Wedding photographer and LGBTQ+ activist Monisha Ajgaonkar on love, longing, and acceptance

Monisha Ajgaonkar recounts her journey - a lonesome childhood, her mother passing away, lack of acceptance from her father, the importance of being self-reliant, and the challenges of dating as a lesbian in India.

Wedding photographer and LGBTQ+ activist Monisha Ajgaonkar on love, longing, and acceptance

Thursday December 24, 2020,

4 min Read

“It is believed in Maharashtrian households that when a girl is born, the family becomes prosperous but I think I have shattered all those dreams for my family,” wedding photographer and LGBTQ+ activist Monisha Ajgaonkar says in a three-minute documentary capturing her journey.

Monisha learnt to love herself the hard way. She recalls being fat as a child, not having any friends except for a cousin who was close to her, dealing with her mother’s death by suicide, seeing her body being burned as part of funeral rites, and growing up in ‘negative and weird environment’ at home ever since.

She says, “I grew up as a tomboy who used to play cricket and badminton in the neighbourhood but didn’t have anyone to talk to. People used to make fun of me – whatever you see in the movies, those typical things happened to me.”

In those times, food became her comfort. With time, as she began to meet more people, ‘connect and vibe with them’, Monisha came to identify herself as a lesbian.

Her father came to know of it when one of his friends showed him a newspaper featuring Monisha. "Giving birth to you was the biggest mistake of my life," he told Monisha. Six years ago, she moved out and they are barely on talking terms today.

She dropped out of college but enrolled in a photography course. She got a job as a page 3 photographer when she was 19 for Rs 3,000 a month.

“The biggest lesson is to love yourself and not to depend on anyone, not even your family. You need to be financially secure and not blindly trust everyone because not everybody is worth my time. I don't give access to everyone to be close with me now. I have reached a point to be very selective about the people I surround myself with,” she says. 

Shot and produced within a day, the documentary won several awards including an Honorable Mention For Best LGBTQ Short at Independent Shorts Awards in Los Angeles, Berlin Flash Film Festival2020 monthly winner for Super Short Documentary, and became a finalist at Prague International Monthly Film Festival this year. 

LGBTQ+ activist, entrepreneur

Monisha's father came to know of her orientation through a newspaper.

The start of Photo Diary

From juggling events as a photographer at the Bombay Times to landing her dream job at Rolling Stone and starting a photography company, The Photo Diary in 2014, Monisha says her professional journey has been a blessing, except for few rough patches in the beginning. 

She stepped into wedding photography after attending her tattoo artist’s wedding as a guest and clicking some pictures there. When she uploaded the pictures online, she was encouraged to take it up professionally.

“However, people were not comfortable with a lesbian photographer and I lost so many shoots in the beginning. People also did not like that I used to dress up “loud” but that was me,” she says, adding that she let her work speak for itself. 

Over the years, The Photo Diary has completed over 500 weddings and several projects on the LGBTQ+ community. During the pandemic, Monisha got to shoot one unique wedding and hopes to recover the losses in the upcoming wedding season.

Being the voice of LGBTQ+ community

Monisha says that dating as a lesbian is very difficult in India and that the people she has been with are still closeted. 

This experience and lack of freedom from bigotry and societal intolerance towards LGBTQ+ people inspired her to launch a photo series project called Love: Unmasked that shone the spotlight on the difficulty of coming out and loving openly. Last year, she also worked with model Sushant Divgikar, who was crowned Mr Gay India in 2014, on a coming-of-age photo series called Blossom. 

Monisha also asserts on the importance of healthy and positive portrayal of lesbian and homosexual relationships, which are mostly shown in a pornographic light. To debunk this perception, she was part of an international award-winning campaign with Ogilvy called #LforLove. 

She says, “Lesbians are mostly portrayed as either highly sexual beings or as abnormal girls who are tomboyish and unhappy, which is completely unrealistic.”

Monisha has also led other campaigns related to the transgender community, finding comfort in one’s body, acceptance and love, and she says speaking about these stories helps educate society towards acceptance.

While there is still a long way to go, Monisha says people have started accepting the LGBTQ+ community, understanding the pronouns and symbols since the abrogation of Article 377. “As India fights for legal marriage, things will be different,” she says.

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan