Way beyond the handshake – brunch feature


Cultural differences between the East and the West are often discussed, but some subliminal expressions go unnoticed. However, British photographer Vincent Dolman is clearly more perceptive than most people.

Vincent noticed that unlike in the West, where a quick side hug or high-five is the kind of contact men tend to indulge in, in the East, especially in India and South Korea, men are comfortable with physical affection. They are okay with being a little ‘touchy.’

“The fact that men hold hands in the most platonic manner in this part of the world, just as friends, without being insecure about their masculinity, is beautiful to me. There is absolutely no portrayal of this from what I’ve seen in the West,” says Vincent, discussing his passion project, Holding Hands.

“That men hold hands in this part of the world, without being insecure about their masculinity, is beautiful to me. There’s no portrayal of this in the West.”

The Indie connect

A journey to India, which Vincent initially undertook to examine his lineage, soon transformed into a photography project with profound meaning.

Vincent’s grandmother had an affair with an Indian sailor. Keen to explore his lineage, Vincent made his first trip to India in 2010, and has been returning every year since.

“I tried to find out more through my dad, but he was not interested in exploring his Indian side, probably because of the racism that existed in his generation. He was trying to be a white man in a brown man’s body, but I was curious to learn about my heritage,” says Vincent.

The photographer, who has shot Rihanna, Snoop Dog and Eminem, started curating his Holding Hands project in 2018, when he was in Mumbai. He had been out with his camera and a friend for an evening stroll on Juhu beach. Random pictures of people walking hand-in-hand during the sunset did not immediately inspire a project. Only days later, when he was at the Gateway of India and he shot a picture of a father and son holding hands, did the idea dawn on him.

“I get lot of messages from middle-class Indians who tell me not all Indian men are comfortable holding hands and have been portrayed wrong in my photos”

“When I returned to England and went through my hard drive, I realised a lot of men in India hold hands. This got me thinking. Then, I revisited some of my old pictures from my previous trips and saw that I had made quite a collection from 2016.”

As soon as the idea struck, he planned few trips back to India, devoted entirely to the project, in June 2018 and 2019.

Holding Hands took shape against the backdrop of India decriminalising gay sex – the Supreme Court passed this landmark judgment in September 2018. Vincent says, he learnt a lot about the LGBTQIA+ community in India, even more than what is explicit.

“I understood the many meanings of ‘machoism,’ for instance. I still get lot of messages from middle-class Indians who tell me, not all Indian men are comfortable holding hands and have been portrayed wrong in my photos,” he reveals. “So I guess I am still learning about India!”

Pictures that tell a tale

Vincent laughs when he remembers the awkwardness of shooting men holding hands and asking them why. “They would look perplexed, which made me seem stupid for asking a silly question,” he chuckles. “‘Because we are friends,’ they would shrug. It was new for me, but everyone here seems to not notice it.”

Sometimes, though, the answers he got were quite homophobic. “Some of them would say sharply, ‘We are not gay’ or ‘Holding hands is not gay.’”

Vincent says celebrity shoots mean good revenue, but his energies are invested with Holding Hands

Vincent says celebrity shoots mean good revenue, but his energies are invested with Holding Hands

Part of his project tells the tale of powerful, but affectionate people, so he has shot policemen and soldiers holding hands too, aiming to blur social stereotypes associated with certain professions

Now, the British photographer says, he would like to take Holding Hands global. Though he first noticed hand-holding among men in India, he has learned that it is prevalent in places like Sudan, Turkey and Congo too.

“When I visited Congo in December 2019 and began clicking pictures of men, they were annoyed. I do, though, envision a Holding Hands project with pictures from across these countries,” says Vincent.

He hopes that since the expression of affection has stood the test of time, it will continue to do so in the future. “In England, it is almost not there. I am almost never inspired in England,” he chuckles.

Bang for the buck

Last year, Holding Hands was nominated for the Prix Pictet Award. “I sent my pictures in January 2019 to the Summerhouse Gallery in order to hold an exhibition, but they told me that a Prix Pictet nomination was a prerequisite. It is a prestigious honour to be nominated, especially when there are so many beautiful and massive projects.”

“I was a dyslexic kid… at the age of 20, I was admitted to a photography school”

Vincent took up photography more as a kind of rebellion than as an interest, he says. “I was a dyslexic kid and we shifted quite a few houses, so schooling became tough for me. I dropped out towards the end and was enrolled in extra training activities, which are conducted for special kids in the UK. I did not like that, so at the age of 20, I was admitted to a photography school.”

It has been nearly 17 years since the celebrity photographer began taking pictures. “Initially I did it for the money. Celebrity shoots mean good revenue. I still continue to do it for the bucks, but my energies are now with Holding Hands, which is meaningful to me and also tells a tale. Life is about striking the right balance,” says Vincent.

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From HT Brunch, July 19, 2020

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