Sunil's work is often described as subversive, impulsive, personal and political. His socially engaged projects have focused on issues such as: family, race, migration and sexuality. Sunil’s work has been instrumental in raising awareness around the political realities concerning international gay rights, and of making visible the tensions between tradition and modernity, public and private, the body and body politics.
From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta. A Retrospective opened in October 2020 at the The Photographers' Gallery in London and is the first major retrospective of Gupta's unique transcontinental photographic vision. He is a Visiting Lecturer at the Royal College of Art. In 2020 he was awarded Honorary Fellowship to The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain.
You were part of the first Black student show at the RCA in 1983. Tell us about that.
We were emerging in a postcolonial and post-modern world. It was all very exciting and new. A handful of us, students of colour, from a range of different media departments including graphic design and glass and, of course, photography, like me, had met up during our time in South Kensington.
During the degree shows in 1983, we asked if we could be allowed to use a separate room to create a small version of the group show by graduating students of colour. At the time the prevailing word describing that was Black. We thought that ethnic minority was a derogatory term. Many people came to see the show, including from the race equality unit of the Greater London Council (GLC). Several of us then began to do voluntary unpaid work for the GLC, learning about local town hall cultural politics. Some of us like me, became completely immersed in that world and turned our backs onto the commercial art world of Cork Street.
During the 1980s you set up Autograph ABP, the Black arts movement, and you were involved in HIV/AIDS activism. What compelled you to push boundaries forward in this way?
I was fortunate to have a great education, not only in the formal sense of having attended the RCA, but my experience at the GLC taught me of the importance of the visual arts and culture to our larger politics. This was further enhanced by my encounter with the Arts Council of England, where I became very involved with policy-making and in establishing their overall policy of inclusion at the time which was to widen access to the arts to as many people as possible.
To me it was very apparent that Black and Asian people were missing from the visual arts, both as practitioners and also as an audience. It seemed to me that quite a lot needed to be done about it and mainstream institutions were not providing it and seemed incapable of change. It became incumbent on us, meaning myself and my peers of colour who had also graduated from art schools around the same time, to do something actively to bring about change by starting our own institutions. To me this just seems a natural evolution of things. Of course, when AIDS became the crisis that it did, inevitably it provoked me respond by doing cultural activism by researching a very British response to the crisis in the form of a travelling exhibition and book.
A lot of your work stems from a broken heart. Do you think for you it was your constant catalyst and a form of expression?
Yes, love underlies everything I do. There is the romantic love which compelled me to make the vibrations that I did from Canada to New York to London back to Delhi and finally back to London. Then there is the love that I found amongst the people that I have worked with on the various projects that themselves have often been a labour of love.
I don’t think the organising work that took place in the '80s and after including the formation of autograph would have been possible without love and sharing between the various people involved at various times in the development of these groups. Consequently there was also a lot of hurt and upset. But a variety of close loving relationship formed that have lasted till this day, and sometimes it’s closer ties to them then one’s blood relatives.
You took a photo on the day of your HIV diagnosis. Then you stayed away from it at first as subject matter. Did you know then that you would return to it later on and use it in a body of work?
The day I was diagnosed with HIV I went home and took a self-portrait. I’ve often used the processes of photography as a kind of therapy. I find the complete focusing of one’s mind to the activity of making a picture purges the consciousness of all kinds of things that might be plaguing it.
Receiving the news had been a very intense moment and the act of the photograph was simply to relieve myself. I wasn’t thinking that I may or may not use this picture in the future; that really wasn’t why I had taken it.
You’re inspirational to generations of photographic activists and LGBTQ+ rights campaigners. Do you feel your honesty and openness has helped such subject areas around this be heard?
I would like to think so. Over the years, starting with coming out as a gay man at a time when it was not so commonplace and I was younger than the age of consent, to the time when there was such a stigma about HIV/AIDS that even months on community was prepared to isolate you in response, I felt that the simple act of giving testimony was usually liberating, not just for me but also for the people around me. It certainly makes me be at peace with myself and has allowed me to think further in much more complex issues related to both of the topics that are often obscured because of fear and stigma.
Christopher Street, Mr. Malhotra’s Party, Exiles and Sun City focus on gay relationships in different contexts and countries. Would you say that you are capturing a community of people in a moment in time? Perhaps even your moments in time? Do they reflect your personal journey in a way?
Yes, there are certainly moments in time. And also, in place.
I have found that being gay has been a different experience at different times and in different places. So, when people say to me, what is it like to be gay in India, for example, I say that from my pictures I have found that it’s generally okay for a population that lives in the metropolitan centres, is reasonably young and has a university education and access to jobs and a steady income. For them things were becoming fine towards the end of the early 2000s. So, I’m suggesting things are not fine for all kinds of people who don’t fit those categories; those who are too poor, those who live in the slums and those are too old and had already made a commitment to a life lived in the closet.
Similarly, the law seems to fluctuate, sometimes very rapidly. In 2009 India legalised gay sex between consenting adults in private, and then 2013 it became criminal again. Everybody who had come out in the intervening four years found that they were suddenly indulging in an illegal activity once again. In 2018 it was legalised once again.
However, all kinds of discriminatory laws are still in place so despite the euphoria there are no protections either in the workplace nor in a domestic setting of the family home. So yes, you could say that my interest I have followed this changing context as I have personally been involved with them simply by being in the right place or possibly the wrong place at the right time.
You often adopt different roles in making your work. Sometimes you observe and document, sometimes you're the subject, and in other works you stage and direct by creating narratives. Could you talk about these different approaches?
At the point of leaving the RCA, I thought I wanted to be telling photo stories about social justice in the larger politics of the world, especially around racial and gay politics in the UK and class and caste politics in India. I had in my mind the photojournalism and documentary photographers that I had studied.
However, I emerged into a world where the documentary photograph was under severe criticism and review. Many questions were being asked about consent and control, who wielded the camera, who was photographed, and who was making money out of the whole enterprise.
The politics I was shipping for myself meant that I could no longer indulge in going out to shoot extremely marginalised people who didn’t know what I was really doing with the images that I was making. Therefore, I was compelled in fictional narrative forms to tell the story is that I wanted to tell. These involved replacing my documentary subjects with actors forecast to play themselves in a very directed mise en scene.
Sometimes the subject was too sensitive, like AIDS, and there were no willing participants to be cast so I began to use myself since I had the authority to expose my own body. Whatever the method I’m still drawn to the style of documentary even if I am starting with a fictional set of characters to tell my story.
Covid-19 has put your project with Studio Voltaire on hold. What are you looking forward to once this project gets off the ground?
I’m really looking forward to working both with the HIV outpatients at St Mary’s and the gender reassignment surgery centre at Charing Cross hospital in Hammersmith. I’m very keen to see what contemporary views on what these issues are from the people who are so intimately involved and affected by them. It’s been over a decade since I made work directly about these issues and it’s been longer than that since I made social work in the UK, so I’m looking forward to discovering how things have changed.
You said you were excited about your retrospective but that it’s not the end. What projects do you still want to do?
There are many aspects of the same project still to do. My project of course is about what does it feel like to be a gay man of Indian origin, regardless of where I am. As we discussed earlier, this is continuously changing and evolving, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst, but it’s never static. Sometimes people ask me whether I will grow out of it? I find it strange, as if sexuality is a phase that you grow out of.