One of our photography graduates, Charan Singh, has had his work documenting sexual identities in India selected for the prestigious Fresh Faced + Wild Eyed in London. Charan, who graduated with distinction from MFA Photography at our Farnham campus in 2014, had his series called Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others chosen for display at the Photographers’ Gallery as part of an exhibition highlighting emerging photographic talent. The work explores sexual identities in India - where practising homosexuality is essentially illegal - documenting the Kothi (underprivileged, homosexual men), Hijra (eunuch) and Giriya (partners of Kothi and Hijra) communities.
Charan started his work in the communities after finishing school, when he joined a group who would discuss HIV activism. He helped form a small organisation that worked with communities affected by HIV, before moving on to work professionally in the field with UN and government organisations. "I then met some people from UCA, Anna Fox and Sunil Gupta, and they told me I should document these stories," said Charan, who moved from his native Delhi to the UK in 2012. "I was already documenting the stories, but I was using photography to record what we were doing at that time, the meetings that were taking place, and events that we were doing. I felt I was stuck in the middle working with the NGOs and the government, but the law was not there to help. So I started thinking about how I could tell these stories, without being constrained by the law.
“We could only focus on the HIV work, not on the other parts of their lives. We couldn’t talk about their sexuality, about what they want to be, or the other aspects of their lives. When I started with the photography, I realised that this could be how I can talk about these people. This work comes from there - it marries my HIV activism work with art and photography."
When Charan began to research Indian photography, he found a particular style popular in images from the Raj period, which he felt could be appropriated for a series on people from lower classes. "You'd see the princes and princesses in particular poses. But there wasn't much about people from other classes, so I thought it'd be interesting to use the formality of studio posed images for portraits of working class people," said Charan. Photographing in India's working class communities, he used cultural references his models would understand in order to get them to adopt appropriate poses and postures for the series.
"Most people don't go to art museums or study art, especially people from a working class background," said Charan. "For me, Bollywood cinema was the only medium for my visual education. For the people in the portraits too, Bollywood cinema and TV serials are the only connection they have. So when they express themselves, their postures make reference to popular film and TV characters."
Having graduated from UCA with distinction, Charan has now been accepted into the Royal College of Art, where he will begin working on his PhD in photography. His series is still on display at the Photographers’ Gallery, where the exhibition will be open until 4 July.