for an assistant, or I use social media.
Ahead of my recent trip this year, I received an application through an open call on my Instagram feed. Once Achal and I began working together it quickly became clear that we actually shared a group of common friends. We travelled together for over one month before Achal returned home and I continued my trip with Chetan, who I had previously worked with in Punjab.
Was there any hostility on the part of your respondents when you explained the nature of your work to them?
No. I enter any conversation with a collaborator who I do not know in advance based on the assumption that my respondent identifies as straight, or may have never had to think about their sexual identity at all. While my own gaze and life experiences are marked by my queerness, the work takes the gestures of affection that are visible in public as an entry point to address love between men, whether in friendship, in romantic relationships and same sex intimacy.
I openly share how men walking while holding hands or leaning intimately into one another was new for me, and made me interested in this topic. It helps me to establish trust and get to know my collaborators. We speak about their close friendships, and their family ties. Often, the conversation remains outside the scope of sexuality, but sometimes conversations unexpectedly move to very private and personal stories. I never push the conversation, or my ideas – I am here to listen, to learn.
With those collaborators I connect with through my network of the queer community, or through gay dating apps which I regularly use as well, the conversation can be more direct and enter a private space more easily. But even in these conversations, all depends on their level of trust and comfort in speaking with me.
Only once, a tribal community in Jharkhand began aggressively questioning our motive for coming to their hamlet, fearing we came to steal their lands, and we had to leave quickly. It was much unexpected, since we had spoken to two men about their friendship for a while, never once mentioning their land, before the doubts were expressed.
Does the fact that you are German-American and white give you a measure of ‘foreigner privilege’? If the same work was to be carried out by an Indian, do you think your interviewees would be equally forthcoming?
Since beginning this work, I have been grateful for how open my collaborators have been in sharing their experiences with me, even when they do so through my assistant’s translations. It is a dynamic I hoped for but did not expect, and it has made the work so much richer.
Oftentimes, when I speak with a prospective collaborator on a dating app for example, once they know I am from abroad they are more keen on knowing the background of my assistant in order to feel comfortable meeting with me. So, there seems to be an element of implied trust by those who meet me and share sensitive details about their lives with me on audio, due to the fact that I am not connected to their circle of friends and family.
At the end of our conversations, I have begun asking my respondents how it has felt to meet and speak with me, and sometimes it is a cathartic moment for them. Sanjeev whom I met in a very small town in western Karnataka said this:
‘Yes, I am happy because everything I have said ... and … until this day, in the last 24 years of my existence, I have never met anybody like you … Asking questions like ‘what does my heart want?’, ‘What do I want to do? What do I think about?’ Nobody has ever asked me this. Not my family, not my friends. Nobody has talked to me this much, and I have never been so open with anybody before. So ... I feel happiness, that there are certain experiences of mine that are valuable to another, that I was able to tell somebody who listened and who wants to write [of them]. Even if a mere four lines worth of my experience make it into your work, then I am happy. That’s it. That’s all I want. It feels great.’
But to build onto the initial bit of trust; to overcome lingering doubts many collaborators have about meeting me and sharing their histories; to turn that into a sustained conversation; to the point that those who at the onset asked not to have their names publicised or a portrait made actually feeling validated and asking me to use their name and make their portrait – that I’d like to think is due to me (and my assistant) being vulnerable with them, and my having learnt so much about how to conduct a conversation in the past six years.
How is physical touch and intimacy in India different from that in the West? Isn’t same-sex touch in India more prevalent than man-woman touch?
Growing up in Germany in a very heteronormative household and environment, affectionate touch between boys or men the way I see it in India was non-existent. Having lived in the US for most of my adult life, I can say the same is true here, where in a ‘bro-y’ culture we mostly see fist- and chest bumps, and the occasional hug.
This is probably why the culture of touch, marked by these fleeting, casual yet decisive exchanges, struck a chord in me that goes back to my youth: As an adolescent I was aware of my queerness, but that did not hold me back from looking for a close male friend to be with, to share with, amongst my schoolmates – very much unsuccessfully. Knowing that I had feelings for other boys for me didn’t mean I could not be friends with them. After all, I would see girls and women being affectionate with each other like that in public. So, why then is this not something men too can share in the West? Maybe that is why I find great beauty in these gestures of affection in India, especially knowing that they are often based in platonic friendship.
After all, I would see girls and women being affectionate with each other like that in public. So, why then is this not something men too can share in the West? The answers are probably lie somewhere between Victorian ideals and a pervasive culture that does not give much room for fluid relationships.
