30-year-old Monisha Ajagaonkar is Mumbai-based activist and entrepreneur. She is the founder of The Photo Diary, a firm that specialises in commercial and wedding photography. She decided early on to use her talents to good use and has since worked on several projects that shed light on the challenges faced by the lesbian community in India. One of her projects “L : Love matters” that had been commissioned by Ogilvy was a sort of guide for people to help navigate questions related to being lesbian. The work was was featured worldwide and even won an award at the DMA Asia ECHO Awards.
It has been over five years since she set up her firm, and has since shoot several weddings all over India along with other personal and corporate projects. The Photo Diary is now one of the top 10 wedding photography companies in the country. Her decision to become an activist wasn’t a conscious one. “I just wanted to share my thoughts through my work. I wanted to help and support the people who weren’t coming out, wanted them to feel safe and let them know that there is someone for them. I have been honoured to express these feelings in the form of art. I am really thankful to the people for appreciating my work,” she shares.
While much has changed for the community, especially since the decriminalisation of Section 377, it is no secret that there is a long way to go. “People have started accepting us, loving us, brands are hosting campaigns, people are making short films to support our cause. We can now be free and open. The only thing I’d like to change is that we could get married,” she shares, “And, for the future, I’d like couples to adopt children. I know this is going to be very difficult for people to accept. It would be extremely scary to raise a child with the society’s views clashing with ours.”
On top of this, there is the fact that lesbians endure a different kind of exclusion, where they find themselves silenced and underrepresented even within the community. Representations of lesbians in media and television continue to be dictated by stereotypes. The popular one being the lipstick lesbian trope; they’re femme, traditionally attractive and hypersexualized; sometimes they even give the heterosexual relationship a try (never mind the fact that they could be bisexual). Most lesbians simply exist on-screen to play into the men’s girl-on-girl fantasy, thereby undermining lesbians and their experiences. Which is why much of Monisha’s work focuses on the experiences and realities of being a lesbian. One of her photo essays featured a real-life lesbian couple shot at different locations in Mumbai like just another couple in love.
She shot the #LforLove project for Love Matters India, an NGO that offers lessons about love, sex, and relationships to young adults. The NGO partnered up with Ogilvy&Mather India and launched the campaign, as an effort to debunk the myths about lesbians. For the series, people were asked to put forward questions they had about lesbians, to which the protagonists responded.
“The society is changing for the better and they are accepting us. The new generation is going out of their way to support us and they are much bolder and progessive. The process will take time but we will see a new dawn for our community in the coming years,” she muses. All her projects, she suggests, were born out of her own personal experiences. “ I wanted to showcase my dreams on screen so that more people could be influenced by it. The projects are my way of showing our side to the people so that they could understand what we go through.”
What does she hope to achieve? “I want to express my thoughts through my work of art, i.e films and documentaries. I want to empower the people in the community by representing us in campaigns. To tell them that they can be happy in your own skin and motivate others to be fearless. These goals seem achievable since the society has started accepting us.”
Her most recent project, the #ShowUs campaign hosted by Dove, Girl Gaze and Getty Images focuses on these very ideas. The campaign is part of an effort to change the way women are represented in media. “70% of women still don’t feel represented in media & advertising,” reads the campaign page. Project #ShowUs is the world’s largest photo library with over 5000 images, created by women and non-binary individuals to shatter beauty stereotypes.
Ajagaonkar’s goals may seem idealistic to some, but sometimes we need the dreamers to help change the narrative, and that seems to be exactly what she is doing with her work. Her focus on the real experiences of real people, makes it impossible to ignore her work, which is exactly what makes her work so special. It is a breath of fresh air, especially when compared to the generic portrayals of hyper-sexual, lesbian women. These are women who love, hurt and breathe, just like any one of us.