For almost two decades, Gary Lee’s photographic art has shown an unflinching pursuit of masculine beauty and, more recently, of indigenous male beauty. Often a subject of controversy, in 2006 the artist voluntarily took down an entire exhibition, including some male nude portraits, rather than be censored. This powerful gesture was the artist’s response to a minority white middle class perception of decency. I spoke with Gary recently about his own sense of identity, about skin colour and his experience of ‘passing’ during his extensive travels through India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
PERIL: Cultural identity is a strong theme in your work. Your own identity is complex as a Larrakia man with Filipino, German, Scottish, Chinese and Japanese heritage, as well as two other Aboriginal language groups Wardaman (NT) and Karajarri (WA). I’ve heard you describe the act of ethnic camouflage, and how your face is like a passport to taking photos. You speak of your fluid identity and how you enjoy the experience of slipping into and out of identities wherever you travel. Could you elaborate on this experience of ‘passing’ and how it informs your work?
GARY: When I first made a decision to try and take ‘professional’ photographs at the time I was about to go on a six-month trip to Nepal for Christmas and then by bus to India. I’d noticed that on many previous trips to both places, long before I decided to concentrate on taking photos, that the men and boys in both places looked like, well, like me – an Aboriginal guy from Darwin and that I was often asked by locals if I was Nepalese or Indian. But I wasn’t thinking about that when, with my analogue ‘point and shoot’ Olympus and my rolls of Kodak film brought with me from Australia, my partner and I flew to Kathmandu in December of 1993.
I was keen to actually start taking photos and soon after we arrived I set out for the day to ‘take shots’. I was excited and at the same time very nervous. While every way I turned there were so many great men and boys just waiting, I thought to be photographed, I wasn’t sure even how to ask them for a picture. I walked around timidly like I was some sort of spy on a secret mission which, in retrospect I was, and it took me ages to approach my first guy. He was a Nepalese butcher and had a hole in the wall with various pieces of meat and chicken displayed on a piece of board. He was sitting there looking at me as I approached him and before I could say anything he said something to me in Nepalese.
He was wearing red clothes and the walls of his little hole-in-the-wall were also red and the red colour of the meat and blood add to his amazing aesthetic. I said to him that no, I am Australian and he said the words “Oh, you looks Nepalese”. We smiled and talked a few more minutes then I asked if I could take his photo. Without his moving from his original position, shaking his head from side to side amongst his small little butcher shop, but now smiling at me, I took his photograph.
This first experience I quickly learned would be a precursor for each photograph I subsequently took on that first trip in Kathmandu and later on in Varanasi. Later local boys would suggest that if I wasn’t Newari or Nepali I must be Hindu or Punjabi, Bhutanese or was perhaps from Sikkim. However when I would say “Australia – cricket” they would understand, but me, they would say “not possible”. When the ice was broken it made the taking of shots relatively easy and I soon took advantage and sometimes their insistence that I was one thing or another appealed and I would play along with it. This would make the men or boys very happy and consequently I took some remarkable photographs. The moment they took to me and I took to them I rarely ever had a refusal for a request for a photo and with every following photographic trip to Nepal and India and subsequently other Asian countries, I got better at it.
PERIL: You lived in India for two years in 1970 and have taken photographs extensively there since 1993. I am fascinated by your ongoing male photo series Nice Coloured Boys, which now comprises over 500 photographs. This series includes striking images of bodybuilders photographed at Indian gyms in Varanasi. Can you talk a little bit about what draws you to India and the men you photograph there?
GARY: For the first 10 years of my art practice yes I worked exclusively in India and Nepal and to a lesser degree in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. However it was in Nepal in Kathmandu where I started, and then in Varanasi in India where I developed really as a photographer for a particular reason. That was for my first and ongoing series “Nice Colored Boys” and I came to love Varanasi very much and now I’ve been back there oh about 12 times.
The thing that got me when I was starting out was the many beautiful men and boys all over Varanasi and in other places around the country. These men all looked just like they could have been related to me and like I said before it is fun to play that passing game. My partner and I went there for a six-month stint and as it was summer there were a lot of males who were bathing, swimming and generally doing not much except lying around the Holy Mother Ganga trying to stay cool. I was walking along the ghats looking at men to approach when he saw me and waved me on up to the Hanuman Temple where he and his friends were doing Ayurvedic exercises. I was nervous but I went up and took what turned out to be my first Hindu body-builder shots. From that first time we’ve become very close friends and now his family is like my family too and I’ve been a part of their life for almost 20 years now.
Having over the years coming to Varanasi many times it was inevitable that I would meet many men of different ages and ethnic levels. And I also met males who were of differing castes who were of widely varying educational levels. I took any male’s photographs regardless of who they were and after so many photo trips I am known affectionately as the ‘photo-man’ and I quite like that. I always want to capture the beauty that I thought was the most interesting to me and in Varanasi there were no males who weren’t worth
a look over as far as I was concerned. And from my very first photo shoot of young Hindu ‘exercise-boys’ as they are called, I’ve had a soft spot for body builders that has continued to this day.