As for India, my conversations have only deepened my impression that the bonding that happens through touch contributes to a deeper level of friendship. I do observe that growing awareness of how men holding each other’s hands, read through a more Western lens, make heterosexual men more hesitant to engage, or continue with gestures most have grown up with.
In our conversations, younger collaborators have said that even just spending time with a young woman as platonic friends, will be seen as improper and can easily bring shame to her, and her family.
My guess is that the pre-marital segregation of genders in Indian society plays a role in the lack of touch between men and women here – it is not something I see very often, and if so usually in urban settings, amongst the upper middle class, younger generation. Maybe this is indicating a shift towards a softening of these norms segregating young men and women.
Right. And that is why, as you said, in India we often see men – but rarely a man and woman – holding hands or putting their arms around each other’s shoulders and waists while walking on the streets.
When I began work for Zameen Aasman Ka Farq, a mix of my German sense of order and my queer gaze tempted me to try and decode the gestures, for a brief time. What kind of holding hands indicates a platonic friendship? Where and how do friendship and love merge? Where does friendship include a sexual relationship?
While I have come to understand that certain ways of holding hands have different meanings than others, I have realised that, for me, the beauty of these intimacies lies in their endless, subtle meanings, and in the fact that they express something that often remains unspoken. They are visceral, loving and important on so many levels. But, beyond manifesting an expression of love in the widest sense, they defy my interpretation.
Sometimes, collaborators ask me about the ‘results’ or the ‘outcome’ or ‘hypothesis’ of my work. My response is that there are as many answers as conversations I have recorded: My collaborators’ words offer a multitude of windows into the complex, subtle relationship between the physical and the emotional.
Yet, for some queer-identifying people they also appear to complicate the process of realising and finding their own place and identity in a largely heteronormative society. On the one hand, affections are readily available, on the other hand, the stigma of homosexuality persists despite the reading down of Section 377.
In a conversation I recorded with Pawan in 2017, he said: ‘I remember this one time when I was … I had this very strong attachment for somebody and we held hands in a very public place in Calcutta and it was the most ordinary thing to do, but for both of us it was very different. It was special; it was almost like being there, being visible to everyone, but hiding everything.’
Are you inclined to generalise about touch or do your interpretations vary on a case-to-case basis?
I think one development that has emerged in the course of my work may be that there is a shift in the homosocial culture that provides space for the walking with interlocked pinkies, or arms slung around the shoulder of a good friend. In conversations I have recorded, it emerges that with a growing awareness of how these gestures are read outside of India or through a non-Indian lens, some men become more self-aware of when and how to engage in touch – restricting the above-mentioned, fluid spaces that has existed here for so long.
While surely people in India had to reflect on different ideals and perspectives on masculinity and morality often over the past centuries (I am thinking of the concepts of Mughal rule and colonial masculinities, for example) more recently, smart phones in particular have entrenched all layers of society with everything from movies and pop culture to social media and news that do look beyond, in particular to the West.
Even crucial debates on LGBTQIA+ identities, rights and the fight for equality for these communities do constrict, through their use of labels to identify themselves, all those spaces that glean their existence from remaining unnamed and free from categorisations.
Herein lies a big conundrum for me: as a queer man who lives his life openly with a husband of many years, acceptance and respect is what I want for all queer-identifying individuals. But I do wonder: what will happen to those individuals I have met in India who live lives we could describe as ‘queer’ but without themselves ever needing to consider or name their identity in terms of sexuality? How will the spaces that provide room for fluid, undeclared identities and lives be impacted?
Six years into my work here, it appears that the road towards that broad acceptance, towards a legal landscape that not only decriminalises but also protects equal rights for all here forges a path that will impact those lives and spaces dramatically. Dhiren put it this way in a conversation I recorded with him in 2022:
‘And in not saying [it], people say so many things. That is how queerness has survived for so many years. You don’t tell a single word when you’re brushing your hands against each other in the metro; you don’t need to. It’s unspeakable. But in this lack of speech, it’s able to be what it is; the mirth in it, the joy in it, the fabulousness in it. The touch in the public is also an experimental thriller adventure, a moment of transgression, a moment where you feel revolutionary. You’re-questioning everything that is held dear by the society.’
Why does your work focus only on men, and not on women and transgender people?
This question has come up before … as a cis-male, it would be impossible for me to address, or interact with women whom I meet by chance in fields, gardens or … I was going to say in chai shops – but in fact, women do not frequent this space as much.
