© 2018 Marc Ohrem-Leclef

I am not sure why the memory of my encounter with Amir came to me in this moment, sitting on a JetAirways flight to Bangalore, in February 2019.
Amir and I at India Gate, Delhi - 2009

Zameen Aasman Ka Farq ("As far apart as the earth is from the Sky") (previously titled Jugaad - Of Intimacy and Love)

- 2016-ongoing -

In a conversation, Pawan recalled:
"I had this very strong attachment to somebody and we held hands in a very public place in Calcutta and it was the most ordinary thing to do, but for both of us it was very different. It was special, being visible to everyone … but hiding everything.”

In India, the language generally used to describe men holding hands or interlocking pinkies, embracing or leaning intimately into one another, is “friendship.” In Zameen Aasman Ka Farq (“As far apart as the Earth is from the Sky”),* I focus on the affection between Indian men: physical touch that offers a window into the meanings of friendship, love, sexuality and queerness. In photographs and texts, the work aims to visualize the many dimensions that love takes on for my collaborators, from the open and socially accepted to the unspoken.  

In over 140 conversations with people from a broad variety of backgrounds and identities, including nonbinary, they and I talk about how they experience touch, its importance, and evolving norms that both expand and constrict amid advancing LGBTQ identity politics. How do straight, cisgender men hold same-sex affection dear? What does it mean for queer-identifying collaborators?

As we sit together in their rooms, in fields, and in parks, many speak of the “love that flows” when holding a friend’s hand in certain ways. For others, life circumstances leave them unable to express their desire for same-sex love; while those living fluid lives in more traditional cultural spaces—usually outside of metropolitan areas—simply don’t need to consider, or name, their identities. Together we determine the extent of their need for privacy. Their trust adds to my sense of responsibility as an artist.

Many collaborators share their deeply personal histories with me only because I am an outsider. Often we bond over a shared search for belonging and community, my own rooted in my queer, bicultural (Belgian/German) identity. For many their collaboration is cathartic. I met Sanjeer in a small town in Karnataka through a gay dating app. He did not want to be photographed, but at the end of our long conversation he said: “I have never met anybody like you ... Asking questions like ‘What does my heart want?’, ’What do I think about?’. Nobody has ever asked me this, and I have never been so open with anybody before. So ... I feel happiness.”

Since 2017 I have traveled with translators to cities and villages across 16 Indian states, making analog, medium-format portraits and digital video footage and recording over 140 conversations in 13 languages, resulting in over 4000 pages of transcripts. With final research trips planned for 2022/23, I plan to publish the work as a book and online resource (incl. orig. text and English translations) in early 2024.

As an archive, “Zameen Aasman Ka Farq” maps a deeply human desire to connect through touch. It captures some of the many facets of queerness today. What we call “queer” or “traditional” remains in flux, set against rapidly shifting norms and the differences in our gazes.

The title, a Urdu/Hindi saying recorded with an anonymous collaborator in Punjab, alludes to the vast space of possibilities when realizing oneself, but can also reflect the impossibility of many of the relationships I have witnessed. Ultimately I yield to my collaborators' voices, which—in their candor and sincerity—manifest a space they carve out for themselves, irrespective of labels.

* Zameen Aasman Ka Farq - Hindi/Urdu: 'As far apart as the Earth is from the Sky' - recorded in a conversation with an anonymous collaborator in Punjab in 2017.