The first time I saw Alok was at the India Art Fair in Delhi in 2017. I was there as a commissioned photographer, I was photographing street style for WWD. Dividing my time between the crowd outdoors and indoors, my eyes were peeled for interesting people and their style, interesting garments and accessories. While the subjects I choose to photograph are entirely at my discretion, I try to keep the publication in mind too. International publications are generally more open to unexpected ideas and images. Sometimes, they will publish something purely because of the value of the visual, instead of the status of the people in the photograph. Not because they choose to, but because they don’t have context that an Indian publication might have.
When I spotted Alok, I didn’t know anything about him. I wasn’t even sure if referring to the person as a “him” was correct or appropriate. Physically, Alok’s body appeared to fit the looks of someone who would be considered male. Alok was wearing heeled footwear, a dress that ended just below their knees, jewellery and their hair was tied up in a messy bun on the top of their head. Alok was wearing blue/grey lipstick. It is rare to see gay or transgender folk openly in public in India. Even in a city like Delhi, India’s national capital. So I totally wanted to photograph them.
I was shy at first and walked right past Alok. After a few steps, I mentally did a “Fuck it!”, turned around, walked up to Alok, asked if it was ok if I took a picture. They obliged. I wasn’t even asked what the photo was for. In retrospect, had Alok been bothered about a picture, I doubt they would have been out and about completely owning the look they were wearing. Alok’s pose for the picture was demure.
A few days after the images from this street style series was published, ( the photo editor included Alok’s photo in the final edit ), I also posted the images on my Instagram. Soon enough, someone had tagged Alok on the photo and I started following Alok’s Instagram handle. I did so out of curiosity and to evaluate whether I could learn something new and expand my worldview.
The first thing that struck me was the hair. Alok has hairy arms and legs and under arms like most men of our species. Alok’s Instagram feed has many photographs where they are posing with their arms raised above their head, wearing garments that one would conventionally see on someone who would be considered female, biologically and by way of gender. This wasn’t the first time I was seeing a man in women’s clothing. The way Alok wore it though and the way they carried themselves. Not just when they were posing for photo shoots – this was their daily ensemble selection.
There was something alluring about their eyes and face.
At first, when one of Alok’s photos popped up on my feed unexpectedly, I stopped and gawked and stared. A voice in my head snapped and said, “He could at least wax all the hair if he wants to identify as a woman! It looks icky.” I was embarrassed at that voice. I double-tapped the photo and moved on. This happened a few times.
In the captions below Alok’s photos, they would sometimes share the abuse they received on a daily basis. Whether on the streets all over the world or via Instagram private messages and comments. Verbal slurs as they went about their daily life. Horrible words. Multiple times. Daily. I wondered how Alok continued to do whatever they were doing in the face of such vile, unasked for comments.
As a woman, I know all too well about online abuse and offline harassment and terrorism. What I saw with Alok though, was another level. I tried to evaluate these comments. Why would someone say such a thing?! At the same time, hadn’t the voice in my head made a remark on the same lines when I’d seen their photos initially? I might not have articulated those thoughts aloud or communicated them to anybody. After all, no one had asked for my opinion, least of all Alok. As far as Alok was concerned, I didn’t exist and my comments or thoughts didn’t matter. I thought about the voice in my head some more. I had probably had a mean thought because I didn’t understand or know Alok or what they were doing.
Here is this person, unashamedly doing what feels most natural to them. And I can’t even go out wearing a short dress without shaving my legs first. And I DO NOT want to shave my legs because WTF – it’s a lot of work and I’d much rather spend my time doing other things I consider important. And that’s just the hair on my legs. I’d probably have nightmares if I went out without shaving my underarm hair. Am I ok identifying as a female? I am female biologically but being of the female gender hasn’t always led to a fulfilling life. Too many “Girls don’t do this” remarks, I feel, have limited my life. So how could I possibly, even mentally, question Alok’s choice to wear their hair however the fuck they wanted? I felt small and petty. And I also felt hopeful and little more courageous.
Alok is a performer, an artist, a model, someone’s child, grand child, born in a male body, identifies as “they/them”. Trans/gender. Gender non-conforming. I might not understand the nuances of sex biologically and I might not be able to list all the ways gender is a social construct. I might even be wrong in identifying Alok’s gender identity. I might even cringe at using “they / them” instead of “he / him”. ( I took me three passes on this article before I changed all the “he / him” to “they / them”. I still don’t agree with the multitude of gender pronouns that are cropping up internationally – how is anyone supposed to remember all of them?! But the least I can do, when I’m writing about a person, is read their Instagram profile / website – if they clearly mention how they like to be addressed, I go do that. But doing even this simple thing was a bit of a struggle. Wow. )
At the end of the day, Alok is a person. A fellow human-being.
Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with a fellow-human being, we can be decent and polite. Alok isn’t hurting anyone. I’m not sure why so many of us are so hell bent on hurting them. If you see their photos online and don’t like them, you can simply move on. If you see Alok on the street and don’t like what you see, there too, you can simply move on! Alok is not inviting your opinions or views and you are not obligated to share them with anyone.
YOU are not being asked or forced to dress like Alok. If you do decide to dress like Alok, more power to you.
We need more people like Alok. So that people like me may ride on their shoulders and extricate ourselves from this “bucket of crabs” life we lead. Question our prejudices and biases. So we may look beyond our narrow world view. So that we may grow together and thrive.
Generally, “live and let live” is a great guideline to follow. I might only partially understand Alok’s life and choices. I am, after all, just an observer / viewer on the internet. But I understand, fundamentally, that compassion for our fellow humans will take us all forward together. Being a crab in a bucket is not a fitting description for a human being in 2017. Don’t be a crab in a bucket. Say “Hi!” and smile. Do something that differentiates you from a crustacean.
( Harassment, whether online or offline, involving ridicule, mockery or hatred, is meant to control and restrict. Whether the intention is to control and / or restrict, is not relevant. Even what you believe to be a well-intentioned comment, questioning a stranger’s garment choices, can be harassment. The receiver of such comments does not owe you a response. The commentor may choose to educate themselves in their own time. )
Alok doesn’t know me and isn’t aware that I’m writing this. I have not interacted or spoken with Alok. Everything above, I have written on my own, with no inputs from anyone. I have been thinking about Alok and my automatic response to their photos for many months now and wanted to write about it. I’m completely unsure if there’s anything in the above that might be considered rude / thoughtless. I apologize in advance and welcome feedback. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org