Photo Focus: Sunil Gupta’s India Gate, Exiles, Delhi, 1986/87

I was drawn to the photographs of Exiles as soon as I saw them. I decided to focus this edition on Sunil Gupta because I went to Philadelphia to see the exhibition, Picture This: Contemporary Photography and India. Sunil Gupta is one of four artists in the exhibition along with Gauri Gill, Max Pinckers and Pamela Singh.


I chose to focus on this particular photograph because of the post in Stories from the Road from a few weeks ago, I discussed Triumphal Arches and this photograph includes India Gate. The photographs in this series deal with homosexuality in India.  Each photograph is paired with a statement. In my research I did not find out whether the statement is from one of the men in the photographs or taken from another source. However, the statement is printed on the paper with the photograph. Furthermore, the statements give a unique voice to each image. I will return to the statement after exploring the photograph.

This photograph, India Gate, depicts two men embracing in the foreground while the India Gate towers behind them. Through the positioning in the photograph, the men take up as much visual space as the India Gate. This indicates their importance in the photograph. The man on the left is almost fully in shadow while the man on the right’s face and arm are in shadow. This points to the taboo subject of the photograph.

Without the statement that goes along with the photograph, the meaning of the photograph can become ambiguous. On my first trip to India I was surprised to see men holding hands and embracing in public. I asked my professor, who I was traveling with, if the men were gay. She told me no, that public display between and man and woman was taboo, so men would hold hands and put their arms around one another as a way of getting human contact and affection.

The statement with the photograph says, “Even if you have a lover you should get married and have children. Who would look after you in old age?” This is a very practical statement. Across the globe children care for their aging parents. Furthermore, India is not like some countries, where the government has funding to take responsibility for the elderly.

In the United States and other western countries, many people might think to hell with practicalities, you should follow your heart and with with love. However, in India where arranged marriage is a tradition, marriage is a contract between two families. Marriage is not about romantic love. So, this statement shows the practical thoughts about Indian marriages.

This photograph was made between 1986 and 1987, in 2012, less than eleven percent of elderly Indians had a pension. Thus, they do not have a saving to care for themselves financially (Paola Scommegna, India’s Aging Population, Population Reference Bureau,, accessed 1/15/16). Furthermore, in 2012, four out of five elderly Indian’s lived with their children (Scommegna, accessed 1/15/16). Showing that the sentiment of the statement that accompanies the photograph still rings true in India today.

Sunil Gupta’s photographs let the viewer into his personal life at times and the private world of homosexual Indian’s, as homosexuality is still illegal in India. The thing that makes these photographs and the one above in particular, successful is the ambiguous nature of them. Each viewer can construct their own meaning about the photograph depending on what culture they come from. However, once the viewer has read the statement the meaning becomes clear. Works like these can be understood by everyone and they invite the viewer to understand the world in a new way.

By |2016-11-10T18:47:24-05:00February 5th, 2016|Photo Focus|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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