Sunil Gupta enrolled at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London in the early 1980s. Having access to colour negative printing at the college, the young photographer began to roam the streets of the Big Smoke searching for the epicentres of queer life — Earl’s Court, King’s Road, and the West End. Having previously photographed Christopher Street in New York, he had high hopes that he would be able to repeat the experience, but this time on a different continent and, importantly, in color. As experience teaches us, we are rarely able to intentionally repeat the same situation twice and as it turned out, this was for the best. His new book London ’82 is far from a facsimile of Christopher Street (both published by Stanley / Barker) but they are very much recognisably photographed by the same individual.
In Gupta’s words, “what appeared to be a concentration of gay life was not dense enough to create its own public space, so I was getting either huge gaps between people or a crowd of very mixed people.” Therefore, he decided to abandon his concentration on exclusively gay people and began to capture whatever caught his eye — people of color, elderly people, gay men. People on the margins of society, people who have dared to diverge from the heteronormative ideal of the white, straight, middle-class, middle-aged man.
There is something superbly honest about a gay man photographing people on the edges of society. Thus he tells us their story but also his, that of his own community, which back in the 1980s when this project was shot was having far from a good time. HIV was beginning to rear its ugly head in the US and UK (tearjerkingly well-documented in the Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin). Queer people did not enjoy the legal protections and liberties that they do now — we can marry freely and are protected from discrimination at the workplace. Section 28, the notorious legacy of Margaret Thatcher which prohibited the promotion of gay relationships as an “acceptable alternative” to family life by local authorities and schools, was just around the corner — it was passed as a law only a few years later and did not get repealed until 2003 in England.
The images are a topographic study of what the community was almost 40 years ago. One photograph caught my eye — a girl staring out a building with “T.S. is gay” graffiti on the wall below her. How shameful that the word gay, which happens to also mean joy, was and sometimes still is used as an offense, a malicious mockery to somebody for simply being who they are.
Had these images been taken today, we probably wouldn’t think much of them — after all, we see what’s around us every day. This, however, is the beauty of photography — it keeps a record of the world for future generations. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we might happen to come across a dusty old negative box from years or decades ago that we had completely forgotten about and see it with fresh new eyes.
— foreword by Zak R. Dimitrov