Over the years I have taken many photographs of body builders, some shoots are planned and others are spontaneous but either way, nowadays, I am often invited to ‘come take their picture’. The Hindu exercise boys can only be single, once they get married they stopped coming to the Hanuman Temple. I also take photos of Muslim boys as well as Hindu body builders depending on which place or day it was but I didn’t actually mind what nationality or caste the body builder was. Perhaps it is due to my familiarity or my reputation where over the years I’ve come to see many young body builders grow and get married even and I am still taking their photos as mature men. Some I have known for 15 or so years since they were young men and I’ve watched them grow into champion body builders.
PERIL: In addition to your vast body of existing work, you recently began creating self-portraits. Self-portrait with Manish (2003) is an especially powerful and provocative image, where you appear wrapped in a shawl holding the hand of a young bodybuilder. Can you speak about the impetus behind these self-portraits?
GARY: I first met Manish after I asked my Hindu friend on an earlier trip to Varanasi if it was possible to go to a gym to take some photos there. Within a few days it was all arranged and my friend’s young brother was to take me for my first ‘formal’ gymnasium shots of body builders. I was told that the manager was a young man who at the time had achieved some success at the state body building competitions and was quite well respected. When I met Manish I was immediately charmed by him and he had no English but he was quite amenable and gave me the run of the gym. I started taking my shots and Manish was extremely courteous, helpful posing for quite a few shots as well. When I asked were they wearing the traditional Hindu undergarment, the langota they said yes and I asked them to take off their gym-shorts to show me. I think the langota is a very sexy piece of clothing and the boys were more than happy to pose for me with them on.
It was nearly three years before I could get back to Varanasi and I had been asked by Alasdair Foster the editor of Photofile if I would take some photos this time in India of me ‘passing’. He’d heard that I did so in India but initially I was the kind of photographer who never ever was interested in putting my own face in the picture, so to speak. But at the time he was interested in a different type of image from me and he asked me to consider it. When I got to Varanasi I made contact with Manish again as he had promised to pose for me just on his own this time. The thing with Manish was the fact that he was extremely non-Indian to look at. He had dark blonde hair and he had more European features but everyone in Varanasi was enthralled by Manish’s beautiful “skin like butter”, white and creamy. But to me he was my favorite ‘model’ and he would think nothing of taking my hand as we walked along the busy streets.
In the three years since I last saw him his body had become stronger and he had won the state Utter Pradesh body building championship twice and was soon to have a small role in a Bollywood movie being made in Varanasi soon. He came by to pick me up for his shoot and holding my hands we strolled to the Hanuman Temple. Everyone stared at us as we strolled along. Manish was a local celebrity and it seemed that everyone knew about his Bollywood role because Aishwarya Rai, the beautiful recent Miss Universe was starring in it. I took many shots of Manish and then as it was a cool day I wrapped my shawl around my head and took the self-portrait shots with him. We moved to positions around the temple and Manish happily suggested a few poses and the whole shoot was over in about 30 minutes.
In Kathmandu as well as Varanasi the self-portrait photographs each took no more than 20 minutes or so sometimes less or sometimes a little more. I didn’t have many props save for my shawl but I knew that I didn’t need anything more, it was that easy and I kind of knew it would be like that. At times I’d simply gather a little crowd of whoever was there and put myself amongst them while I threw around a shawl, or I’d arrange a few boys already there in a particular way in another shop with a beanie on. I had fun and they only took a short while. So in a way I have someone else to thank for pushing me into doing the self-portraits because without that I really wouldn’t have thought to do it.
PERIL: Your works explore the diversity of male beauty. In particular your photographs present the diversity and beauty of indigenous masculinity. I am fascinated how some white middle class people have perceived your work as threatening. You’ve described how these people find “images of men of colour, coloured men, flaunting their body image to be a threat”. Can you talk a bit about this response to your work?
GARY: It’s funny that my photos of Indian coloured men never really caused a stir, particularly where they’ve been lectured over and seen in Pakistan and India, but in Australia it was different, especially with the nudes. Like in Pakistan the nude portraits of my Hindu men were quite well received particularly when the Australian lecturer explained that the photographer was an Aboriginal male. After about 10 years or so I began to take my Aboriginal portraits and that’s when I encountered problems but it never deters me from making my photographs at all – I will always be interested in photographing the intrinsic beauty found in the ordinary male.