Sohel, who assisted me on my first trip for Zameen Aasman Ka Farq, advised me not to smile at women too much. And in fact, I experienced women reacting with shame and retreat when I occasionally forgot, and smiled at them.
So, in order to include women from a broad range of backgrounds, identities and classes in my work, as I have done with men, I think a female presenting photographer would best undertake this work, not a man. That said, I have included a number of non-binary and transgender people as well as individuals from the hijra community in my work, and one of my assistants is a trans-man.
As a sequel to the question I asked you earlier, about foreigner privilege, let me say that if someone were to play devil’s advocate and accuse you of ‘orientalising’ India, how would you defend yourself against the charge?
I think in the context of the contemporary discourse on who gets to visualise, and to tell whose story, the aspects of ’perspective and gaze’ are important to address. In my case, working on Zameen Aasman Ka Farq, it is clear and obvious to anyone who I interact with, that in India, I am an outsider.
For me, that means a constant awareness of my limitations when it comes to my understanding of the social landscape and many dynamics engrained in Indian society – I often feel that no amount of research and immersion in the subcontinent’s history, the epics, the psychological imprint of colonialism, current political developments and gender identity discourse (which I have done a lot of) can fill that void.
But, as an outsider I also come with what someone described as a ‘clean slate’: being more free of an awareness of/less burdened by the intricate social constructs has allowed me to engage with all kinds of individuals the same way, ask questions and listen to them in the same manner and to enter into deep collaborations that cut across all strata of society.
Your question goes back to the idea of me ‘generalising’ or formulating ‘conclusions’ of my work here. This is not what I do. I am here to listen and learn – the opportunity to learn through the words of my collaborators, through the range of their voices and thoughts, is what I hope to pass on to my audiences.
As an artist, I feel tremendous respect for those who agree to work with me and share their personal histories – their need to privacy is of utmost importance: whether a collaborator agrees to being recognisable in a portrait, to using their real name or choosing an imagined name to remain anonymous does not change the truths they share with me and my audiences.
As an image maker, I do make choices in making and editing images, in composing the visual landscape that I feel best serves to engage audiences and draw those in who are interested in learning. An image that I make with a daily wage earner bears the same dignity and beauty as an image that I make with a known scholar, because I bring the same respect to both. I think this approach is just as palpable in the excerpts of the conversations I record for Zamen Aasman Ka Farq. To that end, I am glad to say that this is how the work has been received.
What do you plan to do with all the material you have collected by way of photographs and conversations?
Zameen Aasman Ka Farq is a text/image work. The full breadth of subtle nuances of the experiences and ideas of my collaborators that emerges from the large amount of material I have gathered in six years of making this work truly comes alive in sharing a multitude of images and texts.
In various exhibitions of the work in India, Europe and the US, both texts and photographs were always installed together. Visitors of these exhibitions have previously asked if there is a book of the work that they can acquire, and a book feels like the ideal medium to experience the work, allowing for multiple readings of images and texts.
I do plan to publish a book of the works in 2024 that includes excerpts from our conversations in their original language as well as with English translations. There will likely be an edition produced in Europe as well as in India to ensure equitable and broad dissemination.
In conclusion, Marc, let me state that as a queer Indian writer I entirely share your perceptions about touch and intimacy, and have ironically expressed them in at least two short stories. However, my critics accuse me of reading too much – of looking at all of this with a ‘corrupt’ Western eye? Any advice as to what I should say to them?
That is a complex question. I think the gaze of the ‘corrupt eye’, as you call it, can exist everywhere, including the East and the West. As a German and a European, I am cognisant of the colonialist crimes perpetrated by my ancestors. I feel this especially as I engage with people in spaces where that history is acutely felt to this day, for example in India.
As a queer person who has lived in places that offer relative freedom and equality, I am keenly aware of how different the situation for my community in India is. My queer gaze remains critical when examining both what I experience at home, and abroad.
But where I come from, and how I see the world does not preclude me from being able to add a valuable perspective, through my gaze and questioning. If I – or you, for that matter – were to proclaim that our views or interpretations of homosocial intimacies and gestures of affections were to hold any kind of absolute truth, then I think we would be going down the wrong path.
With Zameen Aasman Ka Farq, I am not making that claim. I believe no one person holds any universal truth – that exactly is why for my collaborations I have travelled many thousand kilometres in India and tried to include many people with different histories, lives and loves. If we choose to listen (to them), the more voices we can hear, the richer we all may be.
R Raj Rao is a writer and professor.