Sunil Gupta’s Pioneering Portraits of Proud Gay Couples

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Dylan and Gerald© Sunil Gupta, Courtesy of Stanley/Barker

Sunil Gupta tells the story behind his photographs of gay and lesbian couples, taken in 1980s London – a series recently republished by Stanley/Barker in the book Lovers: Ten Years On

In summer 1978, New Delhi-born, Montreal-raised photographer Sunil Gupta arrived in London. “I was following a guy,” Gupta tells AnOther from his home in south London. The two had first met in Canada while enrolled in business school. After graduating, Gupta’s boyfriend took a job that required him train in New York City before sending him to London to work.

Just entering his twenties, Gupta went along for the ride, thinking he would get a job when he arrived. Things didn’t quite work out as he had planned. “We started out at a similar footing as students but working at the bank he got settled quickly and became relatively well off,” Gupta says. “I had gone the other way. I made no money at all and had become completely dependant. It didn’t seem to matter. We were together and in the gay world, ten years seemed like a long time especially back then.”

After Gupta received him MA in Photography from the Royal College of Art in 1983, the Home Office sent him back to Montreal until he as able to get a visa to live and work in the UK. Once things had finally stabilised, the relationship came to an end – much to Gupta’s surprise.

“My life changed quite dramatically: not only was I single but I had to fend for myself. I left with a suitcase. I had no rights at all. Although the UK legalised the sex act in the late 60s, they didn’t legalise [gay] marriage until the 2010s. It took them 50 years to get around to that part of things,” he says.

“I was a bit shell shocked at the way things turned out. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong. I decided I would do some research using the camera and find couples to find out what was it that kept them together,” Gupta says of a series of portraits he started making in 1984, just published in the new book Lover’s: Ten Years On (Stanley/Barker).

“I was living and studying in west London and my couples were mostly there,” Gupta recalls. “It’s high-density gay male neighbourhood, which are the ones that got hit by Aids very quickly. The press reaction to Aids was really horrific at first. There were all these front-page stories about the ‘gay plague’.” Determined to fight back with positive imagery, he began making classical domestic portraits of gay and lesbian couples proud and unafraid to counter the relentless fearmongering of the cis-heterosexual gaze.

“They were my community and it was a community that was very invisible and under pressure from all sides,” Gupta says. “A lot of people came to metropolitan centres escaping form very oppressive family situations. They were trying to live some kind of normality as couples when everything was against them. I think people forget how difficult it was, how there was no representation of anything, how you really felt alone – and then to have found somebody, even one other person, was very remarkable. I don’t think we would have survived the 80s if we hadn’t found each other.”

Although several people in the photographs have since died from complications related to Aids, Gupta does not see the Lovers: Ten Years On as an Aids memorial. “Several people are very much around and some are still together for what it’s worth. Some are with new people and the new person wants a picture so that’s happening too.”

As for Gupta’s quest to figure out why his ten-year relationship came to an end, he adds with a laugh, “There was no answer as to what went wrong in my relationship.”

Lovers: Ten Years On by Sunil Gupta is published by Stanley/Barker.