It is no secret that the ways we define masculinity in the mainstream are rife with lasting problems: Be stoic. Don’t show emotional vulnerability. And most importantly, reject affection and physical contact with other men. What often remain overlooked, however, are the different ways that masculinity has been defined all over the world. Where did this hardened definition of manhood originate, and how has it impacted more affectionate cultures over time? In Marc Ohrem-Leclef’s project Jugaad: Of Intimacy and Love, the photographer unpacks the ways that fluidity of sexuality, gender and identity were impacted by colonial masculinities and Western culture. In particular, Ohrem-Leclef explores the tradition of intimacy between men in India.

In Jugaad, collaborative portraits and images of gestures are paired with short quotes from interviews with Ohrem-Leclef’s subjects, resulting in emotional stories about the downfall of rejecting intimacy. “Historically, fluidity of gender and sexuality were widely accepted in South Asian cultures, creating unspoken, liberal spaces,” Ohrem-Leclef explains. “In the current political climate, these traditional spaces are shrinking dramatically, creating an urgent need to document the people whose way of life is being erased.”

Sudheer with his mother and wife, Vidya, who said, “I know everything. We can talk about anything.” Her husband identifies as gay and supports his family through sex work, Sangli, Maharashthra, 2018. © Marc Ohrem-Leclef

Quotes: “What is the most important in friendship?” “We know each other’s secret, like… Each and every secret.” “Trust. We love each other.”

The range of imagery and stories in the project demonstrate how the plague of Western masculinity doesn’t just affect these men—it affects their families as well. While the series contains solitary portraits and stories from the men gazing into Ohrem-Leclef’s lens, there are also excerpts from conversations with women affected by masculine repression. Warm and familiar moments between friends are crystallized in light gestures, and each photograph’s pairing with a short conversational exchange adds an additional layer of understanding to the subjects’ shared stories.

Imitaj and Rahosaheb spoke of their sexuality, friendship, family and what futures they envision, Sangli, Maharashtra, 2018. © Marc Ohrem-Leclef

Quote: “Somehow gay men are known to be ‘dusk people’… at dusk we would go to the parks and go to the railways stations and cruise and you know, pick up people and dusk used to be the time when somehow we would change ourselves in some ways, from the working or studying good boy in the morning to … what you become in the night, like, cruising and going … So dusk used to be that time - and somehow it also happened that I told my mother in the evening … one of the evenings in my home, when nobody was there, I told her that I’m gay and I mean, there’s no word in Indian language … for the word ‘gay’. So … it had to be explained that I’m in love with a guy …” - Shridhar, Maharashtra

When describing the title of the work, Ohrem-Leclef reflects that the poetic title came out of a conversation with one of his subjects. Nagesh, a young man that he interviewed in Bihar, used the term ‘Jugaad’ (Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi: ‘to make do’) to “describe how young men creatively navigate societal norms to venture from socially accepted homosocial intimacy to exploring their love and sexual desire for each other.” So, in addition to the images and text, the title also alludes to a repressed desire for intimacy, and the ways that men have been forced to express these needs in secrecy.

The subjects in the photographer’s series come from all walks of life, demonstrating how the loss of vulnerability and intimacy affects society as a whole. “As my collaborators’ voices speak to the gains and losses of shifting definitions of ‘acceptable’ intimacies in India, the work reflects India’s critical moment at a crossroads between tradition and progress,” says Ohrem-Leclef. What’s more, their connected perspective pushed the photographer to reflect on the absence of intimacy in his own life, and how this especially affected him during formative moments throughout his youth. He hopes his audience will reflect in the same way. “Through this work, I revisit my own search for spaces that would allow the romanticized, intimate companionship I sought as an adolescent. The struggles faced by the people in these photos debate these ideals and question my inherently Western understanding of identity and intimacy.”

Editor’s Note: We discovered Marc Ohrem-Leclef’s work when it was selected as a Juror’s Pick for the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2018. Be sure to check out all the other winners and finalists.