Photo feature

A Mumbai photographer trains her lens on gender-fluid rituals of beauty

Anusha Yadav's new series 'Transfixed' gives responses to the question what is beautiful.

When Anusha Yadav first told celebrity make-up artist Cory Walia she wanted to feature him in her project Transfixed, he was apprehensive.

"All she said was: I want to photograph men who wear make-up," Walia recalled.

A few years ago, another artist-photographer had borrowed pictures from Walia’s personal archive, of him and his friends hanging out, wearing "feminine" clothes and make-up. Walia gave permission for the photographs to be shown at a gallery in Colaba.

The next day, an image of Walia's friend dressed in drag appeared on the cover page of a leading national daily. The artist-photographer had not asked anyone in the images for their consent, before she outed the photographs to an audience much larger than the one they had first signed up for.

Based on this past experience with photographers and consent, Walia was wary of Yadav.

“I just wanted some reassurance that she wasn't doing this for the sake of sensationalism, or for the picture to become a target for trolling or ridicule," he said, "not that I’m not used to it. I have braved enough of it in my life since I was a child and have learned to deal with it.”

Walia said he relaxed once he realised what Transfixed was trying to capture – Yadav's many responses to the question what is beautiful?

According to Walia, Yadav gave her subjects complete freedom to be themselves on camera, without fetishising their gender-fluidity, or trying to orchestrate their look. The results are stunning.

“Not all trans-feminine, androgynous or queer men style up, but for those who do, I have wondered about their ideas to amplify the femininity that they identify with and enjoy so thoroughly," Yadav said. "I found that some dress up to put on an identity, some to share an identity and some to shed one off. But in this series, the medium for all of them to do this, is the same – make-up and accessories. The process of putting on kajal in a certain way, the flare of the brush on the cheekbone and choice of clothes. Each person in this series terms themselves differently. I wanted to capture this transformation on camera.”

The idea of beauty has always intrigued the portrait photographer who lives in Mumbai. Walia is one of the 16 people who have been photographed by Yadav for the ongoing photo project, titled Transfixed. Yadav hopes to find at least 15-20 more people to complete it.

Some of Yadav's subjects were discovered through pure luck – for instance, the time she noticed an attractive 25-year-old at The Bagel Shop in Bandra.

“I was at the café, when she walked up to me and told me she liked my style,” Kean Alvares said. A professional androgynous model, Alvares is used to strangers who stare and try to strike up conversation.

“It’s very obvious when you look at me that I’m androgynous,” Alvares said, with a little laugh. “It’s not exactly a secret.”

Alvares said he was ridiculed for being too "effeminate" since he was a child, but he's also met people who appreciate his courage for remaining true to who he is, something that boosts his confidence.

For the shoot, Yadav gave Alvares the single instruction she gave all her models: be yourself, whoever that is. Each dressed themselves and chose their own make-up. Some arrived with a team of trusted friends who helped them get ready for the shoot, others knew exactly how to style themselves.

“Beauty can be a big deal for all women, but ideas of feminine beauty for the androgynous, queer or trans-feminines can be a matter of life-or-death," Yadav said. "There are moments when they can be placed in danger for not passing as a woman convincingly enough.”

Alvares decided to emulate the style of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

“I had a particular vision for myself," he said. "I wanted to choose a look that would best tell my story. I wanted it to reflect the brand I have created for myself.”

Walia chose his inner femme fatale, straight out of the mysterious and thrilling world of 007, the fictional British spy James Bond.

“Growing up I had always been fascinated by the glamorous Russian women in the James Bond novels," he said. "They were deadly and could kill in a flash, there was a sexual aura around them. That’s where I took my inspiration from,” .

Walia posed for Yadav’s shoot with a purple scarf around his neck and a fur headdress, his eyebrows arched and his expression regal, almost challenging.

Yadav said she didn't quite have the words to describe how she felt, each time one of her subjects revealed themselves to the camera.

“Awestruck comes closest,” she said.

According to Yadav, her biggest hurdle was using the correct terminology.

“I’m an LGBTQ ally, but I’m an outsider still," she said. "So there was a certain learning process that I needed to go through because I did not want to be offensive or belittle anyone. Terminology is constantly evolving. What was correct to say yesterday is probably not correct today. Like, I learnt that not everyone wants to be referred to as cross-dressers. There are words and terms that they identify with.”

Kumar Iyer, 45, also a make-up artist, had no qualms about being a part of Transfixed.

“I’m not transgender, I’m gay,” he said. “This is just one part of my personality and initially it was about wearing a mask so that no one recognises me.”

For the shoot, Iyer borrowed a red Kanjeevaram sari with gold zari work from a friend, and did his own make-up.

“I was so scared of getting make-up on the sari that I didn’t even wear it, just draped it on me," Iyer said. "When I do dress up, I’m not going for shock value. I don’t want my make-up to be harsh or garish or to stand out in the crowd like a sore thumb. I want my look to be feminine with just enough drama, but a more natural feel.”

In front of the camera, Iyer’s concerns were those of anyone posing for a close-up portrait: am I looking good? Does my hair look fine?

“This is the real thing," he said. "The pictures aren’t photoshopped, or touched up. They are raw! You can see every line, every pore, every little imperfection in them.”

Iyer believes that attitudes towards gender have changed a lot in the past few years.

“I don’t think there is acceptance still, but there are more conversations happening around sexual identity and gender," he said. "People don’t look the other way like they used to.”

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