In the last four or five years I’ve been looking at Aboriginal beauty and masculinity and my Indian portraits are attracting more attention too. I guess that’s because in very recent times my photography after 20 or so years has ‘suddenly’ become popular and my photographs, particularly in the last two years have, as they say, gone through the roof, ha! But the increased ‘problems’ and the new attention I still find all very interesting if not irritating but it never stops me. I’ve known for a long, long time before I even started photographing men that my photography will always be problematic because white people mostly cannot deal with coloured men being photographed as beautiful or even sexy. In fact I’ve heard all of the white responses they can dish up, including putting up with actual physical attacks on some photographs, but it still doesn’t deter me one iota…
I’ve taken down an entire exhibition because out of seventy or so there were just four nude portraits, but the white male workers objected to them and I refused to censor my own work so two days before I was due to open I took them all down. All these shots were of Hindu men and the white workers and couldn’t deal with the fact that these coloured boys were pushing their body images blatantly in their faces, even the few nude images.
I’ve had my first Telstra entry, my first self portrait actually, with beautiful Manish (‘Self Portrait with Manish’) rejected. I really loved that photo but because I was in the picture, sitting on the door-step of the Hanuman Temple while Manish flexed inside behind me, the selectors deemed that I didn’t take the photo. Even though my partner was directed by me and he merely pushed the shutter and I’d directed the shoot before I sat down, oh it pissed me. I’d decided never to enter another Telstra, fuck Telstra I thought but a few years later, after pressure from friends, I entered again, this time of a local Aboriginal body builder from Darwin in a powerful striking entry. Ha, if it wasn’t for Vernon Ah Kee who was on the pre-selection panel who argued for it, after all even the curator herself didn’t like ‘that sort of photograph’, it wouldn’t have got past all the gatekeepers! There are lots of other stories with some sort of white controversy attached to my photographs but I won’t bore you.
PERIL: Your artwork Mei Kim and Minnie (2006) is a powerful celebration of Larrakia female beauty. In this work, you have appropriated an 1887 colonial portrait of your great, great grandmother Minnie Duwun and juxtaposed it alongside a photograph of your neice Mei Kim. Can you speak about how this work came about and what it means to you?
GARY: I made ‘Mei Kim and Minnie’ and entered this work in the inaugural Togart exhibition in Darwin in 2006 that was for display only and I was pleasantly surprised that my work was shortlisted. It was a topless female diptych and I didn’t think it would make the grade even though I thought it was stunning, after all, we were dealing with Darwin here. But it was the first work I’d done about females and of course I had very special reasons for making it.
At the time I was doing my PhD at Charles Darwin University and I was also researching the Paul Foelsche colonial photographs of Larrakia people. I knew from my white great, great grandfather’s story that his wife my alap or great, great grandmother, would have been around at those times. After much research I was able to identify her portrait and it was an astounding moment when I did that. Her name was written as Minnie and our family had always known her as Annie. But she worked for a Mrs Minnie Daley and she took her employer’s first name, as did many other Larrakia people as a sign of affection to their boss.
I wanted to celebrate finding my alap and I thought she was very beautiful so I wanted everyone to see her as well. I also wanted to celebrate contemporary Larrakia beauty too and so I decided to photograph a favourite niece Mei Kim and juxtapose her with her colonial alap. So this great, great, great, great, granddaughter, Mei Kim was so happy to pose after I explained what I wanted to do. I took a digital colour photograph in a lush garden and I put it up against the black and white colonial image because both images were taken in Darwin 138 years apart and I wanted them to come back today as one. The beauty of Mei Kim a contemporary Larrakia woman and the dignified beauty of Minnie her alap said it all and both women were 27 years of age when their photographs were taken. I love that the work not only celebrates Larrakia beauty but it is before the viewer as a source of the Lee family pride. The curator of the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery of Darwin went to the Togart opening and bought this diptych, which I was very pleased about.
PERIL: What are you working on in the future?
GARY: I have several things on the cards for next year although this year has been the busiest I have ever had. With 5 solo and 3 group exhibitions I thought I was busy enough. I feel that I am now getting recognition after all these years.
This year there’s still one more solo exhibition in Perth to go, a group exhibition in Sydney next month and that will bring this amazing year to a close. But as far as next year’s goes it is already shaping up to being a busy year too. In January 2011 my partner and I are returning to India where we are seeing friends in Varanasi and Delhi. I’ve planned a shoot around the young men who hang at the shopping malls in Varanasi. It’s really relatively easy to decide to take my photos because I simply take my camera and point it unless I’m aiming for a specific type…and it’s a great position to be in.
So there you are… I may be still in a wheelchair but I’ve had a fantastic reaction to my portraits and to my exhibitions and to me that is such a great feeling. I’ve been taking photographs of the beauty of ordinary males for a very long time now and there is a degree of respect and a level of acceptance for the beauty that is inside of Indigenous man. As long as men will be easy to smile for me then I will be happy to take their photograph.